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In a town built on sand, past where the paved road ends, with million-dollar beach homes everywhere, a man points a gun at a horse. His name — the man’s

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In a town built on sand, past where the paved road ends, with million-dollar beach homes everywhere, a man points a gun at a horse. His name — the man’s

Where The Road Ends

In a town built on sand, past where the paved road ends, with million-dollar beach homes everywhere, a man points a gun at a horse. His name — the man’s — is Wesley Stallings. Her name — the horse’s — is Tzila. They are both parents, man and horse, of young girls. Stallings has a 6-year-old at home; they eat pizza on Fridays together. Tzila has a yearling here; they eat a lot of grass together.

Among their other common traits, the man and horse are resigned to the way things are out here. Cars drive on the beach. Homes are so big they have names. And people walk right up to horses and snap pictures as if it were the zoo.

That’s why Stallings has his gun pointed at Tzila. It’s not to hurt her, not at all. It’s just an air gun, loaded with a dart that contains a contraceptive. Tzila is skinny, and if she has another foal this year, there’s a good chance the offspring will be unhealthy. With no room for a herd to grow, it doesn’t make sense to risk adding an unhealthy horse to the neighborhood. With all the homes and cars and people, there’s only room for the strongest horses.

Tzila is a dark-haired beauty, bay brown with a black mane falling over the left side of her neck, down to her withers. The withers are an important part of the horse — it’s where people measure the height. She’s about 14 hands tall and weighs about 700 pounds. She’s 8 years old and a mother of one.

Tzila and her daughter live among a herd of 113 colonial Spanish mustangs on 12 miles of sand north of Corolla on the narrow Outer Banks. Humans built fences on the northern and southern ends, and nature provides the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck Sound for the boundaries on the eastern and western sides. The wild horses have about 7,500 acres to roam, which sounds like a lot, until you consider people have built 1,300 homes on their land.

The government wants the herd cut in half. Some agencies consider the horses to be pests, even though they’ve been here for 500 years. Vacationers consider the horses to be part of their experience. Some people don’t consider them at all — seven horses have been shot and left dead since 2001.

It’s a hard land for a horse looking to raise a family.

Stallings is the herd manager for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. Part of his job is to manage the population. On a morning in December, Stallings hoists his air gun, which is packed with six pounds of air pressure and a dart that will prevent Tzila from having another child for at least a year. He aims underneath a limb of a live oak scrub tree, the beach breeze tossing the leaves, and points the barrel toward her hind quarter. She picks up her head and looks at him.

Just before he pulls the trigger, Stallings says softly, “It’s OK.” He’s talking to the horse.

• • •

Every Friday, Stallings has pizza night. He and his wife and daughter go out to eat with their neighbors, who have a small boy about their daughter’s age. It’s become their thing, a night for family.

In a previous life, Stallings rode bulls. He also managed a farm where he bred bulls — perfect bulls, ones that bucked so hard you’d see them on television tossing cowboys like him through the air. Now 38, he’s in his third year as the herd manager for Corolla’s famous wild horses.

Nobody understands the horses, the land, and the people — and how they all fit together — better than Stallings. He spends every day out here, driving around in a GMC Yukon. He keeps a log of where each horse roams, and if he spots one out of place, he marks it down. He doesn’t feed the animals; they are not pets. They are wild horses, and he is their cowboy.

Stallings has mapped the entire beach and broken it into zones. He identifies the horses with letters and numbers — Z1S1, for instance, is Zone 1, Stallion 1. He knows the horses’ family lineage. He knows their genetic traits. He knows what they eat and how they eat it. He knows who’s been sleeping where, who’s pregnant, and who’s been cheating. If a horse is in trouble, Stallings’s cell phone rings, and he rushes to help.

Sitting in the Yukon now, on pizza night, his phone rings. He scrambles to his belt. But this isn’t about a horse. It’s just his neighbor. Something’s come up, and they can’t make it to dinner. “OK, well, maybe next week,” Stallings says. He hangs up and stares out the truck window, the sun spreading an orange tint as it sets over the dunes. Stallings does a lot of this, staring into the open space. He thinks the way a cowboy thinks — quietly. When you ask him a question, he often pauses before answering, letting you know in that space of silence that he’s in absolute control of what he’s going to say next.

