By then, the Spanish mustangs already had made a home on North Carolina’s thin, boomerang-shaped Outer Banks for two centuries, passing down hurricane-survival skills to foals for generations spanning the state’s earliest European settlements.
And now, with Hurricane Dorian targeting the barrier islands, residents and tourists have been advised to evacuate and seek shelter.
But around 200 horses will stay and ride it out, as they have since the 16th century — seeking refuge under towering live oak trees with their “butts to the wind,” the Corolla Wild Horse Fund said.
It’s not their first rodeo, said Meg Puckett, the nonprofit’s herd manager. The wild horses instinctually seek cover in wooded high grounds, standing in tight circles with their butts out like a reverse phalanx.
“After all that time, the herd just knows,” Puckett told The Washington Post by phone on Thursday, as wind hummed in the background, announcing Dorian’s inevitable approach up the coast, before it made landfall at Cape Hatteras on Friday. “That information is passed down from generation to generation.”
Puckett’s group in Corolla, N.C., manages and conserves about 100 feral horses that roam the northern edge of the nearly 200-mile stretch of sand-swept barrier islands, along with an additional 17 that permanently reside in a stable.
The state’s Park Service manages another group of about 100 horses on the southern tip of the island chain, Puckett said, and an additional 50 or so are privately managed.
Puckett stayed behind to care for the stabled horses after stocking up on hay, grain and water. ID tags braided into their manes will help track them should they break free.
The stabled horses have either been injured or habituated to human touch and food, which necessitated their removal from the wild, she said. The horses never leave their care once they enter the stable.
Origin legends for the mustangs have persisted nearly as long as they have found a home on the islands and thrived in the salty marsh.
They are thought to be descendants of horses that swam ashore after the shipwrecks that ringed the Outer Banks with such frequency that the region has been called “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Others believe they were simply abandoned by the Spaniards after various violent clashes with Native Americans and English settlers.
The horses are remarkably resilient in the harsh conditions, where fresh water and vegetation often give way to sand and salt. And they don’t scare like domesticated horses. Facing a hurricane or a threat, they endure. “It says a lot about their resourcefulness and hardiness,” Puckett said. “They have an incredible will to survive.”
That will has been tested by humankind this past century.
An estimated 5,000 wild horses lived on the entire stretch of the Outer Banks in the 1920s, Puckett said, but soon after Works Progress Administration projects sprang up, they were deemed a nuisance and slaughtered in large numbers after bounties were placed on their heads.
Now, development has diminished their habitat, pushing them to the fringes of the barrier islands. And since they are a nonnative species, they don’t meet some criteria for federal endangered-animal protection, CBS News reported.
In 2010, the Spanish mustang became the state horse of North Carolina, even as their future remains far from certain. Conservationists have focused their efforts on genetic diversity to keep mares and foals healthy, Puckett said.
Their loss would be a chip on the cornerstone of U.S. history. Horses linked battlefield communications in the Revolutionary War, churned under cavalrymen in the Civil War and carried frontiersmen on their backs ever westward.
All those horses have wild North Carolina mustang in their blood, Puckett said.
A favorite of hers is Amadeo, a chestnut-colored stallion in his 30s. Amadeo was blinded in a fight in 2013 and swept into a rip current. Rescuers plucked him from the water using Jet Skis and tow ropes. Now, he’s a 650-pound diplomat for conservationists.
“He loves kids,” Puckett said.
She is not concerned over Dorian’s approach. Many hurricanes have come and gone for 500 years, and the horses remain.
If they ever disappear, it’s unlikely that a hurricane will be the culprit.