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Banker Horses

By Donna Campbell Smith

North Carolina's Outer Banks is home to about four hundred wild horses that roam free in some parts of this popular resort area. The Banker horse is a tough breed that has survived hurricanes, scorching heat, bloodthirsty insects, and winter storms while living on coarse sea grasses and digging in the sand for fresh water. They are descendents of horses brought to the islands centuries ago by Spanish explorers.

Columbus brought horses to the New World and set up breeding ranches in Hispaniola in the late 1400s. Rather than transport horses and their food across the Atlantic, European explorers purchased horses from the Hispaniola ranches to use on their explorations of the mainland.

A stallion surveys his herd during the 2000 Shackleford roundup.

Luis Vazquez de Ayllon sent three expeditions from Toledo, Spain to explore the Carolina coast. Records show he brought five hundred men, women, children, slaves and ninety horses in an attempt to establish a colony. Ayllon and many of the colonists died of fever. The survivors returned to Hispaniola, leaving their horses and livestock behind.

Other explorers who came and then left in a hurry because of harsh conditions, sickness and poor relations with the Native People repeated this scenario. The horses were considered disposable transportation, not worth the time or expense to take back home.

Banker Horses on Ocracoke Island.

The horses not only survived, they flourished on the string of barrier islands until, by the 1950s they numbered in the thousands. They were used for transportation of people and supplies, they helped pull in fishing nets, plowed family gardens, and carried midwives on their rounds.

Corolla Banker horses in recovery from an auto accident.

North Carolina's development depended heavily on the Banker horses. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they were considered an important economic commodity. Regular roundups were held on the islands, called pony pennings. The Bankers were auctioned off to buyers from the mainland who valued them for their heartiness.

The physical characteristics of the Banker are very similar to many Spanish breeds. These horses are compact in size, usually 14 -15.2 hands high and weigh about 800-1000 pounds. They have broad foreheads with a straight or slightly convex profile, short backs, strong croups with high to medium-low tail sets, and long silky manes and tails.

Many Banker horses are gaited. Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, who has done extensive research on the wild horses of the east coast writes, "These horses usually have a very long stride, and many of them have gaits other than the usual trot of most breeds. These other gaits can include a running walk, single foot, amble, pace and the paso gaits of other more southerly strains." (The North American Colonial Horse)

Corolla Banker horses graze in the cool of the evening.

In old writings about the Bankers they are often described as "smooth gaited."
DNA tests reveal the genetic variant, Q-ac, which is shared by horses with Spanish ancestry, is found in the Bankers. This same variant is found in the Puerto Rican Paso Finos and the Pryor Mountain Mustangs.

According to the report, "Genetic Analysis of the Feral Horse Populations of the Outer Banks" written by Gus Cothran, Ph. D. from the University of Kentucky, "Corolla herd has only 29 alleles, among the lowest number of any horse population." That means there is less genetic diversity among the Corolla group than any other group of horses. Rather than being feral horses with a mixture of domestic breeds, "they are in effect "a breed unto themselves."

This is probably due to their isolation and inbreeding, but when compared to other breeds the Corolla herd's DNA tests show they closely resemble the old Iberian horses.

Banker horses wander down a beach road near Corolla.

The northernmost town of Corolla existed in peaceful harmony with their wild horses for centuries. When the small village became a bustling vacation center in the 1980s, with condos, shopping centers, restaurants and ritzy beach houses, the horses' future was endangered. With a new highway came traffic; and in the first year of the highway opening seven horses were struck by cars and killed.

Townspeople organized the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and immediately put into action a carefully thought out management plan. They moved the herd to a less inhabited part of the islands where it is maintained at about sixty horses to protect the ecological balance of the area. It is also the job of the group to prevent horses from accessing the developed areas, and to relocate any "rogue" horses that stray back into town or other private sites.

Another herd lives one hundred miles south of Corolla on Ocracoke Island. These horses no longer roam free, but are under the care and management of the National Park Service, since the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Tourists can safely "pony watch" from the observation tower next to the fenced pasture. Park rangers sometimes ride Banker horses while they are on beach patrol, after the tradition of the US Life-Saving Service surf-men of the 1800s. In fact, North Carolina's surfmen were the only ones in the country allowed to ride, rather than patrol on foot. This was because nearly everyone on the Outer Banks had their own Banker horse. They didn't cost the service anything, and the surfmen could do a better job on horseback.

A Banker foal stretches for a blade of grass in Corolla.

Several other small islands have small groups of Banker horses. Called marsh tackies or sand ponies by the old timers who share the islands with them, the horses graze in the outlying marshes. The horses have an uncanny ability to move through the mud and mire with ease.

The largest herd of free-roaming wild horses in the state, with about one hundred,
lives on Shackleford Island near Beaufort, North Carolina. These horses were the center of controversy when in 1996 North Carolina health officials put down 74 horses that tested EIA positive. State veterinarians feared the horses would be a threat to the domestic equine population. Horse activists argued that the horses were on an uninhabited island, which provided a natural quarantine area.

The Foundation for Shackleford Wild Horses organized and they found a friend in Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr. He introduced a bill to Congress to protect the horses.

Now the National Park Service at Cape Lookout National Seashore, in cooperation with the Foundation, manages the Shackleford Herd.

Corolla Wild Horse Fund put up signs to warn motorists to look out for horses.

DNA testing helped the Foundation for Shackleford Wild Horses gain their government support. This group has set up a stud-book for establishing the Banker Horse as a breed, registered with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Birth control and adoption are two methods being used to keep the Shackleford herd and its environment healthy. Some of the adopted horses have been put into private breeding programs. Some of the Bankers have also been accepted into the Mustang registry.

Still, North Carolinians fear for the future of their Banker horses. It is a constant uphill battle as increasing development encroaches on what was once wilderness land. Even public education is a two-edged sword. There is a need for the public to be aware of the horses, because they provide badly needed funding. But, letting people know about the Banker horses also opens up the possibility of harassment by people in this world who do that kind of thing. Several incidences of abuse, whether out of ignorance or malice, have enraged those who work so hard to protect the horses: a colt was run down and killed by the driver of a SUV on the beach,
horses were shot and killed, a horse died of colic after it ate trash from a garbage can, and another was injured when a tourist enticed it to climb the steps of his beach house deck.

With their future so uncertain, these hardy little horses can teach us a lot about perseverance and survival in a harsh environment. It is worth pondering the fact that these horses have survived every obstacle nature has sent them for four hundred years, but it is doubtful they can survive man's idea of progress.
To learn more about Banker horses or send a donation contact:

Corolla Wild Horse Fund
PO Box 361, Corolla, NC 27927

Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc.
PO Box 841, Beaufort, NC 28516-0841
PHOTOS: All photos by the author.

About the Author:
Donna Campbell Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina. She has written two historical novels, Pale as the Moon (Coastal Carolina Press 1999) and An Independent Spirit (Coastal Carolina Press 2002), which are set on the Outer Banks and inspired by the Banker horses. She is
currently writing a non-fiction book about the history of North Carolina's wild horse: Bankers, Mustangs and Marsh Tackies.