One of the things the Outer Banks are famous for — besides miles of beautiful beaches, the first manned heavier than air, powered flight, and seafood — is wild horses. The herd was founded by Spanish horses left by the ships of early explorers of the Carolina coast. In some cases, the ship ran aground on one of the uncharted sandbars, and the crew had to lighten ship by removing everything moveable to refloat her, and the horses, once loose, were disinclined to reboard. In others, they were left purposely by ships about to sail for Spain that had no further need for the animals. This makes it distinct in its origins and genetics from the Virginia wild horses made famous by the book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. They are the last of an old breed, once common in Spain but now extinct there.
At one time the herd numbered several hundred and roamed throughout Corolla Island and further south. But the huge growth of human population, and the increasingly intensive development of the area, pushed them into an increasingly small area in the north end of the island. The herd shrank due to the decrease in resources and unfortunate encounters with automobiles.
Today the herd is down to a few dozen individuals living at the north end of Corolla. They are protected by laws that forbid people from feeding, harming, or approaching them closely. The area has no paved roads, and although the ocean-side beach is designated as a state highway, only four-wheel drive vehicles can navigate the sand. Some homes are allowed, but zoning requires large lots and forbids commercial buildings. These laws are designed to keep the area semi-wild and prevent the intensive development that has pushed the horses and other wildlife out of much of their historic range.
The best way to see the horses, and the area, is to go on one of the guided wild horse tours. In our latest trip to OBX, in late April, we took a one-hour tour with Wild Horse Adventure Tours. I recommend the experience.
The trip was interesting, both because of the horses, themselves, and the chance to see a much older style seaside community. Because of the strict zoning, this area is the last of what might be called the old Outer Banks, as it was before modern roads and bridges brought intense, modern development. The houses are few and scattered among the dunes. The ground is hilly with shifting sand including the tallest natural dune on the Outer Banks. The buildings are half-hidden, giving a feeling of isolation.
The streets are little more than ruts in the sand, and while they are named, we only saw a couple of street signs and then only in what passes for the center of town. You can rent a house there. But if you don’t know the area well, plan to arrive before dark, when you can ask directions. Finding your rental, particularly after dark, will be problematic. Traffic is very light and speeds kept down in part to protect the horses and in part because the roads are loose sand. We could drive the beach road in our Subaru, but you will want an off-road vehicle for inland driving, where the sand is looser and deeper.
The horses are special. Wild horses on the beach are a beautiful sight. Most live in small harems of three to five mares with a single stallion and their foals. The young stallions live alone or in small groups until they become mature and strong enough to challenge an adult male successfully and take over a harem. They are used to the humans watching and photographing them and for the most part ignore the tourists. They know they are the stars.
So even if you do not have any equine enthusiasts in your family, definitely take the tour and see this unique piece of land where sand and wind rule and the sound and smell of the sea, rather than traffic and people, are the constant dominant presence.