Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg

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Ocracoke Village is an appealing Outer Banks outpost, all the more so for its inaccessibility. Because it is still a village of working watermen, it has escaped the pretentiousness of other seashore communities. Most visitors arrive by ferry—the one from Hatteras is free. The Park Service manages most of this island, and as a result it remains devoid of homes and businesses along the entire 12-mi (19-km) drive from the ferry dock to the village.

While horses no longer roam free on Ocracoke Island, wild herds left their hoof prints in the shifting sands of this island for centuries, until the Park Service made the island into part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Today the Ocracoke Pony Pen allows virtually everyone a close look at the descendants of the famed wild island horses. The handicapped-accessible Pony Pen is a popular stopping point and picnic site for thousands of visitors. A brief synopsis of the horses’ supposed origins stands mounted on a plaque in front of the paddock. As with all Banker horses, legends, theories, and a few definite facts vie to explain their history. Much is open to speculation.

Most of the locals grew up with legends of wild horses swimming to Ocracoke from shipwrecks to form the nucleus of the wild herd. Indeed, the waters surrounding Ocracoke have long been a challenge to sailors. Shifting shoals extend up to ten miles into the sea, and ensnare unsuspecting sailors without warning. Strong currents and extreme weather add to the difficulties. In the past few hundred years, more than 600 ships have run afoul of the treacherous Diamond Shoals of Cape Hatteras, aptly known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. And that tally reflects only recorded losses; the actual number is probably much higher. Before the 19th century, records were inconsistent and fragmentary. Wrecks were commonplace, people who could write weren't always moved to write about them, and much of what they did write has been lost.

A lot of ships carrying a lot of livestock passed by the Outer Banks in the 17th and 18th centuries or stopped to trade there, and there were probably undocumented ship wrecks of vessels containing horses. With so many wrecks and poor record keeping, it is quite possible that equine shipwreck survivors contributed their genes to the Banker herds; but we have no actual proof.

Like the rest of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke was long used for grazing livestock. At various times, Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke were connected by land, and so livestock was free to mingle with other herds to the north. Because horses and cattle roamed rest of the Outer Banks from 1660s to the 1930s, it is likely that livestock was also established on Ocracoke long before records reflect their introduction. Perhaps the first official record of horses on Ocracoke dates to 1733— when Richard Sanderson died, he owned all of Ocracoke, as well as a large "Stock of Horses, Cattle, Sheep and Hoggs (Stick, 1958).

Every family on Ocracoke typically had at least one horse, and each of the free-roaming horses had a nominal owner. But most of Ocracoke's horses lived their most of their lives running wild, breeding at will, only deliberately handled by humans during the annual pony pennings. The ponies would often wander into town looking for handouts. They would intrude into gardens if the gates were left open. Occasionally a herd would stampede through town.

After the Revolution , July Fourth pony pennings became a long-anticipated celebration, a festival of hard work and hard play for Ocracokers and mainland visitors.Foals were matched to mothers and branded with an owner's symbol. Banker horses—easygoing, smooth-gaited animals with flowing manes and tails—were in demand on the mainland and were sold to visitors during the roundups. Sometimes the highlight of the pony pennings was a rodeo-like riding of untamed broncos, with much bucking, twisting, and struggle. Most of the time, though, Banker horses were trained in a gentler fashion, tempted with sweets, petting, and scratching of itchy spots.

Major Marvin Howard retired from his military career to Ocracoke Island to find that his hometown had a problem—-there was no leader for the proposed Boy Scout troop. Major Howard, who found great satisfaction in working with children and horses, founded troop 290, and most of the boys on the island enthusiastically joined. In the 1950s, Ocracoke boasted the only known Boy Scout troop on horseback.

For the freckle-faced, barefoot boys of Ocracoke, the Scout troop and the ponies were the center of the universe.   Each boy selected a wild pony to catch, train, and ride. Each pony, though living free, technically had an owner; some were privately owned, and some were the property of the federal government. The price was $50 per pony, a steep sum for a young boy on a remote island in the 1950s. Fortunately, there were jobs available for any boy willing to work hard mowing lawns or assisting fishermen with the day's catch.

