Outer Banks Horses – More Than Just Misty

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 Horse

Shackleford Horse

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.

Awaiting a new home! Visit Schacklefordhorses.org

Awaiting a new home! Visit Schacklefordhorses.org

Federal Protection 

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.

Scratch me here!

Scratch me here!

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.

Schackleford Horse Diego

Schackleford Horse Diego

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:

Horses Have Birthdays Too!

Last week we learned husbands have birthdays and hounds have human age equivalents. But what about horses? Unlike purebred dogs, most horses don’t come with registration papers with their birthday proudly displayed, so it’s a guessing game. Even Thoroughbreds registered with The Jockey Club lose their actual birthdays to the convenient New Year’s Day in order to have a consistent racing year.

Before you can calculate a horse’s human age equivalents, you have to determine the horse’s age in actual years. For centuries horse traders have peered into the equine mouth to look for clues. Horses, like dogs and humans, have two sets of teeth, their baby or ‘milk teeth’ and their permanent teeth. Most horses have all their permanent teeth by age 5 and are considered to have a ‘full mouth.’

It’s easy to look at a very young horse’s mouth and see which milk teeth have appeared or been replaced by permanent teeth in determining his age. Once a horse is considered ‘aged’ (9-years-old and beyond) there are other more subtle signs to look for. Unlike dogs and humans, horse’s permanent teeth continue to grow throughout their life. This phenomena ensure a lifetime of grass grazing and grain grinding. As they age, horse teeth also change shape and develop markings.

As a Thoroughbred registered with The Jockey Club, Mikey's birthday is always January 1st.

As a Thoroughbred registered with The Jockey Club, Mikey’s birthday is always January 1st.

Cups, Stars, Grooves, and Hooks

Cups: The shape of the tooth changes from rectangular to triangular as the horse ages. When you open the mouth of a young horse and view the bottom front teeth (center and corner incisors) on the grinding surface from above, you will see dark rectangular centers called ‘cups.’ These cups are visible on all incisors by age 5, but slowly disappear from the teeth progressively. They fade first on the bottom from the center teeth out to the corners and then on the top from the center out to the corners, so by age 11 all the cups should be gone.

Stars: As the cups begin to disappear, a ‘dental star’ appears on the grinding surface towards the front of the tooth. This yellow-colored spot starts out rectangular and becomes rounded with age and will eventually replace the cup on each incisor. The stars begin to show up around age 8 on the center teeth and appear on the corners by age 11.

Galvayne’s Groove: This dark-colored groove is located on the incisors at the upper corner of the mouth, just before the canine teeth. This groove won’t appear until the horse is around 10 years old. It appears first at the top of the tooth and works it way down the front of the tooth. It reaches the middle of the tooth by age 15. Then it continues down to the bottom of the tooth by age 20. Then it reverses itself and starts to disappear from the top of the tooth, so by age 25 it’s only visible on the lower portion of the tooth. By age 30 it should have disappeared from the tooth.

Hooks: Another clue to determining age can be looking for hooks on the top corner incisors. Uneven wear on the upper and lower corner incisors can cause a hook to form at the back and bottom on the top corner incisor. The first hook appears at age 7 and disappears at age 9. Then it re-appears at age 11 and remains until the mid-teens.

Another indicator of age can be seen by viewing the horse’s mouth in profile.  Lifting the lip take a look at his bite from the side, the older the horse, the longer and more angled forward his permanent teeth will be. For you trivia buffs out there, the term “long in the tooth” comes from the horse world and refers to this observation. This term also gave birth to a piece of sound advice: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!”

Horse Age in Human Years 

Is there an equivalent human age for horses? It appears about a decade ago, as part of a marketing campaign from Pfizer Animal Health (now Zoetis) to promote their Strongid daily wormer, they released The Age Relationship Chart which calculates a horse’s age in human years.  A rough estimate said that horses are basically 6.5 years old when they are born (because when they are born they can stand and run) and will age that fast (in human years) until they reach four. After that they settle into a 2.5 human years for every actual horse year for the rest of his life.

According to the 2003 press release from Equine Resources International, LLC, “Horses go through the same life cycles as do humans. They have distinct childhood, adolescence, puberty, maturity and geriatric phases of their lives,” said Dan Kramer, Pfizer’s equine market manager. “This chart will give horse owners added insight into their horse’s life stages and greater understanding of the issues at each stage. For example, a 22-year old horse would equate to a human of age 65.5. A horse that is 36 years old would be celebrating its 100th birthday if it was a person.”