The wild horses of the Outer Banks

By: Jason Frye

June 12, 2015

Wild horses of the Outer Banks

Along the coast of North Carolina, a long, thin stretch of barrier islands called the Outer Banks are home to turquoise waters and envy-inducing beaches, a few intrepid full-time residents, and three herds of wild horses known as Banker Ponies. In Currituck, to the north; on Ocracoke Island; and along the Shackelford Banks where the Outer Banks meets the Crystal Coast, the descendants of Spanish Mustangs roam free among the dunes and maritime forests. See the wild horses of the Outer Banks for yourself on your next trip to North Carolina.

Wild horses of the Outer Banks
Wild horses are a common sight in Currituck, at times grazing near island homes © Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

Stories vary on how the wild horses came to call North Carolina’s coast home, but considering this stretch of coastline is known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” it’s no wonder they each involve a shipwreck. In one story, Spanish ships ran aground on one of the hidden shoals and only the horses survived. In another story, a Spanish colony failed and retreated to Spain, leaving behind a few horses. The last story credits the wild horses to an English shipwreck near Ocracoke Island. However they got here, the Banker Ponies have called the Outer Banks home for 400 years.

Wild horses of the Outer Banks
Seeing Banker Ponies at the beach is a strange but alluring sight © Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

Today, you can take tours to see the two largest herds, the horses in Currituck, on the northern end of the Outer Banks, and the herd on the Shackelford Banks at the southern end of the Outer Banks and along the Crystal Coast. A smaller herd calls Ocracoke Island, located centrally between the other herds, home.

Wild horses of the Outer Banks
Banker Ponies live their lives in the dunes, maritime forests, shores, and sounds of the Outer Banks and Crystal Coast © Crystal Coast Tourism Authority

In Currituck, four and a half hours east of Raleigh, stay in a beach house in Corolla or at The Inn at Corolla Light, and take an off-road tour with the Corolla Wild Horse Fund to see the Banker Ponies with experts and caretakers of the herd. When you’ve had your fill, it’s time for a seafood dinner at The Oceanfront Grille or North Banks Restaurant & Raw Bar.

Wild horses of the Outer Banks
A pair of Banker Ponies in the dunes on the Outer Banks © Currituck County Department of Travel and Tourism

On Ocracoke Island, four hours and a ferry ride east of Raleigh, you’ll spot the herd right outside of the only town on the island. Get a bite to eat at Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar, and then rest your head at The Castle B&B.


Seeing the Shackelford Herd is as easy as heading to Beaufort on the Crystal Coast, three hours southeast of Raleigh. Here, stay in a Bed and Breakfast in Beaufort’s historic district (where the dreaded pirate Blackbeard had a home) and get ready to see the wild horses of the Outer Banks via boat with the Shackelford Wild Horse Safari. After a day on the water, dinner at Beaufort Grocery or Clawson’s 1905 offers the perfect finale to a fascinating day.

Wild horses of the Outer Banks
A trio of horses from the Shackelford Banks herd of wild horses graze in the shadow of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina © Crystal Coast Tourism Authority

Virgin Atlantic and Delta operate daily flights to Raleigh and Durham, bringing North Carolina‘s wild horses within easy reach.


Header Image: Banker Ponies will swim from island to island, or cross the sounds to visit the mainland © Crystal Coast Tourism Authority


Have you visited the wild horses of the Outer Banks? Tell us about it in the comments section below.


Written by Jason Frye


Jason Frye

Driven by his need to know what's around the next turn, Jason Frye became a travel and food writer. He is the author of two travel guides - Moon North Carolina Handbook (2014) and Moon North Carolina Coast Handbook (2014) - and is a food blogger, columnist, and frequent contributor to publications across the Southeastern United States. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lauren.

Categories: Our Places