In the southern portion of Cape Lookout National Seashore, there lies an island which is home to one of the few remaining wild horse herds in the eastern United States.
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- Cape Lookout National Seashore
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Between 110 and 130 wild horses roam free on this 9 mile long by 1 mile wide island. Shackleford Banks is the southernmost island of Cape Lookout National Seashore.
At its westernmost point, this barrier island is only 2 miles from Beaufort, North Carolina. Shackleford is a place where sea turtles and endangered birds come to nest, but its most famous residents are the beautiful horses, which have lived here for centuries.
In the 1490’s Christopher Columbus brought the first Iberian horses to the new world, to Hispaniola. Colonists on the south-eastern shore of the US had horses, likely supplied from Hispaniola.
In the 1580’s Sir Richard Grenville traded with the Spaniards in the islands for supplies and animals, then sailed north. His ship, Tiger, grounded and had to be rolled over on its side for repairs. Though some sources point to Ocracoke and others to Portsmouth Island, it’s possible that horses were released to the Outer Banks at that time.
While the precise origin of free-roaming horses on Shackleford Banks is not documented, explorers, colonists, overland traders and mainland residents all could have contributed. Recent genetics testing indicates that these horses could have descended from a very old core group of Colonial Spanish horses.
Regardless, their adaptation to the harsh habitat and their genetic similarity to other eastern banks horses show that they have been here for centuries. The Shackleford Banks horses share genetic traits with other south-east coastal wild herds, and are considered Colonial Spanish horses.
Regardless of origin, the allure of these horses is their wild lifestyle. Every effort is made to keep them wild. They are neither fed nor watered. They eat marsh and island grasses including sea oats. Fresh water is available in various ponds and pools on the island, or the horses dig holes and wait for the water to seep in. Protection in storms or hurricanes is afforded by the stretch of rare maritime forest and thick shrubs on the sound side of the island.
The herd of horses divides itself into approximately 25 harems. Each is guarded by a dominant “alpha” stallion and contains one or more mares and their young. The stallion directs and protects his harem by “herding” behavior- lowering his head and moving his neck- until the mares and foals move where he wants them.
Sometime between 18 months and 5 years young fillies and colts leave their harem. The fillies join other harems and the colts join up with other bachelors giving them a chance to mature into stallions.
Although the horses have a wild lifestyle, some management is needed to protect the herd and the island. Population growth and mortality are monitored. Selected horses – predominantly youngsters - are removed. Roundups have been conducted when many horses are to be removed.
When just a few horses need to be removed, this can be done under veterinary sedation. Removed horses are sometimes contributed or donated to other wild herds. Horses are almost always available for adoption to the public through the Foundation for Shackleford Horses.
Birth control for some mares is also used to manage the population growth, creating a balance between the horses and their island home. Management decisions are made cooperatively by Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc., a non-profit organization.
The horses are protected by The Shackleford Banks Wild Horse Protection Act that was signed by President Clinton in July 1998. This legislation allows the continued presence of the horses at Cape Lookout so they will continue to provide enjoyment for residents and thousands of visitors each year.
Shackleford Banks is accessible only by private boat or public passenger ferry. Information on ferries may be found on the park’s website. Vehicles are not allowed on Shackleford Banks.
Unlike other parts of Cape Lookout National Seashore, visitors can only explore the island on foot, so remember to bring plenty of water and bug repellant Low growing cactus and sandspurs are found in some areas of the islands; watch your step and consider walking shoes instead of sandals.
Dogs are welcome on Shackleford Banks, as long as they are kept on a six-foot leash. Keeping your dog with you protects him or her from potentially fatal kicks from horses and also protects the horses and other wildlife from dog harassment.
Horses roam the island, so be prepared to walk to find them. When you do find them, binoculars are recommended to allow you to watch from a safe distance of about 50 feet. Be prepared to move away if the horses seem unsettled at your presence. Always stay where you can see all the horses in one glance.
This will help you avoid disrupting the harem or getting in the middle of a fight. When in doubt, stay back. And remember, never attempt to feed the horses. If you watch from a safe distance, your patience will be rewarded by a glimpse into the life of a wild horse.