He calls his wife to tell her the news. “They can’t make it tonight. Pizza night’s off.” His voice sounds a little crushed, his world a little altered.

• • •

Imagine a new home on a lot with a fence, with a beautiful flower garden spread over the backyard that brings the lawn to life. Some flowers grow tall, and some grow short. Some bloom yellow, and some bloom white. But then the owners want to add to the house, and to build the extra room, they need some of the flower bed, so they pull the daffodils and reroot them in an area with the daisies. Then they need a shed for their tools, so they take another corner of the garden, dig it up, and move it. Soon, the garden is locked in one corner of the yard, up against the fence, roots tangled, those beautiful flowers choking the life out of each other.

In 1920, there were 5,000 colonial Spanish mustangs on the northern Outer Banks, a diverse mix of horses, all descendents from the same line that arrived when Spanish explorers wrecked off the North Carolina coast in the 1500s.

Then, over the course of the 20th century, people decided they wanted to build a road. They took N.C. Highway 12 north on the raw, skinny Outer Banks. They took it past Kitty Hawk and into Duck, houses blooming to the left and right as the asphalt stem grew taller. In the 1980s, the road reached Corolla, and branches of homes followed. The horses pushed north, away from the people, toward the fence at the Virginia border. The people then built a fence where the road ends, and they told the horses to stay there, in those 12 miles between Virginia and Corolla. But the building didn’t stop. People have four-wheel drive vehicles, which gives them the power to drive on sand, so homes kept going up between the fences.

The herd shrank fast. In the 90 years leading up to 2010 — the same year North Carolina’s legislators blessed the colonial Spanish mustang with the distinction of state horse — all but two percent of the herd on the northern Outer Banks had been choked out.

Still, some people want it even smaller. The federal government supports a management plan to reduce the herd to 60, believing a smaller number of horses will allow other animals better access to the diminishing resources here. But horse people believe that reducing the herd raises the risk of inbreeding or, worse, extinction. Karen McCalpin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, traveled to Washington, D.C., in summer 2010 to testify on Capitol Hill to save the horses.

“If you managed the herd at 60,” she says, “there would be a genetic collapse.”

Then there is the matter of tourism. Corolla has a half-dozen or so wild horse tour companies. People like to see the horses on their trips to the beach. The horses bring money here.

One thing is for sure: Lots of domesticated people spend lots of time talking about wild horses. Depending on who’s talking, the horses are either economic engines, or a piece of the Outer Banks scenery, or, to some, rotten pests. But no matter who’s judging, this is also sure: Most people tend to see the horses only as they relate to us as humans, as a piece of our world, as if we are the center, and the horses are only orbiting us.

Stallings sees it differently. “They were here first,” he says.

• • •

When he was young, Stallings begged for a pony for a long time. His family lived in Raleigh. His dad worked for the State Bureau of Investigation, and his mom worked with the United States Postal Service. When Stallings was 6, his parents bought him his first pony. It was a bad match from the start.

“Pokey was the worst pony ever,” Stallings says, using the same tone he probably used then.

Whenever Stallings tried to mount, Pokey rolled over. Once, when Stallings did get on, Pokey tossed him off, but the young cowboy’s foot stuck in the harness, and Pokey dragged him clear across the yard and into the road. His parents sold Pokey.

“And the man who bought him, he rode him right off the property, like it was nothing,” Stallings says.

Stallings still wanted to know horses. He rode his three-wheeler to a nearby horse barn every day to clean stalls. When Stallings turned 12, his dad moved the family to Wake Forest, where they had more space, so they could own their own horses. In high school, Stallings was an average teen, he says, playing sports and going to school. But he also trained horses and took them to shows, where they competed in events, such as barrel racing.

After high school, Stallings went to horseshoeing school in Oklahoma. While he was there, his dad called him and said he was buying a farm in Franklin County. He wanted Stallings to be the farm manager. It was a livestock and equine farm. They started with 58 acres in 1993. By the time they sold the farm in 2004, it had increased to 500 acres, much of it leased. Stallings managed it all with help only from his father.

