- HEIGHT: 13–14.3 hands
- PLACE OF ORIGIN: Shackleford Island, Outer Banks of North Carolina; originally of Spanish stock
- SPECIAL QUALITIES: The oldest documented horse population in North America and a historic treasure for both the state of North Carolina and the genetic history of America’s horses
- BEST SUITED FOR: Pleasure riding and driving; are good children’s mounts
A series of narrow sand-dune islands runs for nearly 175 miles along the coast of North Carolina, separated from one another by inlets and from the mainland by larger bodies of water called sounds. Although the entire chain of islands is known as the Outer Banks, each individual island has a name, and one of these is Shackleford Island. Until the 1980s, which saw a tremendous building boom, the Outer Banks were very sparsely populated by people, but for as long as anyone can remember there have been wild horses on the islands. Their history is an impressively long one, dating back to the days of the Spanish explorers.
Exactly when and how horses first came to the islands is not documented. In 1521, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, who had been granted the right to explore and colonize the area by the king of Spain, sent an expedition carrying horses and other livestock that probably landed at Cape Fear. In 1526, Ayllon himself arrived with six ships; five hundred men, women, and slaves; three Franciscan friars; and eighty-nine horses. The Spanish unwisely stole some Indian children to sell as slaves in the Caribbean, which caused an immediate Indian uprising, and the Spanish were forced to flee the area without their livestock or belongings.
Between 1584 and 1590, Richard Grenville and Sir Walter Raleigh brought more livestock to the area, purchasing animals in Hispaniola and taking them to the coast of what is now Virginia. In 1585, Grenville’s ship Tiger foundered on what was probably Portsmouth Island. Although the ship was ultimately saved, it appears that all the livestock were pushed overboard to lighten the load; some may well have made it to shore and survived. For the next hundred years or so, there were many Spanish and English shipwrecks that might have set horses free in the area. No one knows for sure which of these first horses survived to become the ancestors of today’s Shackleford Horses.
LINKS TO SPAIN
Speculation abounds regarding the origins of the Banker Ponies — whether they swam to the islands from the wrecked ships of Spanish explorers or were intentionally brought there. Dr. Gus Cothran, of the Gluck Equine Center at the University of Kentucky, performed genetic testing of the herd in 1997 and established a link with Spanish horses through several genetic variants. One in particular is a very old genetic marker that is easily lost through genetic drift (random changes in gene frequency, especially in small populations). Cothran reports that he has seen this variant in only two other equine populations: the Puerto Rican Paso Finos and the Pryor Mountain Mustangs of Montana. Because the marker is still present in the population of horses from Shackleford, it indicates there has been very little admixture of other breeds.
Challenges and Protection
As the human population increased on the Outer Banks in the twentieth century, the horses’ presence became controversial. Some said that the horses were ruining the natural environment. Others noted that the horses had been on the islands since the late 1500s and the islands had remained in good condition until other species were introduced, proving that the horses were not the root of the environmental problems. After much debate, a federal law was passed in 1998 protecting the Shackleford Banks wild horses.
The history of these horses is quite similar to that of the better-known Assateague and Chincoteague horses of Virginia, but the Shacklefords have remained a more isolated population. On Chincoteague, outside stallions, including Mustangs and Arabians, have been brought in over the years in an effort to limit inbreeding of the island horses. On Shackleford, no outside horses were ever crossed in.
Islanders on both Shackleford and Chincoteague have had a long-standing tradition of rounding up their herds each year to count them and brand the foals. When the herd becomes too large, about every two to four years, horses are rounded up and seventeen to twenty of them are removed. There was a roundup in 2005; another is not expected until 2009. Horses are selected for removal based on the number of particular genetic lines that exist on the island, all genetic information having been verified by the University of Kentucky.
The roundups are managed jointly by the Foundation for Shackleford Horses and the National Park Service. All removed mares over the age of four are taken to Cedar Island to join other horses there. Other horses are taken to the mainland.
These ponies are very pure representatives of the Spanish horses that first came to North America in the 1600s.
Once they arrive, they are the property of the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, which pays for all vaccinations and tests and makes sure that before they are adopted, the horses adjust to eating commercial feed, and that young horses are socialized to the point that they lead well. Older horses are sent for training with a professional trainer before adoptions are allowed. The costs incurred by the foundation are often greater than the income from adoption fees, but the foundation feels strongly that the horses should be given every possible advantage for a good life in a good adoptive home.
Banker Ponies are extremely hardy and well suited to the islands. In the winters they are rough and shaggy, but in the summers they are always fat and sleek and in excellent health. They know just where to dig in the sand to find fresh water, which seeps into holes they have pawed open. The primary food source for all Banker Ponies is a nutritionally poor salt grass. The quality and quantity of this grass limits the size of the animals and the size of the herds.
These are small horses, averaging between 13 and 14.3 hands. Banker Ponies display many of the conformation characteristics of the Spanish horses, including a comparatively long, narrow head with a flat or slightly convex profile, a body that is narrow when seen from the front but fairly deep when seen from the side, and a croup that is almost always characterized by a low tail set.
The colors found in the herds vary somewhat. Shackleford Bankers may be buckskin, dun, bay, chestnut, and brown. There is a black stallion in the herd, several chestnut horses with flaxen manes and tails, and some pintos. No gray horse has ever been recorded in this herd.
BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES
- The herd is maintained at 110–130 individuals.
- About a dozen foals are born every year.
- Every few years the ponies are rounded up, and selected animals are sold to good homes.