Marguerite Henry’s classic book Misty of Chincoteague certainly fueled my love of horses and countless other pony-crazed little girls for generations. The fictional tale written in the late 1940s features a herd of small wild horses on Assateague, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. While Misty and her adventures made wild ponies famous, there are several other herds of wild horses scattered among the Outer Banks off North Carolina. How these “banker ponies” got there is a mystery. They have been there for centuries. Legend has it they swam ashore to the barrier islands from shipwrecks of early Spanish and English explorers.
Shackleford Banks Herd
Shackleford Banks, situated off the coast of North Carolina, is the southern-most barrier island of Cape Lookout National Seashore. The land is owned by the federal government and managed by the National Parks Service (NPS). Living on the 9-mile long island, filled with nutrient-rich native grasses and sea oats, are the Shackleford Horses. This hardy herd fluctuating between 110 and 130 wild horses boasts an array of colors from bays and chestnuts to those with flaxen manes and tails. Proudly standing between 11 and 13 hands tall, they wear thick coats with coarse, long manes to protect them from hurricane force winds and damp sea fog. With keen instincts, stallions can quickly spot trouble on the horizon (or tourists!) to make that fight or flight decision to protect their ‘harems’ as well as mares protecting their newborn foals.
Today, the Shackleford horses are co-managed by the NPS, who owns the land, and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc. (FSH), a North Carolina non-profit corporation and an IRS 501(c)(3) charity founded nearly two decades ago and run completely by volunteers. The foundation’s mission is to “Protect and Preserve” the Shackleford herd. One of its first goals was to find a permanent way to do just that.
In gaining federal protection, scientists needed to establish a genetic link to their historic status as a native breed. Oral histories and quotes from generations of coastal North Carolinians are important, such as “They’ve always been there, they were here when our people came; they swam ashore off sinking ships.” But having sound scientific research and evidence would be even better.
In 1997, researchers, after studying DNA blood samples, established a genetic link to the early Spanish horses. Most importantly, one very old genetic variant called, “Q-ac” surfaced. This marker was found in two other older equine populations, the Puerto Rican Paso Finos and the Pryor Mountain mustangs in Montana. Its appearance is significant as it can easily be lost through some called “genetic drift” which means it would have disappeared quickly if non-Spanish modern horses were introduced into the herd along the way. With scientific evidence in hand, the FSH was able to move forward with the “Shackleford Banks Wild Horses Protection Act” and a year later President Clinton signed the bill into law. The FSH now manages the herd in partnership with the NPS by use of birth control darts, rescuing some that wouldn’t survive on their own and removing others off the island for adoption to control the herd size for optimal survival.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn Mason, who helped start the foundation and keeps the adoptees and rescues on her farm on the mainland. Her family has been in the area for generations. Watching her commune with the ponies was like seeing an artist nurture her canvas. She knew all their moods, all their habits, all their lineage and history. She had been caring for them for decades not only against the ravages of hurricanes on the outer banks but in her backyard. She spoke of each horse on the island, not as the number they are assigned, but the names they had been given like Spirit and Merlin. At her farm, I met “Aftermath” born during Hurricane Irene. Her knowledge includes knowing matriarchal breeding lines, knowing how many foals a mare had and to which stallion. Listening to her was like watching an episode of National Geographic. Mason watches this wild herd from a far, yet intimately stewarding them, like the gentle stroke of an artist’s hand, wanting to capture the beauty of nature on the canvas but not disturbing the natural setting.
With the help of dedicated foundation volunteers like Mason the FSH continues their historic, genetic, health and cultural research. Herd numbers are still over 100 horses with room for sustainable growth and genetic diversity. This stewardship of a centuries-old herd is the kind of story that hopefully future generations of children will discover just as I discovered Misty over a half century ago.
Some great resources on the Shackleford Horses:
- Visit the Shackleford Horses on Facebook
- National Parks Service FAQ on the Shackleford Horses
- Timeline of the History on Hooves