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.