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Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg

The Wild Horses of Cedar Island, NC

Cedar Island is perhaps best known as the place where the state ferry docks after its journey southwest from Ocracoke. The main road, N.C. Highway 12, stops at the ferry dock and picks up again in Ocracoke. More than half of the island belongs to the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge.

A series of low islands and marshes privately owned by longtime residents functions as a wild horse sanctuary. The range lies east of the ferry dock and extends for about 8 mi/13 km, in a swath about 2 mi/3.2 km wide. Sponenberg (2011) writes that the original Cedar Island herd was derived from stock taken from Core Banks, "which were supplemented by a later addition of Ocracoke horses." For more than a century—and quite possibly much longer—herds of 100–200 bays, chestnuts, buckskins, and blacks lived wild in these marshes, sharing the abundant forage with wildlife and cagey feral cattle that charged when surprised. Residents gathered the horses every 4th of July, and people flocked to the island to watch the proceedings as stock was sorted, branded and sold or re-released.

In the 1990s, White Sands Stable offered boarding and trail riding along the beach near the Cedar Island ferry dock and adjacent the wild horse range. Equestrians from all over brought their horses to White Sands for the opportunity to ride on the beach. In 1996, one of these visiting horses apparently brought equine infectious anemia to the stable, where it spread rapidly to infect all 11 of the farm's horses. Seven of these horses were quarantined in Virginia, and the rest were destroyed.

In June 1997 Woody Hancock, who manages the wild herd on Cedar Island, helped veterinarians from the N.C. Department of Agriculture gather the horses from the marshes and test them horse for EIA. Of the 15 wild horses, 13 tested positive for EIA and were euthanized. Only two mares survived.

The wild horses of Cedar Island were a beloved part of local history and culture. Island residents were determined to save the herd and introduced genetically similar horses from Shackleford Banks to replace those that had been euthanized. Several residents generously donated the use of their land as a wild horse range. New foals are named for elderly or deceased Cedar island residents—Becky, Kassie, Ronald, Ulva, Ina May. Today, Bucky, the lone buckskin mare, remains the sole survivor of the original herd. She has produced a number of foals, and in 2010, she delivered Gay, a lovely buckskin filly very much like herself. In 2010, there were 39 horses in the Cedar Island marshes, 6 of them gelded.

 With the diligent management of concerned residents, the Cedar Island herd has been resurrected and will continue to roam free over their historic homelands.


Cedar Island Links


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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