My brother told me of the wild horses that roamed free in Corolla NC the first year we vacationed in the Outer Banks in 1991. I found it a bit incredulous that there would be horses roaming free in shopping centers and amongst the Outer Banks vacation homes up in Corolla, but I decided to humor him and we would take a trip from our Outer Banks rental property in Duck NC to go and see the "horses". Living in Chester County, Pennsylvania, horse ownership is quite common, but wild horses? I thought he was kidding. As we approached the Food Lion in Corolla, at the time the closest super market to where we were staying, all of a sudden we spotted a group of horses. Not behind a fenced-in farm, but roaming around free in the supermarket parking lot. I guess they had to pick up a few supplies.
The story of the wild horses of Corolla is a fascinating story with a lot of speculation on how they got here and where they are today. Their story reflects the resilience and endurance of this once isolated land, and how they were forced to adapt to the encroachment of man on what they had claimed as home. Since 1995, when they were corralled and moved, for their own protection, to the "off road" area where Route 12 ends in Corolla and Carova and sand begins, you will no longer find these magnificent animals roaming the local shopping scene in Corolla. They are now fenced in the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.
Scientists believe they are descendants of the Spanish mustangs, given their compact and stocky conformation, which were the genetic markers of the Barb horses brought to the Outer Banks as early as 1521 by Spanish explorers. Known locally as the "Bankers ponies", after nearly 500 years of isolation they are now their own breed, and likely the oldest horse breed in North America. In 1982, members of the Spanish Mustang Registry came to the Outer Banks and determined that the wild horses of Corolla were, in fact, lineally pure to the 16th century Spanish imports and compare closely to the South American selectively bred Spanish derivative stock.
It wasn't until 1975 that developers discovered Corolla, with the building of Ocean Sands, and the human population had dwindled to about 15 year round residents. In 1984, the State of North Carolina took over responsibility for the paved gated road that led to Ocean Sands from Duck, and extended Route 12 northward. At first, the horses became a tourist attraction, as travelers heading north on Route 12 where entranced to see the horses wandering freely by the side of the road. As the building frenzy continued, the wild horses made themselves at home, being found under porches and picking through the trash. Things, however, quickly went poorly for the horses, as 17 horses were killed in a four year period after the opening of Route 12.
In 1989, a group of local citizens got together to form the Corolla Wild Horse Fund after three pregnant mares were killed. County ordinances were passed to protect the horses, principally at the urging of this group, but the problem got steadily worse. The town voted to protect the horses in their natural environment rather than relocate them, and in March of 1995, the horses, about 100 in total, were herded and put behind a 1.5 mile fence where Route 12 turns to sand. The horses, not particularly thrilled with the new arrangement, managed to sneak back into Corolla Village and also make themselves present in Virginia, neither one an acceptable alternative. They were then brought to Dews Island in Currituck Sound, but then, about 65 in total, were again returned to the Carova area.
Today, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund continues to be responsible for the care and upkeep of the herd. It has developed a selective adoption program, generally yearlings, younger fillies and gelded colts. Stallions are available on a case by case basis. To adopt a horse, there are a list of requirements that must be met in addition to a $100 deposit and an additional $500 when approved.
An offsite breeding program has been developed, as the Colonial Spanish Mustang is on the threatened breeds list of the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, with less than 5,000 horses in existence globally. The two farms are the Karma Farm in Marshall, Texas and the Mill Swamp Indian Farm in Smithfield, Virginia.
To see the wild horses of Corolla for yourself, there are various companies that run tours into the four wheel drive area north of Corolla and Carova. Should you decide to make your own trip, make sure you take care to watch for the tree stumps rising from the water's edge, the remains of a forest that has been overrun by the ocean.
To better experience the Corolla horses, follow the link to a few videos of other people's encounters.
If you would like to help these maginficent animals, consider contributing to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. Follow the link, and go to the green "How You Can Help" button. This page will provide you with nine different ways YOU can help. Please consider this and help care for these unique animals.