North Carolina's Wild Horses

Beaufort's Wild Horses of the Rachel Carson Reserve (part of the N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve)
     Like the wild Shackleford mustangs, Beaufort's wild horses can only be reached by boat, where they have free run of the main area of Rachel Carson Reserve, made up of Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Bird Shoal and Horse Island. Another part of the reserve called Middle Marshes is not accessible to the horses. The reserve acreage is not suitable for human habitation and has extremely little fresh water, which is mostly ground water the horses find by digging.
     Unlike North Carolina's other three groups of wild horses, the Beaufort horses' lineage is not isolated to the bloodlines of the Colonial Spanish Mustangs, though they carry that historic heritage. These horses are descended from stock kept on these islands in the 1940s by a Beaufort physician. The original herd consisted of "Banker Ponies", like those on Ocracoke, along with some domestic stock - mainly Quarter Horses. Though they are today considered "feral" horses, many of them plainly exhibit the characteristics of the wild Outer Banks horses descended from the spanish mustang stock that first arrived on these barrier islands as far back as the early 1500's. In fact, some of these horses carry the primitive markings of the most ancient of wild horse breeds and types.
     These primitive markings consist of a "dorsal stripe" or spinal stripe, that runs along the spine from ears to tail, and sometimes leg bars as well. The fighting stallion in this photo taken on Town Marsh plainly shows the dark dorsal stripe, as does the horse in the photo immediately to the right.
     The islands of the reserve surround a large estuary, or tidal marsh, where the horses spend much of their time feeding on the grass that grows there in profusion. This tidal marsh is also a great location for many bird species. As was noted, reaching the reserve's sand dune islands requires a boat. Once on the islands, you can hike about to find the horses. However, to boat out into the great expanse of the shallow tidal marsh requires a small, very shallow draft boat, such as a kayak. At high tide, it is possible to kayak across the tidal flats to reach areas like Bird Shoal for close viewing of the birds that frequent this area. With the right tide depth, it's possible to paddle among the wild horses while they feed in the marsh, which is an exceptional experience.
     Such a paddling adventure can be tricky because of the changing tide, winds and currents. Inexperienced paddlers might consider the services of a knowledgeable guide to insure the best experience. However, walking the area to find the horses is a much simpler affair.
     The western end of the reserve, Town Marsh, has two hiking trail loops. Off-trail hiking is an option, as the island is not very large. Although it is virtually impossible to get lost on foot, it's easy to find yourself wandering about with no idea where you are going or how to get back without some knowledge of the area. First time visitors with little hiking experience should learn what they can about the lay of the land before striking out off the trails in order to make the most of their time. Once again, a knowledgeable guide can make the experience more rewarding.
     The abundance of birds and wildlife, along with the wild horses, makes the reserve a popular spot for birdwatching and wildlife photography, not to mention those who come to see the horses.

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