Horses of Shackleford Banks FAQs


Background Information

Where did the horses come from?

Like the Western mustangs, Eastern horses were reintroduced to North America by European explorers and colonists. Records show horses living on the Outer Banks for centuries. Genetic research shows evidence of Spanish ancestry in the Shackleford Banks herd.

What else do the genetic studies tell us?

Although the population has been isolated for some time, there is ample genetic variation within the Shackleford herd. Because they are not inbred, no additions of horses from other herds are needed.

DNA analysis shows the Shacklefords to be Colonial Spanish horses, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were brought to this area directly from Spain. Spanish horses were traded to other countries in Europe and to other parts of North America during the Spanish Colonial Period.

They group with (are closely related to) the domestic-bred Venezuelan Criollo, Puerto Rican Paso Fino, and Marsh Tacky horses into a cluster that contains primarily South American breeds of Iberian origin. These horses can be traced back to the Iberian Peninsula--an area which includes Spain, Portugal, Andorra, Gibraltar, and part of France.

Further, the Shacklefords are similar, along with the Marsh Tacky and Florida Cracker populations, to other New World Iberian horse populations. All three are considered a Critical conservation priority by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and as such are of interest for both preservation and historic value.

Horse grazing

Cape Lookout National Seashore

How did the horses get here?

There are many stories about the origin of the Shackleford horses. Perhaps the most interesting is that these horses are descendants of animals which swam ashore from ships that ran aground in the shallow waters surrounding the park (or that were thrown overboard to lighten the ship and prevent a wreck).

Overland traders may have played a part in distributing horses through this area. More recently, mainland and island residents let their horses (and cattle, sheep & goats) roam free on the islands.

So, as historians, we see that the answer of the horses' origin is not clear. For an in-depth discussion of the horses' possible origins and their relationships with people through the ages, see The Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks by Carmine Prioli with photos by Scott Taylor (2007).

Are they "feral" or "wild" and what's the difference?

Feral means that the horse or its ancestors were once domesticated, which is the case with all free-roaming horses in North America. Wild implies that the horse lives its life in nature without being tame or domesticated. Either term can be used.

Are they ponies or horses?

Ponies are smaller, and while the Shackleford horses fall in the pony height range, they are genetically closer to horses. Their small stature is likely related to their diet.

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Horses drinking from digs
These horses are drinking from holes they dug to find water underground.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Survival: Food, Water, & Storms

Do the horses drink salt water?

No. There is a freshwater lens or aquifer under the island (and other barrier islands). Shackleford Banks has one sizeable pond and many pools, seeps and digs where the horses can access the fresh water. Sometimes the horses dig with their hooves to access water below ground level.

If you see a horse drinking from what appears to be salt water, consider whether a fresh water seep might be flowing out on top of the more dense salt water. The horses routinely eat marsh grasses under the water's surface, so watch to see if the horse is chewing instead of drinking.

What do the horses eat?

Horses evolved to be grassland animals so they spend relatively long periods of time--both day and night--grazing on low quality forages. (This doesn't mean the grasses are bad, it just means that their nutrient content is not high.) Wild horses must eat a lot of feed to obtain the nutrients they need. Their diets are predominantly made up of the native grasses: centipede grass, smooth cordgrass, saltmeadow cordgrass, and sea oats were the four most commonly found during a dietary study of the horses' dung. But, they also sample a variety of forages (even poison ivy!) and they browse one shrub.

Their digestive systems are geared to digest the food they eat. They won't eat any foods that we might think to give them, and if they did they could develop potentially fatal colic.

Horse grazing in sandy area

Cape Lookout National Seashore

With all the sand, do horses die of sand colic (sand pooling in their digestive systems)?

Domestic horses are known to die of an ailment called "sand colic" when sand pools in their digestive tract and interrupts the flow of ingestia (food in the process of being digested) or causes a stricture in the tract. Eastern barrier island soil is predominantly sand; wild horses use their upper lips and paw with their forefeet to move sand out of the way in order to bite off low-growing grasses. So, they often eat right down in the sand.

While we don't know the cause of death in most cases of wild horse mortality, we do know that the cause of death for a number of horses was something other than sand colic. In fact, necropsies--autopsies of animals--have shown only a few signs of sand pooling in the intestines of the horses examined. The ingestia had sand mixed in with it, however, so we concluded that because the wild horses are eating in a very natural way, around the clock, they are less susceptible to this illness. This method of eating must keep the food flowing through their gut tube, pushing the sand through, and not allowing it to separate out and pool in their intestines.

What do the horses do during storms?

While we are not certain what the horses do during storms--since people typically leave the island when a storm is approaching--we expect that they seek shelter in the maritime forest in the northwest or the groves of myrtle and cedar along the northern edge of the island. The low areas between the taller dunes also provide protection from wind and blowing rain.

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Herd Management: Basics

How many horses are on Shackleford Banks?

Management strategies keep the population between 110 and 130 horses.

Who manages the horses?

The horse population is preserved and managed in partnership between the National Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses.

Ranger prepares to contracept a mare
One way the herd size is controlled is through the use of immunocontraception (birth control).

Why is the herd size controlled?

