Synclitic Media LLC

 1646 White Oak Road •  Strasburg, PA 17579  • 877-887-4878 • Website Design © Bonnie Urquhart Gruenberg 2015

Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg

The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a necklace of barrier islands that span 175 miles from Virginia to Shackleford Banks. The barrier island average about 1 mile in width, and at the sound's greatest width, the banks lie about 30 miles from the mainland.

Romantic legends assert that the horses living wild on North Carolina coastal islands arrived as survivors of shipwrecks. Indeed, innumerable European and colonial ships carried horses past Cape Lookout's hazardous shoals, and shipwrecks were commonplace. We do know that people used barrier islands as grazing commons from the mid- to late 1600's, and most ships passing the island carried horses of similar type to those raised on the mainland. Any shipwrecked horses would probably have come ashore to find comrades of similar type already present.

Few records exist, and the horses have been there for so long, many generations grew up believing that they were native to the islands. Edmund Ruffin, an agriculture authority who visited the area around 1858 and published his observations three years later, indicated that these horses were at that time a genetically unique, closed population, and that outside horses had not contributed their genes to the herd in recent history:

The race, of course, was originally derived from a superior kind or breed of stock; but long acclimation, and subjection for many generations to this peculiar mode of living, has fixed on the breed the peculiar characteristics of form, size, and qualities, which distinguish the "banks' ponies." It is thought that the present stock has suffered deterioration by the long continued breeding without change of blood (1861, pp. 132-133).

Ruffin went on to say that introducing the blood of other breeds to the herd might decrease its ability to withstand the harsh environment of the Banks and that mainland horses "if turned loose here, would scarcely live through either the plague of bloodsucking insects of the first summer, or the severe privations of the first winter" (1861, p. 133).

Blood samples analyzed in the late 1980s showed that Shackleford horses were genetically similar to Ocracoke horses, "from which breeding stock reportedly was derived," but have other genes in common with draft breeds (Goodloe, Warren, Cothran, Bratton, & Trembicki, 1991, p. 417). Certain DNA markers are very characteristic of Colonial Spanish bloodlines, and several horses in the Shackleford Banks herd have the rare Q-ac blood type, which strongly suggests Colonial Spanish ancestry. The only other breeds known to carry the Q-ac variant are the Puerto Rican Paso Fino and the Pryor Mountain wild horses of Wyoming and Montana.

Colonists of predominantly English descent settled the island in the 1760s, and by the mid-1800s, Shackleford Banks was home to more than 600 people in several communities who called themselves "Ca'e Bankers" (dialect for "Cape Bankers"). Diamond City, named after the distinctive diamond pattern of the nearby Cape Lookout Lighthouse, was the largest town ever established on Shackleford Banks. It was situated on the east end before Barden Inlet divided the island from Core Banks, and it once had roughly 500 residents.

The year 1893 was particularly bad for storms—at least 5 major tropical storms or hurricanes swept Shackleford Banks, including one in August that killed 18 people and another in October that killed 22. In 1896, two major hurricanes brushed Shackleford Banks, convincing a number of residents to relocate to the mainland. Then on August 17, 1899, the Category 3 San Ciriaco hurricane slammed North Carolina. It wrecked seven ships, knocked homes off their foundations, swept away gardens, and disinterred the dead. Carcasses of dead horses and sheep lodged in trees.

The devastation was too much to bear. After the storm, even the most tenacious residents of Shackleford Banks decided to pack up what was left of their belongings and move to stable ground. By 1902, Shackleford was deserted. The island was once again left to wildlife and free-roaming livestock. At the turn of last century, Shackleford reportedly held a vast number of wild horses. In 1933, another storm severed Shackleford from Core Banks at Barden Inlet.

