Running with the wind – the wild horses of Shackleford Banks

by Sep 28, 2022North Carolina

Wild-horses-shackleford-banks-galloping-stallion-mares

Descendants of horses cast off from Spanish galleons, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks can be seen running in the surf, wandering through the trees of a maritime forest, or grazing with the Cape Lookout Lighthouse as a backdrop.

Chest-deep in seawater, I knelt behind my tripod and camera, mesmerized as three mustangs in the herd of wild horses I had been watching began to gallop. I glanced up from my viewfinder as the randy stallion and two mares headed directly toward me in shallow water off the beach – hides glistening, hooves churning up whitewater and froth, heads tossing, nostrils flared, manes flying in the wind. Just as I was wondering if I should move lest I be run over, the three wild mustangs turned and flew past, a knot of energy and power surging through the water, eyes wide, hooves kicking up, tails streaming behind like flags. The stallion remained intent on a dalliance. The mares were having none of it. For now.

I sat back in the water to catch my breath and glanced over at the other photographers in my group. Like me, each was shaking his or her head in amazement and displaying a “that was spectacular” smile. Just seeing the wild horses of Shackleford Banks is special enough. But watching them run with the wind? Words are just not sufficient.


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A stallion and two mares running through the shallow water just off Shackleford Banks.

Wild mustangs may be descendants of conquistadors’ steeds

There is conflicting history regarding the origins of the wild mustangs currently on Shackleford Banks in North Carolina. But there is no denying that all the horses in this special herd share a unique genetic marker found only in descendants of Spanish horses — the blood variant Q-ac. The herd has been kept genetically pure for over 400 years, and that itself is remarkable.

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Yes, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks do swim. Frequently it’s simply to get from a tidal flat or shoal to shore, always in search of food or water.

One theory as to the herd’s lineage holds that the mustangs are descendants of horses that survived Spanish shipwrecks centuries ago. Columbus did, in fact, bring Spanish horses to the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic) to supply conquistadors with mounts for their explorations of the New World. And there are many hundreds of Spanish shipwrecks dotting the sea floor around the Outer Banks.

Another theory maintains that Shackleford descendants are likely related to horses from the failed British colonization attempt at Roanoke in 1587 (now known as the “Lost Colony).” That is also possible since Sir Richard Greenville, who founded the colony, traded for horses and supplies in Hispaniola before sailing north to Roanoke. His ship, the Tiger, became grounded near what is now known at North Core Banks and, to repair the hull, all livestock, including horses, would have likely been released.

Whichever theory of origin one cleaves to, the wild mustangs we see today tell a story of survival and adaptation that is extraordinary.

Shackleford wild horses have adapted to life on the barrier island

There are approximately 110 to 125 wild horses currently living on Shackleford Banks – give or take a few. The herd is maintained by a cooperative effort between the Cape Lookout National Seashore biologists and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses. Although the horses are never fed or watered, to keep the herd healthy and genetically pure, horses are sometimes removed for adoption or donation to other wild herds. And periodically mares are given birth control that is effective for one year.

Often called “Banker horses,” wild mustangs on the island range from 11 to 13 hands (a hand is 4 inches) at the withers (the point on the horse between the neck and back). The smallish stature (other mustangs typically measure 14 to 15 hands tall) is due to the briny diet.

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This horse is not drinking. It is grazing on tender grasses just below the surface of the water — salty sea water to be exact. And that is a white ibis near the mustang’s head.

Natural food sources of the mustangs include cord grass, centipede grass, pennywort, and sea oats. Much of this diet is salty – many of the horses I saw were grazing on grasses just below the surface of the water. Which explains why the horses I photographed appear to have rather bloated bellies – they must drink far more water than average due to the salty diet.

Fresh water is available in various ponds and small pools along the length of the island. The horses will also dig holes with their hooves and wait for water to seep up.

Thick shrubs and a rare maritime forest of live oaks on the north end of Shackleford provide the horses shelter from storms.