The horses have no natural predators on the island. An uncontrolled growth in population could cause undesired impacts to the park's natural resources and processes. Depleted forage and a more dense population would increase competition between horses; younger horses and old horses would face the most difficulty. A significant reduction in the vegetation could also heighten erosion from wind and wave action and would deplete the marshes of the grasses vital to the protection of so many species which spend their early years in these sound-side nurseries.

How is the herd size controlled?

The herd size is controlled in two ways: immunocontraception (birth control) and removal. Horses to be removed and mares to be contracepted are chosen each year with their contribution to the herd in mind and with the help of scientists in horse genetics, horse behavior, and horse contraception.

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Herd Management: Contraceptives

How do you give birth control to a wild animal?

Selected mares are given an immunocontraceptive (birth control) serum called Porcine Zonae Pellucidae (PZP). PZP is given in the spring to prevent conception that summer and, subsequently, foaling the next summer. PZP keeps a mare's eggs from being fertilized, but does not harm an unborn foal nor change breeding behavior.

PZP is administered in the field with a CO2 powered dart projector. The dart's front chamber is loaded with PZP via a syringe. The impact of the dart on the recipient's hind quarter muscle fires the dart, injecting the contents. The dart pops back out almost instantaneously; it falls to the ground and is recovered.

Are there other benefits to giving a mare PZP?

Instead of possibly conceiving again after foaling, PZP will give a mare a break from pregnancy and allow her energy to go to herself and to nursing her foal. Research has shown that mares who receive birth control-induced rest periods live longer than those who produce foals at every opportunity. When a mare does subsequently foal, she is in better condition and so is better able to support her foal during lactation.

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Horse round-up
In the past, round-ups were used to track the horses and limit the herd size.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Herd Management: Removal & Adoption

When is the next horse roundup?

Historically, roundups were held in the summer and owners branded, sold or traded their horses. As recently as the late 1990s, they were held nearly every year. They gave managers a chance to remove a number of horses. Now, with contraception slowing the birth rate and individual removal possible, no roundups are scheduled.

Is it traumatic for a horse to be removed from its home?

Actually, horses naturally move from their home in their mother's harem to another location between 1 and 3 years of age (females typically move to other harems while males become bachelors until they are strong enough to fight for their own harem). Older horses are only removed if they can go to another wild herd. Youngsters adapt well to domestic life.

What happens to the horses once they leave the island?

These horses are placed in the care of the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc.--a partner organization with the NPS which cares for the horses removed from the island while working to place them in appropriate permanent homes.

How can I adopt a Shackleford horse?

If you want your very own piece of history, and have the time and resources, you can apply to adopt a removed horse. There is an adoption fee and housing requirements. For information and an appointment to visit horses awaiting adoption, contact the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc. by visiting their website or calling Anita Kimball at (252) 241-5222 or Carolyn Mason at (252) 728-6308.

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Dam and Foal
Names and ID numbers help identify the year a horse was born and the bloodline it represents.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Herd Management: Names & IDs

How do you name and assign IDs to the horses?

Each year is assigned both a letter and a theme. The letter for 2006 was "S" and the theme was Native Americans.

Each foal receives a name which starts with the same letter as its dam's (mother's) name. The filly (female foal) in the picture to the right was born in 2006 and named Sawathu; her dam's name is Sydney.

This is an example of a mare from a less well-represented line of horses not receiving contraception in order to produce a foal to carry on the line.

This filly received the ID "1S" because she was the first foal born in the "S" year (2006). The second foal received the ID "2S" and the third received the ID "3S" and so on.

Why do you give the horses names and IDs?

Horses are named for convenience and because their personalities become known to observers during their lifetimes. The lettering system helps researchers track the maternal lines. Names do not imply that the horses are pets, know their names, or interact with people. Always remember that the horses are wild animals and should be given their space.

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Horse behind shrub
The horses sometimes hide in various parts of the island, but can often be found by people willing to walk across the island.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Horse Watching

How can I find horses on Shackleford Banks?

The 110 – 130 animals range over the entire island (Shackleford Banks). Sometimes they are easy to locate and other times it is necessary to walk to find them. While it is possible to drive on the beach or sand roads on other islands in the park, this is not true on Shackleford.

The horses may be found alone, but mostly roam in small groups called harems (stallion, his mares and their offspring) or bachelor bands (males of varying ages). Sometimes they graze alone. They have home ranges that extend the width of the island and overlap others' home ranges at essential resources like water and good grazing.

May I bring my dog?

Dogs are welcome on Shackleford when held by a six foot leash. This regulation is for the protection of the dog as well as the protection of the wildlife: dogs can harm horses (and birds) and horses can hurt or kill dogs. In addition to hurting the wildlife, violators can be fined as much as $5000 and spend up to 6 months in jail.

How close can I get to the horses?

They may look placid, and they see visitors often so they don't usually run away, so, it is tempting to try to touch them, or to get closer for a photo. But, they are easily startled and can (and do) charge, whirl, and kick in a heartbeat. Mares will defend their foals and stallions will defend their mares. They can seriously injure or kill people or dogs with their hooves and teeth.

Watch from a distance, using binoculars and/or the zoom on your camera, to avoid interfering with the horses' grazing, drinking, and resting time.

Do not try to approach a wild horse.

More horse watching tips can be found in the newspaper articles on the Wild Horses page.

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Last updated: December 21, 2017

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131 Charles St
Harkers Island, NC 28531


252 728-2250

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