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Where do Outer Banks wild horses vanish to in winter? An aerial survey found out

An aerial survey done Friday by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund found much of the herd in the interior of Corolla, feeding in a fresh water marsh.
An aerial survey done Friday by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund found much of the herd in the interior of Corolla, feeding in a fresh water marsh. Corolla Wild Horse Fund

North Carolina’s wild horses have been known for decades to vanish from the Outer Banks in the winter, leaving visitors to the barrier islands mystified.

On Friday, a survey located much of the elusive herd in the interior of Corolla, at a spot so remote that the herd managers needed a helicopter to reach it.

“We’re talking about an area thick with brush, standing water, mud and thorns,” said Meg Puckett, herd manager for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

“It’s in the middle of the island and it’s only from the air that we could see the trails to it created by the horses, wild pigs and the other animals. It’s a place you would need a boat to reach.”

It’s also a spot where freshwater marshes keep the grass green all year. The aerial survey crew, including Puckett, found the horses in this oasis, happily grazing in knee-deep water.

In the summer, the herd of nearly 100 horses can find that grass more easily near beaches, along roads and even in the yards of tourist condos.

It’s no surprise to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund that the horses found a fresh water marsh in the middle of the winter, but Puckett says it remains a revelation to see how the horses survive in such rugged terrain.

“Their main goal is to stay alive and they are very good at it, very resourceful,” said Puckett. “They have an institutional knowledge of their habitat, passed down from their parents. And their parents learned it from their parents. They always know where to go for food in winter.”

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund and Coastal Helicopters team up for six aerial surveys a year, in part to get a rough count of the herd population and to see where the horses are migrating. The fund is a nonprofit that manages the herd on Corolla.

It’s believed the herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs came to the Outer Banks nearly 500 years ago, and were likely left behind by the Spanish explorers who evacuated after multiple attacks by Native Americans, according to OuterBanks.com.

The two largest herds today are at Corolla and at the Shackleford Banks, which is cared for by the Foundation for the Shackleford Horses.

Three Shackleford Banks horses, two adults and one colt swam out to a marsh island to graze.

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