A Herd Of Wild Horses: Genetics And Preservation

About a month ago I was able to see the wild horses of Corolla, North Carolina for the first time.  What a sight they are to watch in their natural habitat.

Our guide told us that the wild horses came to the area about 500 years ago when the Spanish were exploring the Atlantic coastal area.  The waters around Nags Head are an atrocious place to get stuck in a storm because the land area juts out quite far into the Atlantic, more so than the rest of the US coastline.   As a result, the area frequently gets hit hard  during hurricanes with winds and water destroying homes, businesses and bridges, and changing seabed levels and coastline so often that it was hard for sailors to predict where the shallows were located based on previous reports.

At times, the Spanish explorer’s ships would get grounded on sand bars.  To help them break free, the sailors would push their cattle and horses off the boat with ropes tied around them in hopes that the frightened animals would desperately try to swim toward land and help pull the vessels loose.  Some times that would work.  Other times, the animals would break loose or the sailors would free them when dislodging the ship seemed like a futile effort.   (For more on their history.)

Wild Horses of Corolla.  Photo credit: Elaine RN
Wild Horses of Corolla. Photo credit: Elaine RN

Mans impact on wild horse genetics:

There used to be thousands of the feral horses roaming the NC coastal beach area.  However, today their numbers have diminished to a mere 101 horses.  Many of the horses now have a genetic front leg joint disorder that doesn’t allow full expansion of their legs, causing them to limp.   Very tragic and sad to witness the horses trying to stretch their legs when they can’t fully do that.

The problem here is multifactorial, all contributing to the horses’ current state of being.   The horses, while depicted in photos as running free as the NC ocean breezes, aren’t really.  What we saw, along with their beauty, was horses grazing on sandy grasses in front of beach houses, near driveways and on sand and rock roads.   While there are fenced areas of natural habitat space dedicated to keeping them from getting loose into more highly populated spaces and danger, they aren’t really free and unable to be truly wild.

In theory, 7544 acres of habitat sounds like a lot of land.  In practice, it just isn’t enough. There are 700 houses and thousands of people living in the herds habitat and dozens of daily buses filled with interested visitors are constantly watching them be “natural and free.”  I admit to being one of the humans who paid to take a safari type of van to see the animals.  After, while inspired by the quest for their survival, I felt like an interloper and wished there had been a better way to see the horses.

While humans share some of their living space, no one is allowed within 50 feet of the animals.  Horses that become too familiar with humans are removed from the herd.  Also, any horse that is ill or injured is removed, never to be returned.   They are either cared for at special habitats or euthanized if very ill.  If an ill horse was to be returned, they could cause an epidemic in the herd.

And while there is no human touching of the horses allowed, even if the horses are grazing near the garage of a beachfront home, there is very little private time either for the animals.   As you might imagine, there are some people who, despite the warnings, continue to feed the animals foods they shouldn’t be given.  One sweet little foal died from a blockage due to watermelon someone fed her.  It lodged in her intestine and she passed in a very painful way.

Responsible wild horse management: 

For hundreds of years, the wild horses were allowed to breed without interference when they truly ran free in wide-open spaces.   They thrived, and at one time their numbers were at about 6,000.  With the lessening herd numbers and therefore less diversity of DNA, there is increased inbreeding and a greater chance of anomalies being passed down through horse generations.  One way this is manifested is with the joint deformities.

Before 2006, there was little attention paid to the importance of herd management.  Today, there are 5 full-time herd managers to care for the horses and help manage human interference.   An immunocontraception program has begun which keeps certain horses from getting pregnant.  This can be especially beneficial to the longevity of older horses and the breeding of horses that are without visible signs of the joint deformity.   While some may object to selective breeding for the sake of a superficial physical trait, with the Wild Horses of Corolla this could help save the herd.  Along with horse birth control, the plan is to introduce new horses to help enhance genetic diversity and viability.

Hope for the Future:

The wild horses of Corolla have gone from being viewed as feral pests to a very important natural treasure.  Hopefully, the focus on their wellbeing will help the herd survive.   You can be a part of their future by letting your senator know that you support the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act.   This legislation will allow for the allocation of funds to maintain the herd at around 130 horses, provide cost-effective herd management, and introduce new horses from Cape Lookout National Seashore as needed to preserve genetic viability.

If you want more information on the legislation or to track and contact your congressman to vote in support of this wild horse saving bill go to Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act.

Additionally, you can help preserve the Corolla Wild Horses, through your funding support to Support Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

You don’t have to live in North Carolina to appreciate the importance of these horses to our national heritage.





  1. A visit to the outer banks doesn’t feel complete if I don’t spot at least one of the horses. I’d heard of the legislation, but hadn’t been following. I will now! Thanks for writing about this.


    1. This is so sad to read, Elaine. These poor, poor creatures. But I am glad that you have written a piece about them to make us aware. Oh, I too saw the movie, Nights in Rodanthe, and the whole experience of watching them seemed almost magical, even on screen!


      1. Virginia: Unfortunately, they were more magical in the movie than in person. Perhaps it was because they could only run so far and some had physical issues. Hopefully the future will be better for those magnificent creatures.


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