How One Woman Saved the Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks
photograph by Charles Harris

As the pontoon boat ferry approaches the east end of Shackleford Banks, the young, floppy-haired captain spots some horses standing on the muddy shore. He slows the boat, and dozens of sightseers in swim trunks and sun hats turn their heads to look.

The captain gets on the loudspeaker to throw out a few loose facts. “These horses,” he says, “don’t get medical attention.”

“That’s not true,” Carolyn Mason says under her breath. She doesn’t raise her voice. She doesn’t make a scene. For years, she’s been correcting misconceptions about the horses on Shackleford. This time, though, she lets it go.

When the ferry stops on the sandy tip of the island, across a channel of blue water from the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, several people with towels and coolers clamber off, heading toward the wider beach on the south side of the banks. Carolyn heads north. She hugs the shoreline, dodging cactus and sharp brown grass, her old suede boots slogging through the mud and salty streams. Occasionally, she steps on the ever-present horse droppings, which are so dry and grassy that they disintegrate, odorlessly, under her heel.

Carolyn wants to get a close look at a foal that’s just a few weeks old. After 10 minutes of walking, she spots it and the rest of the herd. They’re methodically eating green spartina grass, their favorite meal on the island. They’re also on the other side of a tidal creek. The water’s rising, and it’s already too deep to cross. Carolyn stares for a few minutes, hoping that the horses will cross in the shallows so she can get a better picture of the baby. But they barely move.

“You can’t be in a hurry over here,” she says, sighing. “They’re not.”

How One Woman Saved the Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks

Carolyn Mason led the campaign to protect the wild Shackleford horses. Without her, they may have disappeared. photograph by Charles Harris

Carolyn decides to check on some of the other horses she knows. Although she rarely needs it, she has a photo album at home with glossy pictures of each horse, identified by a system of letters and numbers. Privately, among researchers, park rangers, and volunteers, the horses have names, which aren’t released to the public because tourists already have a hard time seeing them as the wild animals they are.

The National Park Service tells people to stay 50 feet away from the horses, but for some visitors, the allure of the selfie is too great. A picture of a Shackleford horse on Instagram or Facebook is powerful, and a snapshot of the foal Carolyn is looking for would easily get hundreds of likes. Social media’s a double-edged sword, Carolyn says, but it helps get the word out. Thirty years ago, people had heard of the wild horses up in Corolla, and in Virginia at Chincoteague and Assateague, but the Shackleford horses were mostly a local phenomenon. “We decided that the more people who knew about them, the safer they were,” Carolyn says.

• • •
 

Carolyn walks up a small dune sparsely covered in grass and heads toward the blue Atlantic on the south side of the island, covering the constant climbs and descents with ease for a 72-year-old. In the valleys, where the breeze is blocked, mosquitoes and flies buzz around, so she’s wearing long sleeves and pants on a hot summer day.

This place, a nine-mile-long barrier island that protects the mainland between Beaufort and Harkers Island, has always been harsh. Once, a town of 500 people stood on the flatter, eastern end, but the last person moved away three years after the 1899 hurricane. In the years afterward, fishing shacks and ramshackle cottages, meant for weekend getaways for locals, popped up. Cows, goats, and sheep grazed here. The horses were rounded up from time to time.

Carolyn remembers going to the nearby Core Banks at age 5 with her father, her hands clasping the edge of a wooden pen as dozens of horses galloped inside. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill establishing the Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1966, the days were numbered for the shacks and livestock, both of which were gradually removed. And for a time, it looked like the horses would be, too. That’s when Carolyn got involved.