Cape Lookout somehow escaped the commercialism and population growth of the Cape Hatteras area. At one time, developers considered building a bridge to Shackleford and developing the island as a tourist destination; but the state began acquiring land in the 1960s, ultimately it became part of Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Congress created Cape Lookout NS in March 1966, extending from Ocracoke Inlet in the north to Beaufort Inlet in the south, but it would be another 20 years before the seashore was fully established. Mostly undeveloped and accessible only by boat, the seashore comprises four barrier islands that buffer 56 mi/90 km of the central coast of North Carolina. In 1960, an edict issued by the 1959 General Assembly of North Carolina required stockmen to remove all livestock from Shackleford Banks.

Stockmen did remove large numbers of livestock in the early 1960s, but not all. The remainder multiplied, and between 1978 and 1981 the livestock census on Shackleford ranged from 81 to 108 horses, 64 to 89 cattle, 104 to 144 sheep, and 100 to 150 goats (Wood, Mengak, & Murphy, 1987). By that time there were no year-'round residents on Shackleford, but landowners maintained fishing cabins and other structures for seasonal use. At one time, Shackleford roundups were conducted by men and boys, but during the 1950s, the pennings became part of July 4th celebrations and involved most of the community.

In the 1980s, the Park service removed sheep, goats, and cattle from the islands. Local residents petitioned that the Banker Horses be left to roam free on Shackleford. With the sheep, goats, and cattle no longer competing with them for resources, horses multiplied rapidly, from a relatively stable count of roughly 100 from the 1970s to 1986 to an estimated high of more than 221 in 1994 (Prioli, 2007). A management crisis had developed. The Park Service declared that the equine population overgrazed the island and strained the ecosystem. Rubeinstein (1982) wrote, "grazing competition on Shackleford is very intense. Despite the fact that horses spend over 75% of each hour grazing, bodily condition remains poor, and juvenile death rates remain high" (p. 484).

Whether horse grazing is ultimately helpful or harmful to the environment depends largely upon herd size. Overpopulation is clearly detrimental to horses and habitat alike. By the mid-1990s many of the horses in the Shackleford herd were underweight, particularly the mares, and researchers were seeing signs of increasing environmental damage. It appeared that Shackleford Banks had more horses than it could comfortably support.

The majority of Many Down-Easters—residents of the lowlands and villages of eastern Carteret County—considered the horses an important part of part of their cultural heritage and wanted them to remain. Many had grown up on the backs of the rugged little Bankers, and had fond memories of participating in annual pennings. Ultimately the Park Service decided to gather all the horses; test them for equine infectious anemia with the assistance of the N.C. Department of Agriculture, Veterinary Division; destroy any positive reactors; and offer the remainder for adoption. Mares returned to the island would receive annual contraceptive vaccines to limit fertility. With the birth rate in check, the population would never again exceed what the island can comfortably sustain. Both the horses and their environment would be healthier.

EIA, also known as swamp fever, a disease that only affects equids, is caused by a lentivirus—a retrovirus with a long incubation period—similar to the one that causes AIDS in humans or feline leukemia. It is transmitted by horse flies, which can transfer blood from infected hosts into healthy animals. Once infected with EIA, horses remain infected for life. Some become obviously ill, others are asymptomatic carriers.

On November 12, 1996, the agency corralled all 184 horses, considerably fewer than the original estimate of 221. Seventy-six horses tested positive for EIA. Sixteen of the 18 dominant herd stallions on Shackleford Banks (89%) tested positive (USDA, 2006). None of these horses showed obvious signs of the disease.

State law required quarantine or euthanasia of the infected horses. Carolyn Mason, a retired librarian committed to protecting the culture and heritage of the area, organized local residents to form the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

As the Foundation sought quarantine sites, only 8 days after the horses were tested, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the Park Service killed the 76 positive testers, as well as an uninfected foal who slipped into the quarantined herd to remain with its dam. Their bodies were unceremoniously buried in a landfill.

