Born Free

Posted by

There have been many inhabitants of The Outer Banks over the years. Its earliest residents, Native Americans, made their villages up and down the length of The Banks, drawing what they needed to survive from the land and sea. The Native Americans were eventually pushed out by immigrant Europeans seeking a new land in which to make their fortune. These immigrants would go on to become the ancestors of the Outer Bankers who call the islands home today. There is, however, another group living on the Outer Banks who have been there as long or longer some would argue, as anyone else has been. This third party is, of course, the wild horses who call the Outer Banks home.

The Banker ponies, as they’ve come to be called, have been milling around the dunes and marsh of the The Outer Banks for over 400 years. These hearty and resilient horses are descendant of Spanish Mustangs, thought to have arrived here as early as the 1520’s. They have become such a part of North Carolina and Outer Banks culture that they have been recognized as the official state horse of North Carolina. These horses can be found in the largest concentrations on Shackleford Banks, the southern most island of the Banks, Ocracoke Island, and the beaches of Carolla on The Outer Banks northern end.

How these horses came to be here is a subject of some debate. The two most popular stories date from around the same time period, and while neither can be confirmed with absolute certainty, they seem to match up fairly well with the earliest records of the wild horses. The first theory claims that the horses were left here by one of North Carolinas earliest explorers, a Spaniard by the name of Lucas Vasquez de Allyon. Vasquez was under orders to explore and to colonize the eastern seaboard of the newly discovered North American continent. It is possible that some of these expeditions landed on the Outer Banks. The local inhabitants of the Banks at the time however were none too keen on the idea of new neighbors, and Vasquez’s men were driven from the islands and in their haste to flee failed to round up all of the mustangs that they had brought with them. Whether or not this theory is true, no one can say for sure.

The second version which takes place only shortly after the first credits Richard Greenville with bringing the ponies to The Outer Banks. Greenville was an English commander serving under Sir Walter Raleigh, tasked with exploring and trading up and down the American coast from The West Indies to the colonies of Carolina and Virginia and back across the Atlantic to England. It is during one of these trading expeditions that one of Greenville’s ships, The Tyger, loaded with sugar, spices, and a number of Spanish mustangs ran aground on The Diamond Shoals and was lost to the sea. The mustangs who survived the shipwreck managed to swim to shore, and have lived among the islands of The Outer Banks ever since.

I think what makes these horses so captivating is what they represent to us. There are few expressions of freedom as widely recognized as a group of horses in full gallop, charging their way across the landscape with reckless abandon. When you take this iconic image and add the crystalline spray of salt water as the hooves beat the sand, the sun sinking lazily away in the west, something is stirred in the heart and imagination. We can feel ourselves in those wild beasts; we feel the cool mist of the ocean on our cheeks and the sand beneath our feet. We long to run, to forget the worry and stress of our daily lives and simply live free, with no responsibilities or restrictions to keep us from going where and doing what we want to do. It taps into something primal in our nature, something that’s always just below the surface. We see them, and we want to be them. To be free. Truly free.

The Outer Banks and You

Whether or not you have ever been to the Outer Banks before, there are probably a few things you already know about it. You might know Orville and Wilbur Wright built and flew the first successful aircraft there. You’re probably aware of the several light houses that dot the shores. If you’re into romance novels, you’ve [...]

Read More »

Colors on the Shore

On every stretch of beach in North Carolinas Outer Banks there lies countless remnants of lives once lived. Indeed, the very sand on which we walk is all that remains of bone, shell and boulder worn by weather and wave over countless lifetimes. It must be assumed then that for each insignificant grain of sand on the [...]

Read More »

Fire and Brimstone

The Outer Banks of North Carolina is home to a great number of legends, and perhaps even more legendary characters. None of these seem to shine quite as brightly as the tall tales surrounding the many pirates who once haunted these waters. The mystery surrounding these enigmatic figures has captivated every adventure minded young (or young [...]

Read More »

Banks Bags (For Shopping, that is)

There are a probably about a million reasons to come and visit The Outer Banks of North Carolina. One of the best reasons to come is to sample the many wares and merchandise on offer from the Outer Banks shopping establishments. Shopping here can be as diverse and engaging as anywhere else in the world. Local cottage [...]

Read More »

Smaller Than I Had Ever Felt

I remember, fairly vividly my first trip to the Outer Banks as a youth. I was around eleven years old when my brother, father, mother and I all piled into my father’s hunter green Chevrolet pick-up truck and hit the road from our home in the foothills of Virginia. I recall gazing lazily out the tiny window of [...]

Read More »


In Norse mythology, the first two human beings to walk the Earth were Askr and Embla. Odin, the chief god of the mythos, chose for this task two pieces of driftwood that had washed ashore, one a sturdy length of ash, the other elm. From such humble beginnings, all mankind was born. Children of Earth and [...]

Read More »

The Currituck Light

There are few things as iconic or as defining as the lighthouses that dot the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These towering monoliths evoke a sense of wonder and excitement in all those lucky enough to stand beneath them. Few things truly give one the sense of connection to the history of these islands the way [...]

Read More »

From the Cradle to the Kiln

There is a tradition among Southerners; we fend for ourselves. The very idea of asking for help leaves a sour taste in our mouths. We are craftsmen, fishermen, hunters and farmers. It should come as no surprise then that in many parts of North Carolina, the crafting of pottery has found a deep and lasting place in [...]

Read More »

The time is right for soft-shell crabs in Pittsburgh

This time of year, a lot of crabs come from North CarolinaJune 19, 2014 12:00 AM O'Neal's Sea HarvestPacking soft-shell crabs for shipping at O'Neals Sea Harvest in Outer Banks, N.C. The time is right for soft-shell crabs in Pittsburgh By Renee SklarewMANTEO, N.C.Like a few types of seafood, America’s East Coast watermen are an [...]

Read More »