She quickly deflects praise, but everyone, from nationwide experts to colleagues and friends, says that without her, a free-ranging population of these horses would no longer exist. “Carolyn’s the mover and shaker who made that happen,” says Dr. Daniel Rubenstein, a professor and prominent equine biologist at Princeton University. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

• • •
 

As she crests a dune, Carolyn spots two young horses, a stallion and a mare. She edges closer as they graze, and the mare raises her head and stares, continuing to chew. Carolyn takes notes to pass on to a ranger. The stallion was a bachelor last time Carolyn was here, and she explains how stallions who are kicked out of their herds can form “bachelor bands,” small packs of young fellas who run together until they finally find a mare and start their own herds.

Carolyn has years’ worth of horse stories to tell. Once, she saw a horse drinking out of a salty tidal creek at high tide. That can’t be, she thought, because the horses only drink from fresh springs, or from small, snout-size watering holes dug out with their hooves. After the horse left, Carolyn waded out to the exact spot where it had been drinking, and took a sip. There was a spring directly beneath her feet, and the water was fresh. The horse knew.

How One Woman Saved the Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks

Genetic testing revealed that the horses’ bloodline can be traced to horses on 16th-century Spanish galleons that shipwrecked, or whose sailors dumped the animals overboard. photograph by Charles Harris

Listening to her speak, it’s hard to believe that 25 years ago, Carolyn knew little about horses. She’d never ridden one. And she’d only seen them a handful of times, mostly on Shackleford. She’d grown up along the water in tiny Marshallberg, which lay underneath the sweep of the Cape Lookout light at night. When she returned to the area to continue her career as a base librarian at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in nearby Havelock, she got involved only because a coworker asked her one day if she was going to “the horse meeting” in Beaufort.

This was 1995, and Carolyn and others were horrified by what they heard. After the National Park Service removed the livestock, the horses had no competition for the sparse grass on the island, and their population doubled. The horses were technically feral, meaning that they had been introduced to the island by man, which made them a nonnative species. If they ate too much grass, the park service was concerned that erosion might endanger the whole island. As such, the park service considered the horses pests. “All of the consequences,” read one NPS brochure on the wild horses, “are negative.”

After the initial meeting, Carolyn learned that 76 Shackleford horses had contracted a contagious equine disease called equine infectious anemia, and would be euthanized per state regulations. She and others protested, but couldn’t stop it. They were further worried that if the population kept dropping, the herd would slowly fade away. Throughout the process, Carolyn and a handful of others began forming the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, and went to work to save the rest of the horses. At first, Carolyn’s mother didn’t like her daughter’s odds. “But Carolyn,” she would say, “it’s the National Park Service.”

“I know,” Carolyn replied. “But this time, they’re wrong.”

Through it all, Carolyn never raised her voice. She let the facts do the talking.

Because Carolyn was a librarian, the new nonprofit decided she should be in charge of rounding up facts. She emailed congressmen using a dial-up connection at her home, and cold-called professors from a stool in her kitchen. Soon, she was able to get genetic testing done on the horses to prove the old stories that had been floating around Beaufort for generations: The horses really did come from 16th-century Spanish galleons that had shipwrecked or whose sailors had thrown the animals overboard. She met with the National Park Service and methodically refuted their positions.

It was her manner that drew people in, Rubenstein says. Most people who asked for his assistance were frantic, but Carolyn calmly sought out information. After she’d amassed a pile of facts, she’d deliver them to make her point. Carolyn and others describe the years-long battle to save the horses as a “no-holds-barred fight,” but through it all, Carolyn never raised her voice. She let the facts do the talking.

Those facts, and Carolyn herself, got the attention of U.S. Representative Walter B. Jones Jr., who, in 1997, introduced legislation to protect the Shackleford horses. Senator Jesse Helms pushed it through the Senate, and a third North Carolinian, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, convinced President Clinton to sign it. One day, the NPS considered the horses pests. The next, the agency had to consider them protected.

• • •
 

Carolyn cuts back toward the center of the island, into a grove surrounded by cedar, wax myrtle, and live oak, and comes upon a larger group of horses. She recognizes the stallion, and points to a sheet of paper, where the horse is listed under a heading that’s in red letters: MAY CHARGE PEOPLE. “He’s a grouch,” she says, giving him plenty of space.

