Two or three days a week she makes the trek to the island, climbing the dunes quietly and blending into the brush, binoculars always in hand. She’s here to observe, from a distance, of course, so as not to interfere with the natural state of Shackleford Banks – its vegetation, nor its wildlife. Dr. Sue Stuska, a biologist with the National Park Service, has spent the past 12 years monitoring and studying the herd of Banker ponies – their mannerisms, their personalities, their habits.
“Just the fact that they’re so resilient makes them fascinating to watch,” said Stuska. “That’s what makes my job so fun. You find yourself wondering ‘how did they do that?’ To sit there and watch them at a water hole, from a distance, and watch the interaction between them is amazing – and different every day.
“Sometimes there will be a harem with a less dominant stallion and he’ll have mares in a certain heirachy and the lower won’t get to drink because there’s no water left. Then if a stronger stallion comes along, he’s going to take that mare away because she didn’t get to drink.”
“It is a daily soap opera,” she said with a laugh. “That’s so and so … and that is her mom … and she left really early or left late and bounced around these two harems and now she’s with them … or this mare has never settled down – there are endless stories with all of them.
“Right now, for example, Winston has Lassie and Margo, who is technically Troy’s mare, and I’m just waiting to see how this turns out. I took two TV people out a few days ago and luckily there was a little conflict… one stallion came up to another, there was some parallel dancing, some dung sniffing and some prancing. It’s just fascinating stuff, and it’s all right there for us to see, it just takes watching. Just sitting there with binoculars and watching without intruding.”
And that’s a key reason Stuska is interested in taking groups out on arranged field trips – not only for the amazing opportunity to observe, but the chance to raise awareness about the appropriate ways to watch without interacting. Upcoming field trips are planned for June 27, July 11, Sept. 12 and Oct. 10 & 25.
“I don’t know if perhaps people are more apt to make me aware of it now or if there are more people coming out to see the horses, but one of the things we’re becoming more aware of is that people are starting to approach the horses, and in general it just seems that there are more visitors. I know a lot of people are coming out to see the horses as well as pick up shells and enjoy the beach, but any interaction between people and horse, or any wildlife for that matter, it’s ultimately the wildlife that loses.”
“People don’t think about it, they see themselves out there and maybe they don’t see many other people out there, but those ferries are dropping people off every 15 minutes and there is more than one ferry … so every 15 minutes a new batch of people is getting dropped off on the island. People may not think that they’re the problem until you look at it from the horse’s perspective.”
“Watch from a distance. Don’t try to interact because if you do the horse is going to lose either valuable grazing time or you’re going to interfere with their natural wild behavior,” Stuska said. “It’s odd. We preserve these horses because they’re wild – that’s the whole idea – they’re wild horses. If we try to approach them and try to get them used to people being close then we are interfering with that wildness and that’s what other people come to see. There are people who come out to observe and wind up endangering themselves and getting in the way of what other visitors are trying to observe.”
According to National Park Service information, the law protecting the horses requires that people stay back at least 50 feet at all times. At times, the horses may naturally navigate past sunbathing families, but the key is to not react in a way that could hinder the horse’s mission. Don’t step in front of them, don’t try to touch them on the way by and don’t follow them after they pass.
“If the horse moves it’s hard to tell if the horse is moving away because of people or just moving because it’s part of their schedule,” Stuska said. “If the animal has moved because of you, you’re already too close. The idea is to watch them in a way that they don’t move from you.”
And it’s vital, she added, to keep dogs on leashes and away from the horses. Horses see canines as predators and it’s not uncommon for them to protect themselves if they feel threatened. A stallion, she said, will protect his harem or group, and a mare would protect her offspring.
While there are about 150 horses currently on Shackleford Banks, another 32 reside on the Rachel Carson Reserve, which includes Carrot Island. The more public, accessible setting can create a new set of hazards for the horses, Stuska said. The reserve has become a prime area for kayaking and the horses have one main water source.
“People are now winding up in the water hole and not only can that interfere with the horses’ wild nature but it can be dangerous,” Stuska said. “When the horses are at water, they’re terribly, terribly thirsty and people are using that to get way too close. Water is a resource – a fairly scarce resource for the horse – and the more desirable the resource, the more they will escalate their fighting to get it, both with each other and intruders.”