When he told his dad about an idea he had, his dad fired back: “Just do it.” So Stallings spent most of his time alone, making his own decisions, mistakes, and successes, while caring for an average of 30 horses and 120 cows all over the property.

Stallings held rodeos at the farm every Wednesday night during the summer. The local newspaper covered the opening of the rodeo one year. On the inside page was a picture of Stallings, wearing a belt buckle, jeans, and a white cowboy hat.

He looks much different today, standing on the dunes. He has on a light fleece jacket, jeans, and tennis shoes. He might wear a light wool cap to cover his ears if the wind blows hard, but no cowboy hat.

“I always was intrigued by what I thought a cowboy should or shouldn’t be,” he says.

He still isn’t sure he’s found the answer.

“I don’t really know,” he says. “But I don’t think it has anything to do with a belt buckle.”

• • •

There are three towns past where N.C. Highway 12 ends north of Corolla — Swan Beach, North Swan Beach, and Corova. Only 500 permanent residents live in these towns, meaning most of the 1,300 homes are either summer homes or rentals.

The homes here have names, and most are huge. There’s the Sea What Happens, with eight bedrooms; or The Hemingway, with 14; or The Mark Twain, with 18. Then there’s the biggest house on the Outer Banks, the 23-bedroom, 21-bathroom giant named Wild Horse.

The four-wheel drive area north of Corolla is one of North Carolina’s premier vacation spots, with 50,000 people a week visiting in the summer.

The wild horses have learned to live among the people, and they are mostly unalarmed by human presence. Still, there are some things that they’d rather keep to themselves. Mares carry their foals for 10 months and 14 days. They prefer to give birth in private and in a cool spot. The ocean provides a natural breeze, so the mares of the northern Outer Banks would like to give birth near the ocean. But the main thoroughfare for beach driving is near the ocean, and summertime traffic can be heavy. Stallings has seen some mares hold their babies too long and even miscarry, simply because they can’t escape the people.

It’s a complicated pairing, people and horses, and Stallings observes every detail. He sees people feeding deer with deer corn, and he knows that the corn can get into the ground and mold, becoming toxic for the horses. Some people attack the horses, saying they destroy the grasses when they feed. Stallings, with his agriculture background, says that’s not true. He points to a stem of grass growing from the sand and shows where the horse ate it, just above the elbow. By eating it high and not at the roots, the horse has, instinctively, allowed the grass to grow back. Stallings isn’t blindly defending the horses. He respects the grasses as much as anyone — he knows their roots are what hold the sands of the Outer Banks together, not the people.

“Most of the bad things that happen come from people,” Stallings says. He picks up a Coors Light can. “A horse didn’t put that beer can there.”

• • •

Stallings has big, blue eyes that sit on top of his soft, round cheeks. His short hair forms a widow’s peak, and his ears curve near the top. He’s not the tallest cowboy, about 5-foot-10, but he looks like he can hold his own. He plays soccer on Tuesdays and Thursdays to stay in shape.

He lives simply — he’s never had a credit card — in a neighborhood on the western side of Currituck Sound. His home is only about five miles away by air or water, but it takes him 45 minutes to get to work by car, using man-made roads and beaches. Sometimes he stands on the dunes where he works and looks across the water toward his home. “If I just had a boat,” he says.

This is the first time he’s lived anywhere but on open land. He maintains his smaller lawn and talks about keeping up with the Joneses, “but I’m about done with that, buddy,” he says.

His wife, Dawn, still has a scrapbook from his days riding bulls. It includes old newspaper headlines and money listings, which show him reaching number 18 in the 1996 International Pro Rodeo Association world money standings. The scrapbook also has old plane ticket stubs to places like Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Bull riding took him to every state except Alaska and Hawaii. There are certificates, such as one for the time he took home the Jack Daniels Hard Luck Award while riding a bull named Monster Mash. He won that award because he rode Monster Mash for 7.8 seconds, just shy of the requisite 8 seconds to score points, before the bull tossed him off and “beat the mess out of me,” he says.

He came a long way after Pokey.

