“All Good Things are Wild and Free”. – Henry David Thoreau
There are some things in life that are truly miraculous. Before going to the Outer Banks, a 130-mile strip of barrier islands running off the coast of North Carolina, I had no idea that a herd of Wild Spanish Colonial Mustangs called the northernmost part of Currituck Outer Banks their home. The story of how they came to this unique part of the country and their survival for over 500 years is nothing short of a miracle. However, as I would soon learn the future survival of these amazing creatures is in peril.
We left our rented vacation home in Duck for the short drive north on Highway 12 to the neighboring town of Corolla where we would begin our tour with Wild Horse Adventure Tours. After signing in at the friendly front desk we met our guide, Tom Baker, a Virginia Beach native who has lived in the area for decades and goes by the suitable nickname “The Outlaw”. We boarded the open air, custom-designed 13-passenger Hummer H1 and followed Highway 12 to where the pavement ends at North Beach. The remainder of the drive would be on the beach.
I sat upfront next to “The Outlaw”, taking notes and asking him tons of questions about the history of the Corolla Wild Horses. Tom, a man in his sixties by my estimation, had grown up in Virginia Beach and spent his teenage years driving down the vast open, uninhabited stretches of shoreline to go surfing with his friends. He recalled with sadness the immense isolation and remoteness of what was once a landscape filled with sand dunes, trees and thousands of wild horses roaming free. However, over time as more and more people discovered the beauty and miles of endless beaches of the Outer Banks, the surge in commercial and residential development caused the decline of the wild horse population which was once estimated at over 7,000 back in the 1930s.
The most significant change happened in 1985. Before then, the 17-mile stretch of road between Duck and Corolla was unpaved, untouched and infrequently travelled. This allowed the area to be the perfect sanctuary for the wild horses as it was one of the most remote, isolated and undeveloped areas in the country. Once this road was paved everything changed. The area became open to mass development and tourism and the wild horses were in constant danger, being struck and killed by cars and roaming around strip mall parking lots. Something had to be done or else all the wild horses would disappear.
Thankfully, It was decided that the wild horses would be relocated further north where they would be safe. They were rounded up by cowboys and moved to the North Beach area where Highway 12 ends and only a 4 x 4 “road” runs along the beach. With the help of The Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a South to Sea fence and sanctuary were established which includes roughly 7,544 acres of land heading 12 miles north to the Virginia border. The land is unique as it is one-third public and two-thirds private land, meaning the wild horses live alongside people. There is no other place where wild horses live in such close contact with humans but it is better than nothing. Tom said that this has helped the wild horses yet there are still many challenges ahead.
When we finally reached the end of Highway 12 and pulled into the entrance at North Beach, Tom beamed and said “Welcome to the door to my office“. I had never seen a highway on the beach before. It was quite bizarre. The speed limit is 15 mph and it is patrolled by a Sheriff who is ready to ticket any offenders. Tom said that there is one tow truck driver named Larry who has the rights to working the beach. At $200 a pop to tow out all the cars that get stuck in the ruts along the beach, he is apparently always in a good mood. I finally understood why we needed a hummer for the tour. We were going to be doing some serious off-roading and climbing sand dunes.
We bounced around the sand heading towards the first community called Sand Beach which is only reachable by 4-Wheel Drive. There are 700 homes (most of which are vacation rentals) in this remote community where the inhabitants live alongside the wild horses. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live somewhere so remote and have to be mindful of wild horses sleeping under your carport on a hot summer day. Thankfully it is illegal for people to go within 50 feet of the horses or to feed them anything. The fines are upwards of $10,000 however Tom believes it is not enough. Awhile ago a woman fed a wild horse some watermelon, and the horse died. With only roughly 100 of these wild horses left in the world, losing one is priceless.
As we entered Sand Beach I couldn’t help but feel a little angry. Why would developers be so greedy and want to pave a road all the way out here threatening the last remaining herd of wild horses and further developing an already excessively developed string of islands? In my humble opinion, this part of the Outer Banks is magical and affords some of the last remaining wilderness and beauty on the entire 130-mile stretch. Why ruin it?
“Money talks”, said Tom sadly. When asked about their future, Tom replied: “The horses have survived and adapted for over 500 years here right now we are at a critical junction where we can preserve horses and do what’s right and have them for another 500 years or we can loose them.” Like so many other sacred things in our world, humans are threatening to wipe the horses off the face of the earth forever.
It wasn’t until we were out of Sand Beach that we spotted our first harem of wild horses. Tom said that horses usually hang out in a harem of 2-8 mares and one stallion. This group was a little unusual as we only saw two mares. Perhaps the horses were moving into shelter as a storm was brewing.
No one knows for sure exactly how the wild horses came to the Outer Banks however experts believe that the horses are descendants of Spanish Mustangs and were washed ashore from shipwrecks in the 1500s. While historical documents hint to the wild horses’ origin and there are a number of different theories, there is not a single proven event that explains for certain how they got here. Regardless of their origins, the wild horses have survived for hundreds of years and unfortunately the only threat to their survival is man. Besides Sand Beach, another community of 500 homes called Carova lies even further north into the wild horses territory and developers are fighting hard to pave a highway there which would be the end of the horses.
There has been an ongoing fight between those in the community who want to protect the horses and the developers who want to develop this goldmine of land. Developers have already purchased some of the land but they can only develop it if there are paved roads. Tom said it is now looking inevitable that they will pave highway unless they get federal help to stop it. The fight has gone on for decades and a bill (H.R. 126 known as The Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act) is awaiting to be voted on by the Senate.
It is hard to imagine this area being opened to commercial development and becoming a strip mall and McMansion mecca like Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills. Let’s hope they do the right thing and make this area a federally protected reserve for the wild horses. Or else they will be gone and what a tragedy that will be.
Federal Law: The Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act
On January 3, 2013, H.R. 126 was first introduced to Congress by NC Congressman Walter B. Jones. It failed to pass the senate that session. In June of 2013, it passed the House vote again (unanimously), and it now needs to pass the U.S. Senate to become law. Our hopes remain high.
H.R. 126 is critical to the long-term survival of the Corolla wild horses, and it requires no additional funding from the federal government. READ H.R. 126. Please contact your federal Representatives and tell them that you support H.R. 126 and want them to do so as well. FIND YOUR REPRESENTATIVES AND THEIR CONTACT INFORMATION
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Wild Horse Adventure Tours has been consistently rated #1 by TripAdvisor for the past five years and they are excellent.