Stuska said that she doesn’t get reports of injuries, but since getting too close to the horses is against the law, she’s not surprised. No one is going to report that they were kicked by a horse when law enforcement would undoubtedly become involved.
“Ultimately, if people get too close, the horse could possibly charge at them. It does happen. And the horse is not the person to blame. They’re prey animals, they’re not predators … they’re not seeking you out, but they will become defensive when they need to.”
With horses on two Carteret County islands and additional herds further up the Outer Banks, stories of how they arrived on the shores have long been discussed and romanticized. Despite research and the years Stuska has spent with animals, she’s hard pressed to pinpoint one story or another.
“I’d love to be able to say some person brought them out on a certain date,” she said. “I would love to be able to say how they got here. But no one really knows for certain. I try very hard not to use the legends and stories because I think they’re already out there. People have already heard them. So what I say is the early explorers had horses, we know that, but whether those horses landed here, lived here actually were on Shackleford or Core Banks, bred here and survived – we don’t know. But it’s possible. The colonists had horses, we know that. They bred horses, but we don’t know that the horses that they bred got to Shackleford, stayed there, lived there, reproduced there … we just don’t know.
“We know that landowners took horses out to the island historically. It was like the town common – free grazing. So people used it for horses,” she added. “And we know that there has been historic overland trade, especially from Virginia down, and those folks would have had horses, used horses. We just don’t know that somebody went out to Diamond City. We don’t know a year, a date. We just don’t.”
What we do know, she said, is that genetics can tell us three things – who their mom and dad were and that it’s also known that within this herd on Shackleford, there is a little bit of genetic information found on a chromosome that links to an old Spanish breed no longer exists. It’s a hint, she said, admitting that she doesn’t know specifically which horse carries the genetic trace.
“They’re all valuable in the herd and I don’t want to know. What’s important is that there is a link to old Spanish,” she said. “Now … that doesn’t mean they came from Spain and it doesn’t mean there was a shipwreck. The tendency is to create that story and that’s not enough evidence to come to that conclusion.”
The third thing genetics tell us, deep within the mitochondrial DNA, is back to the beginning of time and how different populations clustered. The horses on Shackleford Banks “kind of” clustered with the others in European areas, Stuska said, slightly vague and elusive. But again – that’s all that is known, and Stuska, ever the scientist, is quick to keep to the facts and avoid the shipwreck tales that surround the wild horses. She’s just glad they’re there for everyone to observe. And this year, with a foal born in August, the numbers are higher than they’ve been in decades.
Until 2005, the park service annually rounded up the horses to help control herd population with contraceptive shots as well as to remove horses as needed, always keeping the group at 100. The staff now maintains the contraception program without the annual round up.
“Now they’re left entirely on their own,” Stuska said. “We decide which ones we want to take off, then go out with vet, find the horse, give it a sedative and carry it off the island. What’s neat is that it doesn’t disrupt anything else. And that’s the most important thing.”
Usually two to four, sometimes six are removed annually. Most of them are youngsters, the biologist said, and all are available for adoption through the partner organization, the Foundation for Shackleford Horses.
If anyone is thinking about adopting, interested in adopting or just wants to see the horses that are available, they should contact the Foundation at 728-6308 or email@example.com.
Today, the oldest mare on the island is over 30, which means Stuska has known her for the more than 15 years – an ample amount of time for anyone to develop a bond.
“Oh I hope it’s not,” she said. “My hope is that I don’t mean anything to her other than that lady who holds something out in her hands that beeps and sometimes has a flash from the camera. I don’t want them to know me, I want them to be wild. For them to recognize me would mean that we’re not achieving our goal.”
Registration is necessary for the guided tours, which depart from the Beaufort Information Center. Stuska recommends that guests come prepared for wet or muddy ground, with shoes that can get wet and protective clothing. Sunscreen and bug spray are essentials as are plenty of water. Binoculars are a bonus and make it much easier to safely observe the herd from a distance. To learn more, or to sign up, call the park service at 252-728-2250.