How and where to see wild horses on the Outer Banks Crystal Coast

Shackleford Banks — nine miles long and less than a mile wide on average — is the southern-most barrier island in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, located near Beaufort, North Carolina. Unlike the more well-known and popular Corolla wild horses 125 miles to the north, where you can take driving tours onto the beach to view the mustangs, wild horse viewing on Shackleford takes a bit of effort. Which is what also makes for a more intimate and authentic experience in my view. This barrier island is accessible only by boat, and there are no public facilities or vehicles allowed.

Of course, the first challenge in viewing wild horses is to find them. Sometimes, we were boating along or walking next to a mudflat, and the horses appeared right in front of us. Other times, we had to go looking. But we always found them, eventually.

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The classic shot — wild horse in the foreground, Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the background.

Group Tours – The simplest and cheapest option to view wild horses is to take a group tour. Island Ferry Service is the official concessioner of the National Park Service and offers numerous wild horse viewing tours. Keep in mind that on a ferry, you will be viewing wild horses at a distance. Since horses move about, there is no guarantee you will see many horses at all. On a group tour ,it is also far less likely you will witness horses running, swimming, or doing much of anything other than grazing – which they spend a lot of their day doing. Still, even when grazing, just seeing these famous wild mustangs is memorable.

Private Charters – Another option is to book a private charter. With a private tour, you have much more flexibility and the ability to move about to find horses, including landing on Shackleford at various prime horse-viewing locations. It is more expensive than a group tour on a ferry though. Since you are hiring a boat, not just paying for a seat on a boat, expect to spend upwards of $500 for four hours on the water.

No matter which company you choose, be very sure they are licensed as authorized operators of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. One company I am familiar with is Seavisions Charters, having spent three days on Captain Monty’s boat in summer 2022. Captain Monty knows Shackleford Banks very well, is a wealth of knowledge, has a wicked sense of humor, and his flat-bottom boat allows access to shallow waters other boats cannot navigate.

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Captain Monty aboard his boat, scanning for wild horses while we were all on shore taking photos of wild birds and, yes, wild horses.

Kayak Tours or Rental – You can also paddle to Shackleford Banks from a boat ramp in Beaufort or from Harkers Island, but this should only be considered if you are very experienced at open-water paddling, can read tide charts, and can safely and comfortably manage paddling in waves, shifting tides, and potentially high winds.

Hiking or Camping – Island Ferry Service can drop visitors off on Shackleford on the east end of the island where there is also an amazing view of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. This is where photographers seek the coveted shot of horses in the foreground with the lighthouse in the background.

If you are day hiking on the island be very sure you know when the last ferry is departing, or your day hike adventure will turn into an unplanned and somewhat uncomfortable overnight. It can get hot and buggy on the island so be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and bug repellent.

You can also camp for free anywhere on Shackleford, but you must first obtain a permit from the ranger station on Harkers Island. Pack along plenty of water and be prepared for bugs, wind, sun, and weather. Everything you pack in you must pack out – there are no garbage or other facilities on the island.

HITT Tip: You WILL get your feet wet – getting in and out of boats, wading out into the surf for great photos, or simply walking across marshlands. I opted for a pair of closed-toe Keen sandals to provide maximum drainage and good foot protection from cactus, thorns, and sharp oyster shells. In the mud flats I had to be extra careful when walking as there were several times my shoes were nearly sucked right off my feet. Ending up barefoot would not be an ideal scenario. 


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Photographer-wild-horses-outer-banks

To get the great photos of wild horses galloping through water, or swimming in water, you need to get wet, very wet. Here, one of my fellow photographers in our group has set up his tripod so his camera is just above the water for the perfect low-angle shot.

Take a Wild Horses Photography tour – If your goal is to capture amazing photos of wild horses then you might want to consider taking a photography tour with Jared Lloyd. He’s the only photographer I am aware of that offers specialized wild horse photo tours in and around Shackleford Banks. Plus, you’ll spend several days just observing wild horses and learning all about their history, behavior, and the environment they live in.

