"Horses are not native to the North American continent. But for more than 400 years the small, swift, and sturdy horses whose forebears once roamed the sands of Arabia have had free run of the beaches of the Currituck Outer Banks.
Corolla's wild horses have witnessed the disappearance of Native Americans from these shores. They have seen waterfowl in their thousands come and go. They have watched deserted dunes become studded with hundreds of houses. How have they survived so many changes over the past four centuries? Perhaps it's in their blood.
Far across the seas, early in the 16th century, the aristocratic horses of the Arabian peninsula and the sturdy stock of Spain and Portugal were bred on the Barbary coast of northern Africa, to eventually become a separate breed know as Barb horses. These choice mounts were selectively bred for their stamina, size, temperament, ease of gait, and longevity.
For Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the Barbs' inbred ability to thrive in a harsh environment of heat, sand, wind, and drought made them especially valuable. Harnessed to the decks of Spanish galleons, the horses were an integral part of New World exploration, and new stock was soon being bred wherever Spanish colonies became established.
Other Spanish-bred horses made their way to the Outer Banks aboard English ships. Sir Richard Grenville traded with the Spanish colonies en route to America. On June 6, 1585, according to research by the Hakluyt Society, Grenville purchased stallions and mares (with saddles and bridles), and cows, bulls, sheep, and swine for the English colony on Roanoke Island. The Roanoke voyages of 1584, 1586, 1587, and 1590 provided other opportunities for horses to have disembarked from or survived the wrecks of English ships.
Did the mustangs today roaming the Currituck beaches descend from the Spaniards' abandoned Barb horses, or the English explorers' Barb horses purchased from the Spaniards, or both? No one can say. But whether transported aboard Spanish galleons or English barks, the Corolla herd is descended from Spanish mustangs which landed on these shores more than 400 years ago.
Clearly, the horses had become a part of the indigenous culture by the time the English historian John Lawson explored North Carolina between 1700 and 1711. Lawson wrote that the horses, which were fed maize by the Native Americans, were "well-shaped and swift." While the horses were well-tended, their new masters did not ride them, "never making any farther use of him than to fetch home a deer."
The horses' lot changed drastically by the next century. By the time Edmund Ruffin, an agriculturist and editor, visited the area in 1856, the Native Americans had been displaced or absorbed, and new settlers in the area made use of the horses for a variety of tasks. In addition to traditional uses on the farm and as transportation, the horses were put to work hauling fishing nets from the ocean, and serving on Life-Saving Service beach patrols. Ruffin described how "twice a year on the Banks, the stock owners hold a wild horse penning." According to Ruffin, all the horses used on the reef (barrier island) and on many nearby mainland farms were descendants of wild "banks horses."
Beyond the historical record, scientific studies have linked today's Corolla herd to clear Spanish origins. The University of Kentucky's veterinary department conducted DNA studies sponsored by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund which confirmed their ancestry, and further showed that the horses, due to their isolation over the past centuries, have become a breed unto themselves. Corolla's wild Spanish mustangs have since been recognized by the State of North Carolina as a significant historical and cultural resource.
Hot sand, freezing winds, brackish water, coarse grasses, salt spray. Difficult conditions for any species. For the wild horses of Corolla, it's home."
Corolla Wild Horses: History & Origins
Bill Parker & Angel Ellis Khoury
© 2000 OUTER BANKS CONSERVATIONISTS, INC.
Permission Granted in writing September 4, 2000
Ms. Lloyd D. Childers, Executive Director/Light Keeper