Horses are the symbol of freedom, and a sighting of an herd grazing on the beach or plodding along the road offers island visitors a glimpse of simpler times. But allowing horses to wander free also exposes them to health risks and leads to overpopulation that can stress the herd.
The most famous of these wild horse herds call the Outer Banks of North Carolina home. The horses of Corolla and Shackleford are descendants of herds brought to the coast by explorers as early as the 1520s and are now considered the state animal of North Carolina. How the herds ended up on these barrier islands, known as the Coastal Plain, remains a bit of a mystery. Some scholars speculate that the herds swam ashore from shipwrecks, while others suggest that they may have been the castoffs of unsuccessful colonial settlements.
Regardless of their origin, the herds of the Outer Banks are now a vital part of the local economy. Horse-related activities generate more than a million dollars each year in tourism revenue. The herds are also valued for their historical significance, as they represent a link to the past and the history of the region.
Wild Horse Islands features many different breeds of horses, although some are more difficult to locate than others. The Mustangs, which are similar to Quarter Horses, can be found on all islands, while the rare Leopard Appaloosa and Red Roan breeds reside only on Blizzard and Desert Islands respectively. In addition, the Cremello and Pearl Andalusians are very hard to find in the game, but do exist.
With top stamina stats, Andalusians can travel far and long before becoming exhausted in the wilderness, making them a valuable asset to any expedition. The Mustangs are also a highly useful species, combining strength and speed skills for the most effective attack.
Despite their great skill sets, horses in the wild have to spend long periods of time both day and night grazing on low quality forages. According to a study of fecal samples, the dietary composition of Sable Island horses is dominated by centipede grass and saltmeadow cordgrass with only minor amounts of sea oats and reed-grass in their diets.
In general, horses that are exposed to long periods of harsh weather can become sick. The herds of the Outer Banks often suffer from respiratory disease, hypothermia and parasitic diseases. Young horses are particularly vulnerable to starvation and hypothermia, especially in extreme winters when a lack of grazing and a low body fat reserve can lead to death.
Juntos Vieques, a community-based organization with support from gallery Galleon and Marion Fisher, has begun on-going horse registration and education clinics for owners. This is an important step in developing a process for committed ownership and stewardship of the horses on Vieques, and will hopefully eventually lead to mandatory registration and proof of ownership.