FEW VISIONS CONJURE UP THE KIND OF MYSTERY AND ROMANTICISM THAT WILD HORSES DO. THEY
SYMBOLIZE UNBRIDLED FREEDOM AND UNTAMED POSSIBILITIES. THEY TURN THE IDEALIZED NOTION
OF FLAWLESS THOROUGHBREDS ON ITS HEAD, EMBODYING PERSEVERANCE, GRIT, AND ISOLATION.
They’re engrained in the symbolism and
mythology of so many things we love and
admire about our country and our state.
The very idea that there are still places where
wild horses thrive is at its core reassuring and
In an increasingly penned-in, tamed world,
the places inhabited by wild horses are the
places people don’t live — scraps of land-scape,
yellow deserts, and barrier islands rav-aged
Places like Shackleford Banks.
Standing on top of a sand dune overlook-ing
a scrubby island, all I could see were
more sand dunes and more scrub. There
are no houses, no campsites, no roads. No
fences, no power lines. The bars on my cell-phone
all but disappeared.
Shackleford Banks is a slender, 9-mile bar-rier
island on the coast of Carteret County,
North Carolina, bordered to the north by
the Back Sound and to the south by the
Atlantic Ocean. It is part of the 56-mile-long
Cape Lookout National Seashore, and is the
southeastern-most region of the National
Park Service’s managed sites.
After a 20-minute, 3-mile ferry ride
from the small town of Beaufort, across
choppy waters and sea spray with summer
temperatures well into the 90s, a handful
of adventurers landed at the east end of the
Shackleford Banks. A kite-boarder overloaded
with gear was making the trip because the
island provided ideal wind and wave condi-tions.
Others were headed to the pristine
uninhabited beach. Along with my husband
and me, another couple, who had sailed from
Massachusetts to Beaufort, were in search of
the wild horses.
Following hoofprints in the sand and dry
manure droppings, we headed north, in the
opposite direction of everyone else, making
our way up and down the dunes and stop-ping
every few feet to pull menacing prickly
pear thorns from our shoes.
My husband and wild-horse-search com-panion,
using his outdoorsy skill set, told me
the horses would look for shade in the heat
and that we needed to head further inland, as
I argued that we should look along the beach
near the water. “Didn’t you learn anything
growing up in Africa? Wild animals always
head for shade in the middle of the day,” he
The endless dunes, the scorching tempera-ture,
and the suffocating humidity all con-tributed
to the dissent about which direction
we should walk in search of the horses.
WBM october 2018
Clearly, our timing and planning could
have been better. An early morning start
would have avoided the heat. I forgot the
bug spray. The drinks in the backpack were
already lukewarm. I left my hat on the boat.
I definitely wore the wrong shoes. For some-thing
I had envisioned and planned for a
long time, I seemed woefully unprepared.
But I was there for one reason. I had
always wanted to see wild horses.
There are about 199 horses on Shackleford
Banks. Getting to see them potentially meant
trekking for 9 miles, crisscrcrossing the
island. Then suddenly, as we climbed to the
top of another dune, there they were below
us. Just two of them, grazing quietly. One
bourbon-colored mare, the other the color
of liquid honey. They raised their heads just
slightly but took very little notice of us. The
initial irritabilities of the day vanished as we
I came to chase a dream and tell a story of
finding wild horses. I had little knowledge of
the tireless fighting and advocacy of the many
voices that have helped keep Shackleford
intact, from congressional legislation and co-management
to scientific research and fun-draising.
All of it combined enables the wild
horses to roam free among the dunes.