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Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg

The northernmost 15 miles/25 km of North Carolina’s famous Outer Banks actually lie in Virginia. Like the rest of the Banks, this area supported watermen, subsistence farmers, and free-range horses, cattle, hogs, sheep and goats  from the early days of colonization. Closure of Caffeys and New Currituck inlets in the first few years of the 19th century connected as much as 60 additional miles (100 km) of the barrier chain to the Virginia mainland, simplified driving North Carolina cattle to Virginia markets, and caused waterfowl populations to explode as Currituck Sound lost sailinity.

As recently as 1926, a writer for National Geographic estimated the number of wild horses on these banks at 5,000—6,000 (Chater, 1926). They grazed primarily in the marshes, drifting out to the beach in the summer months to escape biting insects and catch the sea breeze.

The few wild horses that remain are strikingly Spanish in appearance—short-backed, deep-chested, and wide between the eyes—in shades of black, brown, bay, sorrel or chestnut. They are rugged and very intelligent. There is no question that these horses carry the blood of the ancient Spanish horses brought to the New World by conquistadors, but just how those bloodlines reached the Banker Horses is a topic of hot dispute.

Popular legends hold that the original Banker horses swam to the sandy islands from the wreck of a Spanish or English ship. While this scenario is possible, there is no proof. However, trade flourished from the earliest days of the North American colonies, and many of the ships sailing the Atlantic carried horses. Wrecks were commonplace and poorly documented, and storms sometimes swept horses off the decks where they were carried even when the ships remained intact.

Livestock was typically grazed in marshy areas considered unsuitable for any other use. By the 1650s, farmers and stockmen had settled on the necks along the northern margin of Albemarle Sound, and some of them may have turned livestock loose on the Banks not long afterwards. Conant, Juras, and Cothran wrote, “Feral horses are known to have existed on these islands once the mainland was settled, primarily by Englishmen, from 1650 until the present.” Dunbar wrote that by 1776 the Banks were covered with cattle, sheep, and hogs, and “the few inhabitants living on the banks (were) chiefly persons whose estates consist in livestock.” Roundups were held once or twice a year to divide and brand stock and remove certain animals to the mainland. Breeding stock remained to roam freely and multiply at will. These animals were often driven up the Banks to Virginia to be sold.

In the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a system of artificial dunes in an attempt to stabilize the shifting barrier islands for development. Free-roaming livestock were blamed for destabilizing these dunes by grazing and trampling vegetation. In 1935, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation requiring livestock owners from the Virginia line to Hatteras Inlet to contain their animals within fences. Most of these stockmen had grazed their animals in marshland owned by neighbors, local hunt clubs, or absentees. They did not have the resources to maintain stock profitably on their own property. Suddenly families comprising generations of herders were forced to find another livelihood. Within a few years, the number of substantial livestock operations on the Outer Banks was reduced from about 50 to seven or eight.

In 1938, two hunters with high-powered rifles methodically gunned down any remaining wild horses. The few that evaded capture or slaughter retreated to the most remote reaches of the Banks, near Corolla, NC.

Corolla, a remote hamlet with no electricity as late as 1955, experienced a population boom in the 1980s after the State extended highway 12 to provide easy access to the northern Outer Banks. Wild horses that had spent their lives in uninhabited dunes and marshes now contended with beach condos and congested traffic. Vehicular accidents killed many horses as they crossed the highway. In September 1994, the nonprofit Corolla Wild Horse Fund blocked equine access to the heavily developed area from Corolla south by building a sea–to-sound fence at the North Beach access ramp at the terminus of N.C. 12. Despite the absence of pavement north of Corolla and an official ban on beach driving north of the state line, as many as 3,000 vehicles a day visit the area, threatening wildlife and tourists alike.

Today False Cape State Park, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, occupy the north end of the Banks, and neither entity welcomes horses. Beyond them lies hazardous urban sprawl of Virginia Beach, the most populous city in the state. In 2002, Currituck County and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation built a second sea-to-sound fence 11 mi/18 km north of the Corolla barrier along the southern boundary of False Cape State Park at the Virginia state line to restrict horses from migrating into the park, the  refuge and the and the densely populated area to the north.

Horses sometimes find their way around or through this fence to range as far north as the Sandbridge neighborhood. The public enjoys seeing wild horses in the Refuge, and at their few incursions cause minimal damage. But the park prefers that they remain in North Carolina, and the refuge views them as a “potential nuisance animal problem”  that will become a concern if their population increases.

Like their brethren to the south, the Currituck horses that ventured into Virginia were getting killed on the roads. Donna Snow, former Virginia Beach animal control officer and Corolla Wild Horse Fund director, formed the Virginia Wild Horse Rescue, a nonprofit charity dedicated to protecting wild horses that come into Virginia from North Carolina. Working with the Sandbridge Civic League, she organized a response team to capture and return the wild horses to Currituck County. If horses migrate into the park, the refuge, or beyond, the organization takes action to remove them.

The Visitor Contact Station of Back Bay NWR is located at 4005 Sandpiper Road, Virginia Beach, VA , accessible from the southern terminus of the Sandbridge community. False Cape State Park is sandwiched between Corova, NC and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge; there is no vehicular access. To reach False Cape State Park, one must hike, bike or boat  north from the NC border, or proceed south from Sandbrige, VA, though the Back Bay NWR. The interior trail is is closed from November 1 through March 31.Tram transportation is available April 1 through Oct. 31 through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Hikers can investigate the  site of the extinct town of Wash Woods, VA., located within the park.


Chater, M. (1926). Motor-coaching through North Carolina. National Geographic, 49 (5), 475–523.
Conant, E.K., Juras, R., & Cothran, E.G. (2012). A microsatellite analysis of five colonial Spanish horse populations of the southeastern United States. Animal Genetics, 43(1), 53–62. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2052.2011.02210.x
Dunbar, G.S. (1958). Historical geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks. Louisiana State University Studies, Coastal Studies Series 3. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Prioli, C. (2007). The wild horses of Shackleford Banks. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2010, September). Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge comprehensive conservation plan. Retrieved from
Urquhart, B. S. (2002). Hoofprints in the sand: Wild horses of the Atlantic Coast. Lexington, Ky.: Eclipse.

Visiting Back Bay and

False Cape  VA


Respect free-roaming horses as wildlife. Keep at least the length of a large bus between you and the horses at all times., And try not to disrupt their behavior with your presence.



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