While he rode, Stallings started breeding bulls for bull riding. It’s not an easy field for an East Coast cowboy to break into, with so many champion ranchers in Texas and the West, but Stallings did it anyway. Before long, he was hauling some of his prized offspring to auctions in Texas, putting his bulls right up against the biggest belt buckles in the world.

“I’ve always been interested in the strongest breed,” he says.

In the summer of 1999, he married Dawn. They had their ceremony in Jamaica, and they didn’t tell their families until a week before. When they came back, family and friends threw them a party at the rodeo. There’s a picture in the scrapbook from it: In it, Wesley wears a white cowboy hat and belt buckle as he walks Dawn, with curly blond hair and white dress, through a line of applauding bull riders.

Stallings’s life changed in almost every way in 2004. He knew he wasn’t the best bull rider and that it wouldn’t bring in enough money to support a family. So he stopped. The same year, his dad sold the farm. Stallings went back to school to study agriculture business and earned a degree from North Carolina State University.

On May 1, 2004, Riley was born. She has blond hair, just like her mother. And she has big, blue eyes that sit on top of her soft, round cheeks, just like her father.

• • •

When he’s out looking for horses, Stallings presses the seek button on his radio all day. If one song doesn’t suit his mood, he hits the button and finds another. He thinks a lot in his spacious office, driving around the beach in the Yukon. The truck has a phone number written on the side windows and the word “EDUCATION” in big print. People who donate money to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit organization, can ride with him to see how he does his daily job. It’s called the Dream Trip.

But most of the time, he’s out here alone with his thoughts, his seek button, his horses, and his cell phone.

One afternoon in January, while he was out near the Virginia line, his phone rang. Someone had called 911, and dispatchers sent the call to him. A horse was down near Carova — in Zone 4, the northern zone on his map.

When Stallings found the horse, he knew which one it was — Tzila. Stallings found a hole in her. It was right in her withers, where you measure the horse’s height. Within 20 minutes of Stallings’s arrival, Tzila died. He took her to Raleigh that day for a necropsy — an autopsy for an animal. Results showed the hole in her withers was the cause of death, but the report noted that the initial cause of the injury couldn’t be determined. Stallings believes it was a gunshot, “but that’s just speculation,” he says.

Tzila was 8 years old and a mother of one. She and her daughter used to eat a lot of grass together.

• • •

Stallings is in the maritime forest on the western side of the half-mile-wide island — an area that’s still wild and growing naturally — when his cell phone rings. It’s the sheriff’s office. Stallings answers and quickly hangs up.

“We gotta go,” he says. “We got a horse in trouble.” He rushes to the truck and presses the gas. “Burnin’ Down the House,” by a group named the Talking Heads, is on the radio. As he reaches the edge of the forest and hits the beach, the phone rings again. Stallings turns down the volume and lets off the gas.

“Turns out it’s nothing,” he says, laughing. “They thought the horse had a fishhook in his mouth. It’s just a piece of grass.”

Stallings keeps going, just to be sure, and he pulls up next to a stallion trotting along the beach with a piece of grass in his mouth. “He’s fine,” Stallings says. “He’s right where he should be, in this area.” He follows the horse for awhile. A Jeep follows, too; a woman hangs out the passenger-side window and takes a picture.

The stallion turns right and takes a side road toward his home in this town built on sand. Stallings follows him just to be sure he finds his mares. Stallings hits the seek button on his radio and finds a new song: “A Horse With No Name,” by a group named America.

Stallings laughs again, harder this time, thankful for the false alarm.

The sun is on its way down in front of the truck, casting orange over the dunes. The day’s about done. His phone rings again. It’s not about a horse. It’s his neighbor calling back. They can make it tonight. Stallings calls his wife.

“Pizza night’s back on,” he tells her, his voice livening.

Corolla Wild Horse Fund
Museum and Store
1126 Old Schoolhouse Lane, Corolla, N.C. 27927
(252) 453-8002

This story was published on Apr 27, 2011

Michael Graff

Graff is a freelance writer in North Carolina. He was the executive editor of Charlotte magazine from April 2013 to August 2017, where he remains a monthly columnist. His writing work has appeared in Our State, Washingtonian magazine, Politico, and on SB Nation Longform, along with many others.