One of the most sought-after attractions of the Shackleford Banks are the famed wild horses that call this deserted barrier island terrain home – the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses.
Local residents for hundreds of years, these feral horses may be shy and only make occasional appearances when humans are around, but they are nonetheless one of the most unique and popular aspects of the 56-mile long Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Every beach visitor hopes for an opportunity to spot one of these feral horses in their natural environment, and often, a chance to see one of these famed island residents is just a short water taxi or ferry ride away.
History of the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses
The earliest roots of the Shackleford Banks wild horses are still technically unknown, but historians believe that the horses, or “Banker Ponies,” are descendants from Spanish shipwrecks in the 1500s. At least eight shipwrecks that were noted in the area from 1528-1564 are of Spanish origin, and many of these vessels were transporting Spanish mustangs and other livestock which might have been thrust ashore when the vessels inevitably sank.
The characteristics of the breed which closely resemble ancient Spanish mustangs supports this theory, and the reports from several 1600s and 1700s captains who noted seeing the horses along the shoreline provides additional evidence as well.
Another somewhat parallel theory also suggests that the horses were purposely deployed by English ships as an effort to either unload weighty cargo while traveling through the shallow Diamond Shoals, or as an attempt to start a new colonization along the barrier island shoreline.
Regardless of their exact roots, the Banker Ponies have been around for centuries, and have carved out a living on the island that’s been more or less undisturbed by outside, human involvement.
Characteristics of the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses
There are currently about 100 Shackleford Banks Wild Horses that call this southern component of the Cape Lookout National Seashore home, and while they come in a variety of colors, there are a few key characteristics that distinguish them from modern domestic breeds.
The typical Banker Pony is fairly small compared to modern horses, weighing roughly 800-1,000 pounds, and standing about 13-14 hands. Despite this smaller stature, the horses are much stockier than contemporary breeds, with deep chests, strong bones, and broad foreheads. Most of the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses are brown, bay, or chestnut in color, with shaggy brown or blonde manes that grow wild and natural. Many of these characteristics have also been compared to both modern and ancestral Spanish Mustangs, which makes them very similar to the horses that conquistadors may have rode more than 400 years ago.
Part of the small stature could be possibly attributed to the relatively limited diet that is available along the Shackleford Banks. The horses obtain nourishment by munching on local coastal grasses, which includes smooth cordgrass in the marsh, salt meadow cordgrass, and sea oats in the dunes. This is part of the reason why they are most often spotted along a soundside or ocean-facing shoreline, grazing away, and paying no attention to the line of vessels that are cruising by.
Obtaining freshwater may seem like the biggest challenge for the wild horses, but after at least 400 years, the herd has carved out a method for obtaining water as well. Often, they will frequent surface pools of rain water, and when needed, will “dig” with their feet under the grasses to obtain a drink. The horses are never interfered with by the National Park Service (NPS) – the organization that manages the Shackleford Banks – so they simply find all food, water, and other nutrients on their own – as they have for hundreds of years.
With that being said, the NPS does closely monitor the individual horses within the herd, and each Banker Pony has its own unique ID. The NPS also tracks births, deaths, and other “life events” to get a sense of the activity, and to use that information for educational opportunities and continual conservation efforts.
Visiting the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses
The Shackleford Banks Wild Horses are found throughout the entire island, and are most commonly found in small groups or herds, which consists of a dominant stallion and his mares and young. Because they have such natural free range, veritably any part of the island may present an opportunity to spot the horses in their natural environment. With that being said, getting to the Shackleford Banks in the first place requires a couple of extra steps.
Water Taxis and Ferry Services
The docks that border Downtown Beaufort serve as the best launching point for a trip to the Shackleford Banks. Here, visitors will find a number of water taxis and ferry service that make regular trips to the Shackleford Banks in 15 or 30 minute intervals, depending on the season and time of day. Reservations for transport to the Shackleford Banks can be made in advance online through local ferry services like Island Ferry Service, or can be purchased right on-site. The cost is fairly minimal – roughly $15 per person for adults and even less for kids – and the ensuring 15-20 minute trip from Beaufort to the outlying barrier island is an enjoyable trek to be sure.
Shackleford Banks Wild Horse Cruises and Tours
Visitors who want to make sure that they see a wild horse or two during their trip to the Shackleford Banks can also embark on a specialized wild horse tour or cruise. These 1-3 hour cruises head right to the most popular destinations for the Banker Ponies, allowing visitors an up-close view of the horses from an on-the-water perspective. Along the way, experienced guides will share a wealth of information on the horses, giving visitors an in-depth education on these famous local residents. Several options are available for wild horse cruises, (like the popular Shackleford Wild Horse Safari), and visitors can sign up for a tour in advance online, or while exploring the different signs and marquis along the Downtown Beaufort waterfront.
Visitors with a Carolina Skiff or other relatively modest-sized vessel in town can also make an easy cruise to the Shackleford Banks to catch a glimpse of the wild horses at their leisure, and on their own steam. A public boat launch located on Lennoxville Rd in the heart of Beaufort is arguably the easiest way to reach the Shackleford Banks, and once in the vicinity of the island, mariners will want to slowly cruise along the Back Sound waters close to shore. The wild horses are often spotted munching away on the less populated soundside beaches, so patrol the marshy and quieter areas of the barrier island shoreline for the best chance of spotting a local herd.
Note that it is possible to commandeer a kayak to the Shackleford Banks, but because it’s an arduous trek (roughly 2 miles) that can coincide with local maritime traffic along the Intracoastal Waterway, it’s an adventure that’s best tackled by kayaking experts.
What to Know before Visiting the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses
- Keep your distance. The NPS recommends that visitors maintain a distance of at least 50’ ft. from the Banker Ponies at all times - (or about the length of a big bus.) The wild horses may look docile, but they are completely feral, and are not used to interactions with humans. As a result, they may kick, bite, or charge if they feel at all threatened.
- In the same vein, do not attempt to leave food, water, or approach the feral horses. Granted, the environment they live in seems to be limited, (and it’s tempting to leave behind leftovers or water), but keep in mind that the wild horses have been surviving on the Shackleford Banks for more than 400 years.
- The wild horses always have the right of way, according to the rules of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. If the herd starts to approach in your general direction, it’s time to back away.
- Bring binoculars and a camera with a good zoom lens! Watching the horses from a safe distance is a thrilling experience, and a great camera can capture the moment up-close, even if you’re admiring the herd from afar.
- If you do observe someone interacting with the horses, (which is illegal in North Carolina), or notice unusual activity, you can call (252) 728-2250 ext.4444 to report the incident. All reports will remain anonymous.
- Did you know that the Shackleford Banks isn’t the only coastal NC destination where the wild horses roam? The Banker Ponies are present in three primary isolated areas that span from the Shackleford Banks all the way to the 4WD beaches north of Corolla, so veritably any trip to the Outer Banks can turn into a wild horse expedition.
The Shackleford Banks Wild Horses are an enchanting sight for any Crystal Coast visitor, and are a living reminder of the coastal region’s deep ties to centuries of history.
Still thriving along the shoreline after more than 400 years, the Shackleford Banks Wild Horses are a testament to the fragile barrier island’s long legacy as a salty and undeniably hearty community.