The 108 horses with negative Coggins tests were released back to the island after the Park Service freeze-branded large numerals on their rumps to make identification easier. Several horses evaded captors in the 1996 roundup and were not tested (Willis, 1999). A second roundup in March 1997 captured 103 horses. Five of these were positive for EIA. The foundation was ready this time and had obtained prior approval for an isolation site. The Park Service gave these animals to the foundation, sparing them from destruction. In 1998, three of 106 horses tested positive for EIA and were also quarantined.

in October 2002 , Bob Vogel took the reins as superintendent of Cape Lookout NS and organized a meeting that included scientists, representatives from the foundation, and other stakeholders to rethink the management plan. The team reached a consensus that the horse population should never fall below 110 horses and that occasional expansions to 130 animals would allow successful genes to increase in frequency and benefit the population. These recommendations became Public Law No. 109-117 in 2005.

Today wild horses on Shackleford Banks are jointly managed by the foundation and by Dr. Sue Stuska, the Park Service biologist in charge of their welfare. The Park Service now makes an apparently sincere effort to integrate public opinion and information into its management plans. From a distance, Stuska delivers contraceptives by dart gun, documents new foals, and evaluates the health status of each individual, but does not feed, touch, or interact with the horses except in extraordinary circumstances. The Park Service treats them as wildlife and grants them the space in which they can be wild horses.

Maintaining a smaller herd has benefited the horses greatly. Rubenstein (1982) wrote that Shackleford foals had only a 48% chance of surviving the first two years. Since 2000, about 82% of Shackleford foals survive the first 2 years (S. Stuska, personal communication, March 8, 2013). Stuska et al. (2009) indicate that the diet of the Shackleford horses is adequate to maintain relatively good health.

Shackleford Banks is accessible to visitors by boat, and numerous establishments in Beaufort and on Harker’s Island provide ferry service. The congressionally mandated partnership between the Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses has been in place since 1999. The agencies work well together, combining resources and advancing goals more effectively than either could achieve independently. In the face of climate change and other future challenges, this management team should act to preserve both the island ecology and the herd, keeping the horses of Shackleford in a healthy balance with the island that has been their home for hundreds of years.


Goodloe, R.B., Warren, R.J., Osborn, D.A., & Hall, C.(2000). Population characteristics of feral horses on Cumberland Island, Georgia and their management implications. Journal of Wildlife Management, 64(1), 114–121. doi: 10.2307/3802980Prioli, C. (2007). The wild horses of Shackleford Banks.Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair.

Rubenstein, D.I. (1982). Reproductive value and behavioral strategies: Coming of age in monkeys and horses. In P.P.G. Bateson & P.H. Klopfer (Eds.), Perspectives in Ethology: Vol. 5. Ontogeny

(pp. 469–487). Princeton University Press.

Ruffin, E. (1861). Agricultural, geological, and descriptive sketches of lower North Carolina, and the similar adjacent lands. Raleigh, NC: Institution for

the Deaf & Dumb & the Blind.

Stuska, S., Pratt, S.E., Beveridge, H.L., & Yoder, M.(2009). Nutrient composition and selection preferences of forages by feral horses: The horses of Shackleford

Banks, North Carolina. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Epidemiologyand Animal Health. (2006, September). Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) (APHIS Info Sheet). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Retrieved from http://www.aphis.usda.


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

Willis, M. (1999). Shackleford Banks, NC, wild horses free of EIA: Roundup on Shackleford Banks, January 16–22, 1999. Caution: Horses, 4(3). Retrieved from


Wood, G.W., Mengak, M.T., & Murphy, M. (1987). Ecological importance of feral ungulates at Shackleford Banks, North Carolina. American Midland Naturalist, 118(2), 236–244.



Shackleford Banks, NC



Campground, hotel, motel, or B&B -- whatever your style,we can point you to great local lodging.


Shackleford Banks 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.



Free Sample PDF

Want to learn More?

Quagga Press is your wild horse resource!

Check us out!