From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial to Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the site of the Lost Colony, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are brimming with attractions and activities for everyone in the family to enjoy—and when it comes to area wildlife you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to witness unique species in their natural habitat. While most people planning a vacation on the Outer Banks are familiar with the wild horses of Corolla, far fewer are aware of another herd of ponies that have called the barrier islands home for centuries: the wild horses of Ocracoke Island.
Situated to the south of nearby Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island spans just 16 miles of land from one end to other, and ranges from three miles wide in some spots to only a half-mile wide in others. Because the narrow spit of sand is only accessible by air or water, Ocracoke Island has retained a laidback island vibe and experienced minimal development over the past several decades, making it a prime vacation destination for those in search of a relaxing Outer Banks vacation off the beaten path and away from many tourist attractions that dot the northern beaches from Corolla to South Nags Head. But if there’s one thing everyone traveling to Ocracoke Island should put on their to-do list, it’s taking a trip to the Ocracoke wild pony pen to check out the island’s most famous residents.
Following a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Village to the port at the northern tip of Ocracoke Island, visitors who travel south along N.C. Highway 12 toward Ocracoke Village will discover a small paved parking area on the west side of the road. Upon pulling in to park, you’ll spot a wooden fence that sections off a 188-acre plot of land that extends along the soundside of the island and serves as the home of Ocracoke’s herd of wild horses whose story dates back several centuries. Although the herd that once freely roamed the island consisted of as many as 300 horses, the Ocracoke pony pen currently contains only 16 horses, the youngest of which is a female named Hazelnut who was born in February 2015.
Just like their neighbors to the north—the wild horses of Corolla—the wild horses that call Ocracoke Island home are the direct descendants of Spanish mustangs who swam to shore when the ships upon which they were traveling ran aground while attempting to navigate the shifting shoals that make up the infamous Graveyard of the Atlantic. Beginning in the 1500s, European explorers started to set sail across the Atlantic Ocean with their sights set upon North America, where they eventually landed and established colonies within what is frequently referred to as the “New World.” Before the explorers embarked on their long and arduous journey from Europe to the present-day United States, they loaded their vessels with an abundance of supplies ranging from food and clothing to a variety of livestock—including, in many cases, domesticated Spanish mustangs.
As the ships neared the coast of the Outer Banks, however, they encountered the dangerous Diamond Shoals—a series of underwater sandbars that begin near Cape Hatteras and extend outward from the shoreline for several miles in different directions depending upon the currents. Frequently hidden well beneath the waves and constantly shifting into new formations of varying sizes and depths as the currents flowed around them, the Diamond Shoals posed a considerable threat to sailors, who often didn’t know the treacherous sandbars sat in their path until their ships crashed right into them, causing them to run aground and remain stuck—or to take on water and slowly sink to the seafloor. An extreme challenge to spot from the surface of the water and virtually impossible to navigate, the Diamond Shoals were responsible for approximately 600 shipwrecks along the coastline of the Outer Banks, earning the region its nickname of “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Desperate to lighten their loads enough to free a ship that had become stuck on one of the sandbars in shallow water, sailors frequently tossed unnecessary and heavy supplies overboard. According to the Ocracoke Current, the herd of wild ponies that occupies Ocracoke Island are believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs unloaded onto the beach by Sir Richard Grenville, the captain of an English ship called Tiger, when the vessel ran aground near Ocracoke Island in 1585 during Grenville’s voyage in search of the missing settlers of the Lost Colony who had just mysteriously vanished from nearby Roanoke Island. Although this theory has never officially been proven, historic documentation indicates that the wild ponies of Ocracoke were definitely present on the island as far back as the 1730s, and in the years since they have played an integral role in the lives of many residents and visitors.
As the population of Ocracoke Island slowly grew, its residents began to see an array of opportunities in which they could use the herd of wild horses that roamed the area beaches and salt marshes to their advantage. After capturing and taming some of the horses within the 300-member herd, the Outer Bankers living on Ocracoke Island put them to work pulling carts that were loaded with heavy cargo and supplies that were otherwise difficult to transport from one location to another. The wild ponies of Ocracoke Island continued to be used for the residents’ benefits in the centuries that followed, with the men who served in the United States Life-Saving Service riding the horses during routine beach patrols and using them to pull heavy equipment to and from the site of shipwrecks in the late 1800s. This trend continued in the 20th century, when the United States Coast Guard rode domesticated members of the Ocracoke pony herd as they conducted beach patrols in search of the German U-boats that patrolled the waters just offshore from the Outer Banks during World War II.
In the 1950s, the wild ponies of Ocracoke were cared for by the Ocracoke Boy Scouts, who earned the distinction of being the only mounted troop in the United States. In 1957, N.C. Highway 12 was paved, resulting in a dramatic increase in the numbers of vehicles traveling along the island—and ultimately leading to ponies being accidentally injured or killed. When it became evident that the ponies’ presence was contributing to an increase in traffic accidents on the island and causing issues related to over-grazing, a law was passed in 1959 that required the ponies to be permanently penned for their own safety as well as that of the island’s residents and visitors. The nearly 200-acre soundside pen in which the herd of horses is free to roam was constructed that same year by the National Park Service, who has been in charge of caring for the ponies since the 1960s.
Today, visitors can stop by the pony pen to see the 16 horses that comprise Ocracoke’s herd of wild ponies up close and personal. Although the herd is free to roam the soundside beach and the salt marsh that sits within the confines of their protective pen, the ponies often spend time around the stable and paddock, making it easy for them to be spotted from the parking area along the fenced enclosure. An elevating viewing platform and pathway alongside the pasture offer additional opportunities to view the wild horses, and the National Park Service offers a variety of programs at the pony pen to teach visitors all about the herd of Spanish mustangs who have called Ocracoke Island home since their ancestors first swam ashore from shipwrecked vessels several centuries ago.