In the northernmost corner of the Outer Banks, a narrow stretch of sand between sound and sea called “Carova” is home to a herd of wild horses who freely roam the region’s beaches. An unincorporated community situated to the north of the village of Corolla and just south of the Virginia line, Carova’s name comes from its unique location on the border of two states: “Caro” for Carolina and “Va” for Virginia.
Although the community contains hundreds of Outer Banks vacation rental homes that require guests to use four-wheel drive in order to gain access, many visitors to this barrier island paradise are unfamiliar with this one-of-a-kind spot that has served as a sanctuary for Currituck County’s wild horses for centuries.
The origins of these majestic Spanish mustangs can be traced back nearly 500 years to the days when pirates patrolled the coastline of the Outer Banks and shipwrecks within the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic were common. Many theories attempt to explain how exactly these mysterious colonial Spanish mustangs ultimately ended up on the sandy shoreline of the northern Outer Banks, the most popular of which claims they swam to shore from vessels that became shipwrecked in the shallow waters of the sea.
The Diamond Shoals—a constantly shifting collection of sandbars that lie along the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks from Carova to Cape Hatteras—lie hidden on the seafloor and have been blamed for hundreds of shipwrecks for hundreds of years. While modern technology has made it much easier for vessels to navigate the moving sandbars and avoid running aground, in centuries past many mariners found themselves shipwrecked when their ships encountered an unseen stretch of sand beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
With the expansion of English colonization that occurred in the late 1500s came a trade boom that resulted in an increased demand for products to be shipped from ports in the West Indies to Europe and the United States. While the most common forms of cargo found on ships that traversed the seven seas ranged from rum and molasses to sugar and spices, livestock—including Spanish mustangs—were also frequently transported on the trans-Atlantic trips.
According to local legend and historic accounts of some of the island’s earliest settlers, ships sailed by European explorers often encountered issues navigating the Outer Banks, and the Spanish mustangs onboard were forced to swim the short distance to shore in an attempt to save their own lives when shipwrecks occurred. Foraging among the sand dunes and salt marshes of this desolate island habitat, the horses fought hard for survival and consumed a diet of native vegetation, such as sea oats, acorns and grasses. Able to sustain their lives in one of the harshest environments of the Outer Banks, the hardy herd of horses continued to breed as the years passed, and their descendants still roam the beaches and neighboring maritime forests and marshes to this day.
While the herd was once able to freely roam a much larger area, development and the paving of N.C. 12 from Duck to Corolla posed a potential threat to the wild horses, and they were eventually moved farther north to their current location—an area comprising more than 7,500 acres of both privately and publicly owned land—in 1995 to protect them from any harm. Research conducted by National Geographic states that as many as 6,000 wild horses resided on the Outer Banks as recently as 1926. Today, however, the number of horses in the herd is only around 110.
In an effort to protect the remainder of the wild horse herd that claimed the Outer Banks as its home more than five centuries ago, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund was established, and its team of employees and dedicated volunteers work tirelessly to educate visitors and locals alike about these creatures that earned the title of “State Horse of North Carolina” in 2010. Encountering the Spanish mustangs up close and personal is an incredible experience, and several companies located in the village of Corolla offer wild horse tours that allow visitors to view the Spanish mustangs in their natural environment—an experience that should not be missed on your next visit to the Outer Banks of North Carolina!