Stallions serve a purpose here. They protect their harems of mares and foals, and pass on their genes to a new generation. Thanks to their numbers, now hovering around 100, Shacklefords are among the most genetically diverse wild horses left in the world, and other herds need their help. Corolla horses, whose population has decreased, are down to just one maternal genetic line, and many of them have birth defects due to inbreeding.

As such, some of the horses who have been removed from the island over the years may be able to help. One stallion, whom Carolyn calls Aftermath, is now grazing on pastures around her house in Bettie, north of Beaufort. When he’s big enough to fend for himself among the Corolla horses, probably in a year or so, he’ll be sent up there to form his own harems, mate, and spread his genes. Shacklefords are slow growers, since they mostly subsist on grass, and it takes a long time for them to put on muscle. “Wild horses don’t get fat,” Carolyn says.

They do, however, get some help from the NPS and the Foundation. Some mares are put on birth control to keep the population, mandated by law to stay between 120 and 130 horses, from getting out of control. The lower number of pregnancies can actually extend a mare’s life. One here is 33 years old, an unusually ripe old age for a wild horse.

How One Woman Saved the Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks

Carolyn Mason grew up in Marshallberg, near Cape Lookout National Seashore. She remembers watching the Shackleford horses roam the banks when she was a child. photograph by Charles Harris

If the population swells, or if an animal is born with a birth defect, it can be removed from the island and sent to Carolyn’s land in Bettie. Animals with defects are tended to for life. Horses removed to reduce herd size are adopted out. (The adoption fee is $600, high enough to keep Shackleford horses from being bought by ranchers who once wanted to sell them for slaughter.) If a horse needs urgent medical attention, a vet will come over to administer it. But the horses aren’t fed or given water. They’re only helped if they truly need it.

Over the years, Carolyn realized that she, too, needed help. Others have stepped in to take over the leadership of the Foundation. Volunteers pitch in to feed the horses on her property, and they helped Carolyn after her mother and husband got sick several years ago. Both died within three months of each other last year. Carolyn would go to bed anxious, with knots in her stomach. Everybody and everything, it seemed, needed her help. “It consumes your life,” she confesses in an unguarded moment.

But more than 20 years after she got involved, Carolyn is still busy, still observing, still learning, and still helping. She admits that she hasn’t changed much from the quiet person she’s always been. She hates politics and public speaking, except when those obligations might help to protect the Shackleford horses.

Over the years, she’s learned something remarkable about them: Put a wild horse in with a taller and larger domesticated one, and nearly every time, the wild horse will become dominant. When the odds are against them, they forget how small they are.

• • •
 

After five hours of trudging across dunes in the hot sun, Carolyn has given up on getting a closer look at the new foal. She follows trampled-down trails in the grass to trace her path back toward the spot where the ferry dropped her off and rounds a corner in the middle of the island, where the cedars block the view of the water. Suddenly, the horses she’s been looking for appear.

As they eat, the foal stays close to its mother. Fuzzy and a little unsure of itself, it wobbles a bit on its new legs. Carolyn’s voice suddenly rises an octave, and she has a renewed spring in her step as she circles the herd.

“Come on,” she says softly, almost in baby talk, “let’s see your face.” The foal looks over for a fleeting moment, Carolyn gets a picture for her album, and then she and the herd walk off in opposite directions, if only for now.

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Markovich is a senior editor/writer at Our State, and a former special content producer for NBC Charlotte. He has won two 2011 regional Emmy Awards and regional Edward R. Murrow awards along with the 2011 Green Eyeshade award for Magazine Feature Writing, the 2010 National City and Regional Magazine Award for Personality Profile, the 2010 Clarion Award for a Magazine Feature Article, and the 2010 Green Eyeshade Award’s Best-In-Show for Non Daily Print Journalism.