Know what to look for when viewing wild horses

While there are up to 125 horses living on Shackleford Banks, they are not milling about in one giant herd. There are approximately 25 harems and seven bands of bachelors – each containing two to 13 horses). Each harem is guarded by a dominant stallion, or alpha stallion. And it is the stallion that works to keep his herd together and away from other stallions and their harems by exhibiting a herding behavior – lowering his head and moving his neck until the mares and foals move where he wants them.

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A stallion is trying to push a mare to go in one direction. She is not cooperating. Another mare is galloping in to join the discussion while another mare simply watches. The interactions of wild horses are fascinating and sometimes spectacular as long as you take the time to sit and watch.

Although the stallion is guarding the herd, it is often the mare who will decide it is time to move to find food or water. Within and between harems, horses maintain a sort of hierarchy that can be witnessed by watching for ears pinned back, biting, rearing, and striking with the hooves, or kicking. Dominant animals get the best drinking water and most delectable grasses.

Every time horses meet, there will be some sort of interaction. It may be subtle, or it may result in a more violent clash with two horses rearing up, striking each other with hooves and biting at the neck. Horses will show submissiveness by displaying their teeth and clapping them together. Horses going nose-to-nose are sizing each other up.

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Two mares having a little argument. It was quickly settled and they went back to grazing.

Each harem and band of bachelors has its own home territory along the length of Shackleford. If you elect to paddle to Shackleford or spend time hiking and camping on Shackleford, then you’ll want to think like a horse to find them. Is it hot out and buggy? Then the horses will likely not be inland, but rather in the exposed marshes where the breeze is blowing. Horses will also frequent the watering holes on the island when it is hot – look for well-used paths that will mark routes to water. Word of warning though: Do not position yourself at a watering hole to see wild horses. You may scare them away from needed water. Or you may find yourself in the middle of a violent fight over watering hole access. The best position is to find high ground overlooking the watering hole where you can watch horses coming and going.

When walking about or kayaking, be sure to stay at least 50 feet away from wild horses. When approaching a harem, approach slowly and do not act as if you are trying to sneak up on them. This will trigger their flight instincts and they will immediately move away from you. What worked best for me when I wanted to get closer to a horse I wanted to photograph was to be obvious and stand tall. I moved slowly, always keeping my eye on the horses. Whenever the horses would lift their heads from grazing to look at me, I would freeze. I never crouched or tried to look as if I was hiding. Then, once the horses resumed grazing, I would start to slowly move toward them again until I got to within 50 feet and no closer.

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Sitting, watching and waiting is the name of the game when trying to photograph wild horses on Shackleford Banks. Frequently they are simply grazing, but even that is special to watch. Here, one of the photographers in our group (note his closed-toe sandals!) has set up more than 50 feet away from the horse to ensure it does not feel threatened.

HITT Tip: With wild horses, always be ready to stop, back up, or shift direction. Never chase a herd or a horse that is moving away from you. They have already perceived you as a threat and chasing them, even slowly, just confirms this. Always give horses plenty of room. Maintaining a 50-foot distance from a horse is the bare minimum. The best way to get photographs of wild mustangs is to position yourself so you can watch the entire harem from a distance, in one glance. With a zoom lens – I worked with a 200-600mm lens – even a distance of 100 feet was plenty close enough. Binoculars are also a huge help in scanning the water, dunes, or beaches for wild horses.

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A wild mare wades through the water, directly toward me. I was at least 100 feet away and using a long lens so the horse felt comfortable and I was able to happily watch it wade past me.

There is a thrill to seeing wild mustangs running with the wind on the beaches of Shackleford Banks. Their very presence on this island for so many centuries provides a symbol of freedom and perseverance that is awe-inspiring.

On my last day in the Outer Banks, I sat on the sand and watched a small harem of mustangs move slowly along a beach. The nearby dunes were bathed in a warm glow from the setting sun, and an ocean breeze teased the surface of the sea. Listening to the soft footfalls of the hooves, I began to wonder if I didn’t also hear the whispers of conquistadors calling to their steeds.

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