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Outer Banks Wild Horses

wild horses
Wild horses at Corolla in 1991

Over 400 years ago, the Spanish brought horses to the Outer Banks. When the islands were still remote and undeveloped, the horses roamed free. Today, descendants of those horses still occupy the Outer Banks, but number far less than the thousands of previous centuries. The Outer Banks wild horses are now protected and live on three different refuges: Shackleford Banks near Cape Lookout, the north end of Ocracoke Island, and north of Corolla.

The wild horses on Shackleford are small in stature and often referred to as ponies. Protected by the National Park Service, the horses roam freely over the Shackleford Banks, much as they have for hundreds of years. This barrier island is still remote. Access is available only from Beaufort and Harker’s Island by Park Service approved ferries or by private boat.


The wild horses on Ocracoke are easier to view. Here, the National Park Service keeps an eye on around 25 “banker ponies” within a fenced area of 180 acres. A corral is located next the Highway 12, so visitors can take pictures. Visitors can not get close enough to touch the ponies, however, as the corral is double fenced, with several feet between the fences.

wild horse sanctuary sign
Sign at Duck in 1991

The wild horses north of Corolla used to coexist with the people on the northern end of the Outer Banks. These undomesticated animals use to roam free amongst the tourists, even to the point of ambling through an automatic door of the grocery store. Unfortunately, this familiarity led to dangerous situations for the horses. During the four years after the road between Duck and Corolla became public, 17 horses were killed by vehicle accidents.

Concerned local citizens established the Corolla Wild Horse Fund in 1989 to protect the wild horses. The horses, in fact, became quite a popular attraction in the area. As a result, a fence was built from the ocean to the sound just north of where Highway 12 ends in a four-wheel-drive ramp. The fence doesn’t corral the horses, but rather allows them to roam freely on 1,600 acres of private and public land north of the fence. It also helps to keep them from wandering south onto the roads.

Development near the Virginia state line, however, causes concern for the horses’ future. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund is managing the herd, and to keep them healthy plans to limit the herd to about 60 horses.

wild horse sign
Sign at Corolla in 1991

Visitors can view the Outer Banks wild horses at all three locations, but a 4WD vehicle is required to see the Corolla horses. For the health and safety of the horses, visitors may take photos, but are asked not to get within 50 feet of the animals. Though they’ve been on the islands for years, the horses are still wild and undomesticated.

Several tour companies on the islands offer wild horse sightseeing tours. The tours near Corolla use off-road vehicles, usually SUVs, but some companies offer ATV tours, too. For Shackelford, visitors can take tours via the ferry to the see the wild horses. On Ocracoke Island, a corral is near Highway 12, with a parking lot for visitors to stop and park. A viewing stand is also available for visitors to get a better view of the animals.

Preservation of the Outer Banks wild horses is a high priority for the citizens of the Outer Banks. In addition to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, The Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc. also works to research, document and preserve the wild horses.

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