The Horses of Shackleford Banks

The island horses dig in the sand for fresh water. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Loftin

For more than 400 years, horses have survived unassisted on several islands along the eastern coast of the United States. Believed to have survived shipwrecks of Spanish galleons during the 1500s, these mighty equines swam to shore and eventually adapted to their sandy, salty surroundings, eating vegetation that was plentiful and lush at times yet skimpy and sparse at other times of the year. By eating brush, dried grasses, and algae washed ashore, these horses, some of them in foal, managed to make it through the winter until spring brought new growth. Hurricanes and harsh winters claimed the lives of many, but the strong survived. Herd leaders and mothers taught their followers well and the wild horses eventually thrived.

Spirit and friend.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Loftin

Shackleford Banks, North Carolina, is one of those islands. A part of Cape Lookout National Seashore, Shackleford Banks is nearly 3,000 acres of sandy soil, many varieties of vegetation, and horses.  Where the horses came from is not certain, but the El Salvador, a Spanish ship that wrecked near the island, is one belief. Though horses were nearly always on the ships in those days, it has yet to be confirmed that horses were on board the El Salvador. Another possibility is that they were some of the 85 to 100 horses abandoned by a Spanish settlement along the coast. And yet another possibility is that an English ship, loaded with Spanish horses from Hispaniola in the West Indies, grounded in an inlet through Core Banks, and to lighten the ship to get it off the sand bar, the ship's livestock was either cast overboard or unloaded when turning the ship on its side to repair the ship's bottom.

Two horses await their fate at the roundup in 1996. 76 horses tested positive for EIAV and were destroyed. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Loftin

Shackleford Banks is home to many herds of wild, or feral, horses small enough to measure as ponies. They are technically horses by genetics, but they are called ponies as well as horses by the local citizens. Feral may be a more fitting term because feral also includes animals that have escaped from captivity and returned to the wild. Both 'wild' and 'feral' refer to animals 'existing in a natural state, not cultivated or domesticated', so both terms apply, but the term 'free-roaming' is being used by most people , including the federal agencies involved with various populations. Whatever the term for the horses, minimal human intervention has taken place since their arrival.

Their diet consists mainly of salt marsh cord grass, or spartina. Also common in their diet is andropogon and other upland grasses which become their hay supply in the winter along with new shoots of spartina which grows throughout the seasons but more slowly in the winter.

The history

Unlike the Chincoteague ponies who are closely observed and identified by their unique markings and colors, the Shackleford horses are freeze-branded for unmistakable identification.

At times in the history of some of these islands, colonists caught the horses and used them for farm work, then released them again when there was no longer a need for their services. Perhaps the farmers also avoided taxes this way. In relatively recent years, roundups were conducted to provide work animals for the inland farmers. The horses were put to work then returned to the island to weather the winters on their own. It is believed that the first 'pony penning' in Assateague, Virginia, was held in the late 1700s for the purpose of establishing ownership of the horses. For the better part of 400 years, however, these island horses took care of themselves.

It is believed that the Core Indians of the Algonquin tribe were the first humans on Shackleford. In 1524 the coast was explored, described, and mapped by Giovani de Verrazano who came ashore and had contact with the Indians. Carteret County was settled permanently in 1702 by the English, and about this time, Shackleford Banks and Core Banks were still joined and known as Sea Banks. In 1713 John Shackleford had a garrison on the Sea Banks and in 1735 was living on what is now known as Shackleford Banks.

This band has two stallions in charge. Also unusual is the one and only foal.

By 1885, about 600 people inhabited the island, with 500 of them living in "Diamond City" on the east end of Shackleford Banks. Many of the residents had cows, goats, sheep and chickens, but whaling, fishing, and trading were the way of life. The horses became handy helpers at times to pull the boats, on and off land, until devastating hurricanes struck the island in the late 1800s. Several people died and homes were destroyed, as was much of the island forest. All the residents of Shackleford eventually moved to the mainland areas and the neighboring islands. The horses and other animals that remained on the island persevered. Nature had taught them well.

The Shackleford horses, due to their natural, free-roaming lifestyle, have been the subjects of many studies in more recent years. Their behavior is often observed, and genealogy studies, based on the dams of each succeeding generation of foals, have been under way for at least 20 years. It has also been verified, through the identification of several gene variants associated with Spanish horses, that there is a Spanish link in the Shackleford Banks horses.

These two stallions, co-leaders of the herd, have their moments of fighting, but when other herds approach, they work as a fierce team to run the intruders off.

Concerns about the island vegetation being threatened by the horses led to a reduced optimum herd number and in November of 1996, a large portion of the herd tested positive to the Coggins test for Equine Infectious Anemia Virus (EIAV). The positive horses appeared very healthy in spite of the diagnosis, but according to North Carolina law, the positive horses needed to be either quarantined or destroyed. A few were quarantined inland for scientific study and the rest were destroyed. The survivors regrouped and with 23 foals counted in the fall of 1999 (at which point the horse count was 130), the Shackleford horses seem to be recovering sufficiently.

In February of 1997, the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses Protection Act was introduced. It was proposed out of a desire to preserve the Shackleford horses, one of the nation's oldest legacies and the oldest documented wild horse population in North America, as well as to preserve genetic diversity in the herd. It became law in August of 1998 and ensured that at least 100 horses should be allowed to live on the island. The optimum number of horses is considered to be between 100 and 110.

Since the 1996 roundup, a brand now appears on the left flank of each Shackleford horse and is the means by which each is unmistakably identified. Unlike the Assateague (Chincoteague pony) herds, which consist of a wide variety of colors and a large number of pintos making identification by markings relatively easy, the Shackleford horse herds consist of mainly bays and chestnuts of which many may look alike.

As many coastal islands undergo development and increasing tourism, there are a few remaining sanctuaries protected by volunteers and non-profit organizations where wild horses can roam free with little human intervention. The nearly 3,000 acres of sanctuary known as Shackleford Banks, part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, is one of them. Visit Shackleford Banks and see the horses for yourself. It is against federal law, however, for anyone other than their caretakers to do anything but observe them. When visiting the island, consider bringing drinking water, insect repellent and sunscreen for yourself. Leave nothing behind except your footprints.

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Elizabeth Loftin, Diamond City Wild Horse Art Gallery, for the use of her photographs.