The troop would compete annually in horse races held on the beach at Buxton. For this, they had to travel a total of 26 miles (42 km) each way, including a 40-minute ferry ride, during which the boys would hold their stallions on the open deck. After the long ride to Buxton, the boys would often best stiff competition that included Arabians and Quarter Horses. About 500 head of cattle still roamed freely on Ocracoke Island during this time, and the scouts became skilled at cattle round-ups and pony pennings, showing off their superb horsemanship skills for the benefit of the visitors. They also helped around town and served as mounted honor guards for the Coast Guard.

The Ocracoke mounted scouts often captured national attention. They were featured in Boy's Life magazine, and in a children's novel by Steven Meader titled Wild Pony Island. The purchase price for the ponies was $50 each, but the upkeep cost almost nothing. The boys caught the ponies when they wanted to ride them, ad released them when they were done—no stalls to clean or food to buy.

The National Park Service acquired most of Ocracoke and made it a part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. When Highway 12 was opened on Ocracoke in 1957, the posted speed limit of 50 mph/80 kph posed a new danger to the horses. The scouts proposed a compromise—if the Park Service allowed them to keep the ponies on seashore land, they would corral them in a large pasture. The Park Service granted a special use permit and provided fence posts. The boys raised money for fencing and supplemental feeding. The state of North Carolina also contributed funds toward the new lifestyle of the herd.

Eventually, the Boy Scouts of America demanded that the boys carry insurance if they persisted in riding the horses in the name of scouting. These children could not afford insurance, and without the support of the Scouts, the pony pasture grew too expensive to maintain. Ocracoke's mounted Scout troop only existed for about ten years. The Park Service took over the management of the ponies in the late 1960s. Before long, the herd was on the verge of extinction, dwindling to a low of nine individuals in 1976. In 1973 Park ranger Jim Henning was transferred to Ocracoke from Bodie (pronounced "body") Island, and together he and his wife Jeanetta resurrected the herd.

Numerous strains of Colonial Spanish horses have died out over the years, their genes lost forever. The Ocracoke ponies were headed down this path until people stepped in to save them from extinction. In 2010, there were 21 horses in the Ocracoke herd, and only 5 mares of breeding age. Despite their low numbers, Ocracoke horses show no signs of inbreeding depression, presumably because of introductions from outside horses.

Wildlife biologist Dr. Sue Stuska suggested that the Park Service could maintain a healthy herd of 25 Banker Horses on Ocracoke by introducing breeding animals from Corolla or Shackleford Banks, which are adapted to the same sort of climate.

In December 2009, Cape Hatteras NS adopted Sacajawea and Jitterbug, young Shackleford mares, to expand the gene pool. In 2012, a Corolla stallion named Alonso joined the herd and impregnated Jitterbug. In 2013 she foaled Capitan, a sorrel colt.

Two privately owned Shackleford stallions, Wenzel and Doran, were also on loan in hopes they will sire foals out of the Ocracoke mares. Soon after his arrival on Ocracoke, Wenzel impregnated Spirit, one of the younger mares in the herd. In March 2010, she delivered Paloma, a brown and white pinto filly with exceptionally long lashes and whiskers, and two years later delivered Rayo, a pinto colt.

The horses remain on the island as memento of what was. Though no longer free to run the beaches in great numbers as their ancestors did for centuries, their confinement does not diminish their importance. The Ocracoke Banker Ponies are the survivors of a breed that nearly vanished and are one of the last vestiges of an important aspect of Ocracoke's – and this country’s- history.


Brooks, B. (1956, March). Riders of the beach. Boy’sLife, 46(3), 25–26, 69.

Henning, J. (1985). Conquistadores’ legacy: The horses of Ocracoke. Ocracoke, NC: Author

Meader, S.W. (1959). Wild Pony Island. New York,NY: Harcourt, Brace.

Stick, D. (1958). The Outer Banks of North Carolina,1584–1958. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Urquhart, B. S. (2002). Hoofprints in the sand: Wild horses of the Atlantic Coast. Lexington, Ky.: Eclipse.


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