Banker Horses, also known as Colonial Spanish Mustangs, can be seen roaming throughout the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These feral horses are as beautiful as they are mysterious. Believed by some to be descended from fearless horses who survived shipwrecks, Bankers hold an important place in the history of North Carolina.
These feral wonders draw in tourists from all over the world. Visitors to North Carolina’s Outer Banks can go on guided tours, via Jeep or Ferry, to see Banker Horses roaming the sandy dunes and salty marshes.
The first herd of Colonial Spanish Mustangs was said to have arrived in North Carolina sometime in the 16th or 17th century.
Some people believe that famous explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, brought over Spanish Horses to the islands with an intention to breed them for settler colonies. However, some believe in more exciting origins stories.
A popular theory is that these feral horses swam to shore from shipwrecked boats. Another is that they were abandoned on the islands when ships needed to shed extra weight.
Whatever the truth may be, one thing is certain: Banker Horses were able to survive and thrive on the North Carolina islands.
In their early years on the island, some of the horses were used by residents to pull carts and travel around the land.
Later, the United States government called on Banker Horses to assist in hauling equipment across the island. Soon after that, it was the Coast Guard who used them for mounted patrols of the beaches during World War II.
The Banker Horse is a cherished part of North Carolina’s history, which is why they declared the breed their state horse.
Today, you can still find Banker Horses throughout Carolina’s Outer Banks. The Shackleford Banks to the south, and Corolla to the north, have the largest herds of feral Banker Horses. Smaller herds can be found in confined pens on Ocracoke Island, to protect them from roaming onto busy highways, and on the Rachel Carson Site.
Banker Horses on the island have been under the protection of the National Park Service since the 1960s. In 1997, Banker Horses of Shackleford were put under federal protection by the Shackleford Act.
Although they are wild horses, Bankers are still known for their calm and even disposition. This made them ideal for use in the day-to-day life of early settlers, and later by Federal organizations. They are a horse breed that would be suitable for trail and pleasure riding.
Banker Ponies are on the smaller side. Because of their tinier size, they are sometimes referred to as Banker Ponies.
These “ponies” may be cute, but they are still untamed and should be respected. Local authorities encourage tourists to take pictures of horses in the wild but never get close enough to feed them.
These horses are known as “easy keepers,” meaning that they can survive on very little food. This has no doubt helped them to survive on the nearly uninhabitable marshes of the outer banks.
The diet of a Banker Horse consists of grazing on marsh grasses. Banker Horses who roam in populated areas may also snack on the lawns and plants in the neighborhood.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks are surrounded by salt water, which the horses cannot drink in large amounts. To survive, Banker Horses dig shallow holes in the sand to uncover fresh groundwater.
It is possible that this limited diet may play a role in the breed’s smaller size.
Breeding And Uses
These horses are said to be descended from Spanish Horses. They are feral horses who, throughout their history, have also bred in the wild.
However, because Colonial Spanish Mustangs are a threatened wild species, their breeding is closely monitored and sometimes controlled by the National Park Service (NPS).
Members of the National Park Service brand the feral horses to keep track of the population. This is important because it keeps the horse population from growing too large. Because of the small area of the barrier islands, a larger population would quickly lead to overgrazing and starvation, which had occurred in the past.
To prevent overpopulation, NPS members administer birth control shots to some of the mares in every herd.
From time to time, the NPS will also move horses to different herds to prevent any inbreeding.
In the past, Banker Horses were used more regularly for mounted patrols and the hauling of equipment throughout the island. The Ocracoke Boy Scouts used the horses in the 1950s and were known as the only mounted troop at that time.
Today, Banker Horses are a mostly feral breed, serving mainly as a tourist attraction to the island. A smaller number of horses are used for pleasure rides and hauling tasks, but not many.
Banker Horses are known for their smaller size, which is why they are sometimes referred to as “Banker Ponies” even into adulthood.
They stand between 13.0 and 14.3 hands high. They can weigh between 800 to 1,000 pounds.
What Breeds Make Up The Banker Horse?
The Banker Horse belongs to a group of horses called Colonial Spanish Horses. These horses came to the America’s alongside European explorers during the 16th and 17th centuries. Since then, it is possible that other breeds of horses may have washed ashore on the island and bred with the Spanish Horses. One possibility is that English horses may have been part of the island’s breeds as well.
What is known is that, due to the isolation of island life, the lineage of these horses has remained consistent for quite some time.
These horses can come in a wide range of colors. The most common colors found in Banker Horse herds are:
What Do They Look Like?
Banker Horses are on the smaller size of horse breeds, especially when compared to domesticated breeds.
They have wide foreheads and narrower chests. Though narrow, their chests are also deep. From the side, a Banker Horses profile may be either straight or mildly convex.
The cannon bones of their legs are oval-shaped. Banker Horses have a long gait and are capable of ambling and pacing.
Their back is short with a low-set tail.
Physically, what may set them apart the most from other horses is their rib cage. Banker Horses have a smaller number of ribs and vertebrae than other horse breeds.
What Are They Used For?
Banker Horses that have been adopted by residents are most often used for pleasure rides or pulling carts and wagons.
Though no longer used for mounted patrols, banker horses’ past service is a part of what makes this horse so well-loved by the people of North Carolina.
Where Do They Live?
As their name suggests, Banker Horses live in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
A number of private organizations have been established to protect and support these beautiful, wild animals. They are:
- Outer Banks Forever
- The Foundation for Shackleford Horses
- The Corolla Wild Horse Fund
Through the Outer Banks Forever organization, you can support the horses by “adopting” a pony and receive a picture of the horse or herd that you help fund.
How Long Do They Live?
The average life expectancy of a Banker Horse is around 30 years.
They are isolated from other horses and are known to be a hardy breed.
The greatest threat to the Banker Horses of North Carolina are the humans with whom they share their land with.
Tourists leaving trash behind can unknowingly injure horses who eat the scraps that they find. Injury and death by vehicles on the island also pose a risk to these beautiful creatures. This is why Banker Horses who live in areas populated by people are contained within pens.
Some of these horses have been found to be carriers of Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) while showing no symptoms. EIA can cause fever, swelling, anemia, and weight loss in horses. Asymptomatic horses with EIA have been studied by the Foundation of Shackleford Horses to work toward finding a cure for this equine disease.
How Fast Are They?
Banker Horses are feral horses who have not been bred with their speed in mind. They are on the smaller side and a mix of different breeds.
It is thought that they are closely related to Spanish mustangs, which can run an average of 25 to 30 miles an hour.
How Much Do They Cost?
Banker Horses are protected by the National Park Service and can not be purchased by individuals. If you would like to help protect and support these horses, consider donating to an organization that helps care for them!
Are They Good For Beginners?
Banker Horses may be feral, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t gentle! In fact, adopted Bankers are sometimes used for riding by children.
This is a horse that is easy to train and could be considered a people pleaser. They are friendly and curious. Trained Banker Horses would be a good choice for a beginner rider.
Conclusion / Summary
Banker Horses are beloved by the people of North Carolina, and for good reason! Bankers are wild, yet gentle. They are small, yet hardy. They are living, breathing pieces of history.
The feral Bankers of the Outer Banks are a breed of horse that is protected by the National Park Service. Seeing these beautiful animals running free through the marshes may be all the excuse you need to go visit North Carolina!