The Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Wild Shackleford Horse in front of boatThank you for your interest in seeking more information on finding the wild banker horses of Shackleford with our most popular and exclusive excursion, BWB Repeat - Boat, Walk, Beach...Repeat.

H2O Captain takes you to a place where the Ferries do not go! H2O Captain goes to the middle of Shackleford Banks. H2O Captain is an authorized permittee to take you via boat to the island as well as authorized to operate a land tour looking for Shackleford’s wild horses and for great shelling opportunities!

Shackleford Banks is one of the barrier islands comprising Cape Lookout National Seashore. This island is unique within the park as having the only expanse of maritime forest (defined as live oak trees more than 15 feet in height) which provides some shelter for the wild horses, and being the only island with an east-to-west orientation. The island is approximately 9 miles long and ranges from less than ½ mile to almost 2 miles in width (including marsh islands).

The Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses 2021 Report.


Questions that passengers often ask Captain Mark:

Where did the wild horses come from?
The legends about horses swimming ashore from sinking ships are not proven. There were shipwrecks along the coast and the horses are recognized as Colonial Spanish.
• Early European explorers brought horses and colonists/settlers bred horses.
• Overland traders and colonists moved south through the area and met Chickasaw Indians on horses.
• Two recorded events link horses to our barrier islands: Sir Richard Grenville landing June 21-26, 1585; and DeAyllon landing on Cape Feare in the 1520s. Historic Department of the Interior maps show Cape Lookout had been called Cape Feare.

Wild Shackleford Horses by the oceanHow long have the wild horses been on Shackleford Banks?
For over 4 centuries, long enough to adapt to the challenging environment.

How many wild horses are on Shackleford Banks?
The population is managed between 110 and 130 horses.

Do they need freshwater or have they evolved to drink saltwater?
• Just like us humans the wild horses of Shackleford Banks do not drink brackish or saltwater, they require fresh water!
• Freshwater is found under barrier islands in wide, deep lenses that fill ponds, lenses which fill surface pools, seeps, and digs.
• HINT, if it looks like the horses are drinking saltwater, they are probably either eating grasses that grow under the saltwater or sipping fresh water off the top of quiet saltwater. If it is low tide at Shackleford, Captain Mark can take you to a secret place within a short hike where a herd goes to drink!

What do the wild horses of Shackleford eat?
What do the wild horses on Shackleford Banks eat?Results of plant selection and consumption are shown to the right. In the fall, sea oats, centipede grass, and smooth cordgrass made up 78% of the horse’s diet. In the winter, centipede grass consumption increased slightly, consumption of sea oats decreased by half, consumption of smooth cordgrass decreased by two-thirds, while the overall variety of plants consumed increased. The increased variety consumed in winter could be due to decreased growth and/or palatability among the plants chosen in other seasons.

In the spring, centipede consumption dropped by three-quarters in favor of increased sea oats, smooth cordgrass, and pennywort. In the summer, sea oats, centipede, and smooth cordgrass made up 64.3% of the horse’s diet with other plants making up the difference. Saltmeadow cordgrass consumption was fairly consistent across the four seasons.

Pennywort is a significant component (10%) of the diet in the spring; winter consumption is about half of spring consumption, while summer and fall consumption is very low. Interestingly, glasswort is eaten along with alterniflora, but at a low percentage and only in winter and spring.

Smooth cordgrass had the highest nutrient density with respect to digestible energy, crude protein, and calcium for all four seasons.

Please note: Supplemental feeding is not necessary and can be dangerous to the horses.

The photo below:  Captain Mark asked the National Park Service's Wildlife Biologist Sue Stuska to go on a fact-finding trip to Shackleford Banks Whale Creek area.  Biologist Stuska brought two VIPs along.  The video above also features Ms. Stuska.

Sue Stuska National Park Service Wildlife BiologistWhat happens to the wild horses during hurricanes?
• The wild horses take care of themselves as they have been doing for centuries.
• After hurricanes, the wild horses are checked. Sometimes it takes as long as 2 months to find all the wild horse herd members on Shackleford Banks.

Are they ponies or horses?
• They are small and powerful horses. When fully grown, they range in height from 11 to 13 hands (a hand = 4”).
• They are genetically closer to the other Atlantic coast wild horses in the Outer Banks than to domestic breeds such as Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds.

Best of all to watch these horses in the wild is both a blessing and a gift. Although there is never a guarantee that we will see them, Captain Mark will take you on two different trails spanning the width of Shackleford Banks for a greater opportunity.