The Equine Photographers Network publishes a special edition of their regular newsletter dedicated to Horses in Need Documentary Projects created by members. This is my contribution, an expanded version of my earlier blog entry on the wild horses in Corolla, NC.
Nearly every American school child knows about the mustangs in the western portion of the United States and the wild Chincoteague ponies of Virginia. Yet few have ever heard of the Banker Horse, a breed of mustang that lives on the barrier islands of North Carolina, even though the Banker Horses most likely have a more ancient heritage. The Banker Horses in Corolla have survived hundreds of years of hurricanes, droughts and floods but now their existence is threatened by human ignorance, greed and apathy. They need your help.
Although their exact origin is unknown, Banker Horses were likely brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 16th century and either swam ashore from shipwrecks or were abandoned when the Spaniards were forced to flee.
Accounts of Spanish explorations and colonization attempts in the early 1500’s note that Spanish Barb and Arabian horses were imported and the modern Banker Horses display the distinguishing features of these breeds. Like Arabians, they have one fewer vertebra than most other horses and like many Spanish breeds, their facial profile tends to be straight or slightly convex. In addition the presence of the genetic marker “Q-ac” suggests that the horses share common ancestry with two other breeds of Spanish descent, the Pryor Mountain Mustang and the Paso Fino. Banker Horses have been officially accepted into the Colonial Spanish Mustang Registry.
Until recent years, the long, narrow barrier islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks remained isolated and undeveloped, with vegetation consisting mainly of coarse grasses and stunted trees. Although lush in spring and summer, during the winter vegetation is sparse and the horses must roam to find adequate forage. Now, however, the presence of humans has upset the balance and the horses are being pushed into confined areas. The rapid development in Corolla over the past thirty years resulted in many horses being killed or injured by automobiles along the highway, so in 1996 a barrier wall was built and the horses confined to the areas beyond the paved road. However, development has continued unabated and Currituck County allows building and unrestricted vehicle access on the beaches. The income from development is evidently more important than the destruction of the fragile shoreline ecosystem and dune erosion. Meanwhile, horses continue to be struck and just last summer a hit and run driver left a stallion with a leg so badly broken, only the skin was holding it together.
Multi-million dollar vacation rentals have been and continue to be built, some have 20+ bedrooms and all are on septic tanks. The sandy soil means that waste waters are not held for very long and may not have adequate time for the bacteria to break them down. Then there is the inevitable trash and pollution that results from thousands of seasonal tourists and the handful of year round residents.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a large National Wildlife Refuge in the area that could provide additional protected habitat for the horses. However the following is a direct quote from their website: “The Fish and Wildlife Service considers the horses to be non-native, feral animals and not a natural component of the barrier island ecosystem. These animals compete with native wildlife species for food and fresh water. Their activities degrade and destroy habitat which negatively impacts native species. The Service actively manages critical habitat areas by erecting fences to keep the nuisance animals out and to prevent habitat damage.” The horses may not be native but they are certainly well established and have co-existed with turtles and shore birds for 500 years.
The horses do not have any government organization looking out for their interests but in 1989 concerned citizens formed the Corolla Wild Horse Fund to protect and preserve the herd. In addition to monitoring herd welfare, responding to emergencies and educating the public, the tiny staff runs an adoption service for horses that must be removed from the herd. Horses may be available for adoption for a variety of reasons such as herd reduction or becoming too accustomed to humans. Local ordinances prohibit approaching or feeding them but people still do with the result that some become treat aggressive, just like their domestic cousins. For everyone’s safety they are removed from the wild and made available for adoption. The horses at the adoption center are curious, gentle and sweet.
The Corolla Wild Horse Fund was recently successful in having the Colonial Spanish Mustang declared the official horse of North Carolina and is now working with U.S. Representative Walter Jones to pass H.R. 5482, the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act. The bill is currently in subcommittee but has received little media coverage outside the local area. On 27 July, Executive Director Karen McCalpin testified before a House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife hearing and additional information about the bill and testimony can be found on Representative Jones’s website. There is an immediate need for citizens to write to the chairs of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources and Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife in support of H.R. 5482.
The Corolla Wild Horse Fund also needs financial support to combat the economic power of developer and tourist industry dollars, fight the perception of a “nuisance” animal and educate visitors on safety. The Colonial Spanish Mustang is on the Critical list of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy – please help to preserve what is left of this wonderful piece of American history.