By Whitney Salazar-Gutierrez

Once when I was small, there was a festival at my elementary school. My favorite part that I remember was riding a pony. Ever since that day, I have been interested in horses. 

I have something in common with Meg Puckett. She’s the herd manager of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. 

“Very first time I ever really saw horses in my life was one of the wild horses in Corolla,” Puckett told me. “It made such an impression on me that my parents took me somewhere to learn how to ride a horse and I ended up with a horse of my own. 

“So I’ve had horses my whole life, and it’s all because of the Corolla horses.”

Corolla horses are wild horses that live on the Outer Banks, near the town of Corolla. These wild horses are descendants of Spanish horses that arrived in America in the 1500s. Some of those horses came from shipwrecks and some were left by the Spanish. Scientists have tested the horses and found that each of these horses’ DNA is 80 percent Spanish.

Corolla horses like to graze on grass and walk where they can. Their stomachs have a lot of acid and they have to eat a lot of grass. 

“Horses are, like, biologically made to graze pretty much 24/7,” Puckett said. “That’s how their bodies are made.”

She also said that these horses are seasonal eaters, they eat whatever they can find, summer, fall, winter and spring.

But their diets, and the rest of their lives, are being affected by climate change. One of the issues affecting the horses is water. Right now, their water is pretty good, but Puckett said that’s changing.

“There’s been a couple … horses that have died in the last few years from waterborne illnesses and that also goes back to the human impact too. Because the more people you have, the more people you have flushing toilets and the more wastewater you have going down into septic systems, and that pollutes the water,” she said. 

Puckett also said that the weather is getting warmer from climate change. So that’s also affecting the animals’ health. If you don’t have a good freeze every year, bad stuff grows in the water and can affect the horses.

“One example is we have a horse, he lives at the farm now because he had to be rescued,” Puckett said. “He went to the veterinary hospital at North Carolina State, he was there for six weeks and he had a fungal infection. It’s called pythiosis. And we never used to see it up here, it was kind of common down in like more tropical areas, places like Florida and Texas, Louisiana, like the Gulf Coast, never used to see it up here.

Image from the 1970 book, Coast watch, published by the UNC Sea Grant College Program. An excerpt appearing near this photo: “One of the first mentions of horses is by Capt. Samuel Stephens, who claimed Roanoke Island for his livestock in 1663. Before then, more cows, sheep, horses, goats and pigs roamed the northern Outer Banks than people. Settlers used the islands to corral their stock, taking advantage of the sound and sea’s natural boundaries and ample vegetation. From the 1660s to the 1930s, the Outer Banks was cattle country. In 1934, the N.C. General Assembly outlawed open grazing, and the taste of the Wild West in the East faded. But the horses remained free and feral. Because it is believed these horses were once domesticated, we call them feral, not wild.”

“Now all of us, not all of a sudden, but in the last couple years, we’ve had a couple cases of it.”  

These horses are affected by human development in the Outer Banks in other ways, too. Because they already have a limited amount of space compared to several years ago. Each house is built with less land for them.

“It’s not just houses being built, it’s the number of people,” Puckett said. “We have had record breaking visitation the last couple years. And because of that, things that we never really thought about before, but like garbage.”

These animals have been wild for years and it is in their best interest to stay wild, Puckett said. Even just giving them an apple could kill them because they can choke on them. 

Besides, if you feed them they might lose their ability to find food themselves. 

“You know, I always tell people that, you know, if a horse walks up to you for an apple and you give it an apple, you’re probably the 30th person that day that’s fed that horse an apple right you know?” she said. 

“Our actions, our single actions, can be life or death, so I think it’s important for people to remember that.”

If the animals are used to eating apples and carrots and they come up to a person with the hope of being fed and if you don’t have an apple then they might become aggressive. So that’s why tourists and locals should not feed these wild horses because you could kill them.

Corolla horses are an endangered species. Right now, there are 100 horses but Puckett says that there should at least be 110 horses to keep the herd healthy. They are special because they are the history of North Carolina, the United States, and even the world.

This story was supported by the North Carolina Sea Grant through the Community Collaborative Research Program and with a huge assist from Aranzazu Lascurain, assistant university director of the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at N.C. State University. NC Health News founder and editor Rose Hoban, NC Health News reporter Anne Blythe and Sarah Sloan, media producer at Narrative Arts, worked with a half dozen students to help them develop these podcasts and essays.

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