What You Need to Know About Shackleford Horses

We are fortunate on the Crystal Coast to not only have beautiful sunsets, picturesque ocean views, gorgeous flora, and the best weather, but we also have some really amazing wildlife! From dolphins and marlin to sea turtles, the Crystal Coast has some truly amazing animals. 

Something that sets us apart, however, from the wildlife you could find at any other beach is something truly unique: horses. These aren’t just your typical horses though. These are wild Shackleford Banks horses, or "banker ponies” as they have been dubbed by many locals and they have become living history dating back over 400 years for the Crystal Coast. No matter the time of year or weather, the horses are there and ready to amaze both locals and visitors with their beauty and independent spirit. 

Early history of these horses indicates that they were introduced to the Americas from Spain during the travels of Christopher Columbus. Later, when a ship captained by Sir John Greenville was grounded, the crew released the animals from the boat in order to lighten the load. These two events were believed to be the beginnings of the wild banker ponies. 
Since that time, these horses (called ponies because they are smaller than most horses) have inhabited the Outer Banks, Shackleford area and are admired by locals and tourists alike. Variances in horse population remain a major concern and priority for Cape Lookout park rangers who try to train people to respect the boundaries of these horses while still allowing people to admire their beauty and free spirits. You can find out more about the history and preservation of the horses on this website. You can even get to know a little more about some of the individual horses themselves. 

Park rangers conduct tours for those who would like to catch a glimpse of these majestic animals. You can help track the horses after a short ferry ride to Cape Lookout National Seashore with the rangers and then watch the various harems, or small groups of mares and foals led by a single stallion, while learning more about their habitat, their habits, and their history. 

One of the great tours that you can participate in is the Horse Sense and Survival Tour which allows you to help track the horses and watch them. This can mean that you have to go on quite the adventure in order to find them including trekking up dunes, through marshes, and ducking through shrubs, so be prepared! 

Another great tour is the Shackleford Wild Horses and Seashell Safari. This tour is similar as you are tracking and finding the horses, but with a bonus! When you are finished viewing the horses, you can travel down to the shore and hunt for seashells! The Outer Banks is one of the prime spots for shell hunting. You can even make it a game by downloading our Seashell Scavenger Hunt

If you are unable to join one of the guided tours, you can also try and spot the horses yourself as you visit Shackleford. When tracking and watching the horses by yourself, however, there are a few things that are important to keep in mind: 

1. Be Prepared:

Sometimes the horses are right there as soon as you arrive to the island, but other times it isn’t so easy. The horses have free reign of the island and tend to move around to find good grazing, so you may have to track them. If this is the case, then you will want to have fresh water, snacks, bug spray, and good walking shoes. Don’t miss out on the horses because you weren’t well prepared! 

2. Stand Back:

Bring a zoom lens or binoculars to watch the horses and snap photos because getting too close can make the horses skittish. You want to make sure that you keep both the horses and yourself safe, so keep a safe distance away from the horses. Also, keep in mind where the other horses are around you. NEVER get in between a mare and her foal or a stallion and his harem. Also keep in mind that if two harems get close together, the stallions may fight, so don’t get too close to the kerfuffle. Watch their body language: if they are looking at you, then you are too close. If they are looking at you with their ears back and they start slowly moving away: you are WAY too close. 

3. Remember These are Wild Horses:

These horses are not tamed. There are no humans taking up permanent residence on the island and because of that, horses are mistrustful of humans and can act skittish and sometimes defensively by charging. They are not predictable in their interactions with humans, so it’s best to not take chances. Also, do not try to feed the horses because human food can make them seriously ill and even cause death. 

You can learn more about the Shackleford Horses Foundation which works to protect the horses as well as do more research about them, their history, and their preservation on their website. You can also find out how you can help support the Foundation and most importantly, the horses themselves! Also, for more tips on watching horses and more about horse behaviors, you can check out this website

The Shackleford Horses are amazing creatures that are just as much a part of the history, folklore, and culture of the Crystal Coast as anything, so you’ll definitely want to make this a priority on your next vacation to Emerald Isle. 

Photos 3&4 courtesy of The National Park Service

Share with us: Have you ever seen the banker ponies? 

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