Nowhere to Run

The Wild Horses of Corolla are Running Out of Space and Time

The majestic beauty of galloping horses is only heightened by the natural setting of the sand and surf as they race up and down the beach. A few years ago this was a common sight along the shore of Corolla, the northern most tip of the Currituck Outer Banks of North Carolina, and home to the descendants of the Spanish mustang for over four-hundred years. But in recent years Corolla has been experiencing a real estate boom as more and more people discover this island paradise. Unfortunately, the natural beauty which has attracted so many people to this area is now threatened by the onslaught of people. The wild horses of Corolla may become yet another victim of this land development.

The conditions which now exist in Corolla is a recent occurrence. According to Debbie Westner, a long time resident and strong supporter of the wild horses, in 1984 there was no hard top road in the area and only 30 permanent residents, but by 1989, conditions had dramatically changed. That year the problem climaxed when three pregnant mares were killed in a single automobile accident. Horrified by the accident, Westner called a public meeting of the Corolla residents. Out of the town’s 100 registered voters, 60 showed up. From that meeting, they created the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. One

of the first actions of the Fund was to have their area designated as a wild horse sanctuary which made it illegal to kill, injure, torment, trap, or take away the horses.

Through the efforts of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, signs appeared warning motorists, “Wild Horse Crossing,” and to pedestrians, “Stay 50 Yards From Horses.” Unfortunately, despite the super-human efforts by many of the Fund’s members, people, many of them seasonal residents and vacationers to the resort community, continue to interact with the horses in ways that put them in more jeopardy.

“People are both the solution and the problem,” admits Westner. “The very people who can save the horses with their contribution to the Wild Horse Fund are also the people who are creating much of the problem. They simply don’t follow the guidelines which have been established to protect them and the horses.”

Westner points out that many people get so enamored by seeing the horses that they try to feed them, often directly from their car windows. This conditions the horses to connect automobiles with food and they are drawn more to the roads. Additionally, they are being fed foods which they are not accustomed to digesting. “We had two horses colic last year,” says Westner, referring to the intestinal upset unusual foods can cause in horses. During one incidence, a group of five or six horses was being fed a bag of carrots by some people. When the horses tried to get to the carrots, the people became scared, dropping the plastic bag with the carrots inside. One of the horses promptly ate the carrots, plastic bag and all.

Susan Sineath, a twenty-year resident of the area and co-owner of Nags Heads Hammock, has observed similar infractions of the rule. “Even with all the signs up, I’ve seen people stop their cars, get out and start hand-feeding the horses. They just don’t seem to understand how dangerous it can be.”

The small band of 28 horses which call the Corolla area home, is part of a larger group of horses that have frequented the Outer Banks for over four centuries. Although no one knows the exact number of horses remaining in the area, estimates range from fifty to a hundred. According to Dale Burrus, Senior Inspector for the Spanish Mustang Registry, these horses can be traced back to the Spanish mustangs. “The Spanish Mustang Registry is satisfied that the Banker Horses (horses of the Outer Banks), in particular, the Ocracoke and Corolla strains, are as linearly pure to the 16th century Spanish importations as can be found in North American today,” writes Burrus in his report, “The History of the Banker Horses.”

Modern day testing bares out the findings of the Spanish Mustang Registry. In September 1992, DNA studies performed by The University of Kentucky concluded that the horses did, indeed, have the specific gene make-up of those horses brought to the Outer Banks in the 1500’s by Spaniards.

Rowena Dorman, the only paid staff member of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, feels that, although the horses are drawn back to the Corolla area by people feeding them, their desire to stay in the area is more involved than that. “This area is where these horses have lived. This is the territory they know and have grown up in. They know where to find water and vegetation. The other horses north of here prevent them from traveling too much further north because all these bands of horses are separated by stud territorial lines. If they cross into each other territories, there are confrontations.” Dorman also points out that another draw for the horses is the different type of grass in the Corolla area. “These horses have grown up on this short, tender grass and they are accustomed to that type of food, whereas the grasses north are much coarser and dryer, with less nutrition in them.”

Although the Corolla grasses may be tastier, Dorman points out yet another hazard to the horses remaining in the area. “We do have pesticides

and herbicides that are put down all the time that the horses are ingesting as well. This causes us a lot of concern.”

Ironically, despite having lived on the Outer Banks for so long, the horses are not protected by the Endangered Species Act. “They are not considered native wildlife,” says Ken Merrick, refuge manager of Mackay Island National Refuge, which borders the Corolla area to the north. “That’s because, basically, they are a non-native species that man has introduced regardless whether they were introduced four-hundred years ago, having jumped off the Spanish galleons and swam to shore, or whether they are an isolated population that hasn’t had a lot of genetic input from domestic animals.”

Merrick’s concern is that the wild horses are themselves a danger to the refuge areas, which are home to two other species which are recognized by the Act as endangered; the Piping Plover, a small sandy-colored bird resembling a sandpiper that uses the grasslands of the area for nesting, and the seabeach amaranth, a low-lying plant.

After over five years of attempting to educate the public in how to live compatibly with the wild horse, the Wild Horse Fund decided to change tactics. “We’ve been fighting for their preservation for so long,” says Dorman, “and we feel like the only way to do that is to separate the horses from the people because we have tried to educate the public. We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars, and thousands of man-hours and we still have the very same problems we had the first year.”

In the fall of 1993, members of the Wild Horse Fund met to develop a plan to build a fence that would run the entire width of the island, from the sound to the shore, north of Corolla where the hard top road ends. Since they were not allowed by the county our state to obstruct the four-wheel drive traffic in this area, they placed a cattle guard across the road in an effort keep the horses from crossing back to dangerous southern territory. The barrier, which criss-crosses for over a mile along the dunes, runs 250 feet into the sound and over 180 feet into the ocean, and cost $40,000 to build. Since the members of the Wild Horse Fund feared that one of the wild horses might break a leg attempting to cross the cattle guard, they had additional iron bars welded into place between the existing bars.

In March of this year, after much debate and numerous meetings with county and state officials, the band of Corolla horses was herded north of the island, beyond the barrier. It appeared that after so many years, the horses were, at last, save from the many dangers of civilizations. The hope was short-lived.

Within less than two months it became apparent the wild horses were not to be so easily contained. Almost immediately there were reports of a few horses swimming around the fence on the sound side. These isolated incidences were quickly handled by members of the Fund. But in May one of the strongest studs, Midnight, pushed his harem of mares over the cattle guard. By morning, the herd of ten horses was once again browsing on Corolla lawns.

In an effort to make the cattle guard look like a more formidable barrier, Fund members decided to paint the reinforcement bars that had been added black and to paint diagonal lines along the northern side of the road. (Much of the interviewing for this article was done while Dorman and the author spray painted the bars.) “We’re hoping the painting of the bars and the diagonal striping will cause the horses to be a little more concerned. Diagonal stripes affect their eyesight and confuse them,” says Dorman.

“We need this to work temporarily,” continues Dorman. “This is not the long term solution. We need it to get us through to a point where we can come up with our long-range goals.”

Although the long-term solution has yet to be determined, Dorman feels one day the wild horses of Corolla may need to be moved to a less populated area on the mainland. The Fund continues to explore ways to protect their endangered friends. Perhaps the days of horses galloping through the surf, their long manes blowing in the wind, are numbered, but I wouldn’t say that too loudly around Debbie Westner, Rowena Dorman, or the other dedicated members of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.