Cumberland Island Horses Facts And Information – Breed Profile

As the name inspires, Cumberland Island Horses are a breed of horses that roam feral and free. They are, by all definitions, unmanaged wild horses indigenous to the Island of Cumberland, in the state of Georgia in the United States of America.

A group that lives in the wild completely, it isn’t provided with food or any treatment of the veterinary variety. The resources of the island are run by the National Park Service or NPS.

Wild Cumberland Island Horses

In an evaluation done in 2009, some 200 wild horses lived on the island. Located in the southeast of Georgia, it is off the tip of Amelia Island. The island is a popular tourist site and these wild horses attract the attention of tourists and researchers alike.

History

This feral horse did not have ancestry that originated on the island of Cumberland. Legend tells many stories of horses imported by explorers from Spain in the era of the 16th century. Historical records show that these horses are the heirs of horses that the British settlers introduced to North America in the 18th century. At this time, several horses began to roam freely and consequently, became free-ranging. Cumberland Island is one of the largest barrier islands in a lengthy chain along the coast of the Atlantic. 

During the 19th century, a number of attempts at domestication of these horses were made. There was a need for animals to control the livestock of local farmers and settlers. An influential plantation owner, Robert Stafford, permitted tourists to purchase horses for their use. Some tourists were even allowed to capture them, in the hope that this would prompt some horse training.

When the Civil War broke out, the horses on Cumberland island were effectively used in the cavalry of soldiers. Unfortunately, when the war was over, many horses were robbed from the island. Inhabitants of the neighboring Jekyll Island used the horses for consumption as meat was scarce. 

From among the range of plantation owners, Thomas Carnegie tried to improve the strain of these horses. He introduced Paso Fino, Arabian and Tennessee Walking horses in a feat of crossbreeding. Among the richest families at the time, the Carnegie family could have tamed these horses with the 200 odd servants they had.

Now, the old Carnegie mansion lies in ruin. Ever since 1981, the Cumberland Island horses undergo constant monitoring. The responsibility of this tracking falls within the purview of the National Park Service. The island of Cumberland is an ecosystem with many a salt marsh and armadillos, deer, wild turkey and notorious feral horses calling it home. 

Characteristics

Wandering with only instinct to guide them, these horses are beautiful and wild. Many of these horses like solitude, and divert from the herd. They are strong and well-built, with long legs and backs. They have a slow gait.

Diet

Like any other horses, these feral horses require large amounts of fresh water and forage. Horses graze in the salt marsh, dune meadows, fields and historic gardens. Here, grass grows as freely as the horses wander.

The herd of horses on the island likely consumes up to 400 tons of grass annually. Horses also thrive on Spanish moss and acorns. Consequently, native foliage disappears and the ecosystem alters, destabilizing dunes and sand banks.

Breeding And Uses

Once domesticated to tend to livestock on the island’s few plantations, these horses were somewhat managed. Records show that some drew carriages. Early attempts at crossbreeding by rich plantation owners yielded no positive outcomes, as procedures were unsystematic.

Nonetheless, since the 1900s, they have adapted to the island on their own, turning wild.

Size

Adult horses weigh in at around 880 pounds (0.4 ton). They stand at 15 hands.

What Breeds Make Up The Cumberland Island Horse?

Studies on the genetics of the Cumberland Island horses by the University of Georgia with the University of Kentucky were done in the 1990s. These showed that the wild horses are closely linked with American Quarter and Tennessee Walking horses, not to mention Paso Finos.

The studies done in 1991 align with historic accounts. Besides these horses, the horses of the island resemble American Mustangs and burrows.

Colors

Of the nearly 200 or so horses, the range of colors is from tan to bay and brown. You can find black and white horses too.

What Do They Look Like?

They have long hooves and are of average size, but look tough and strong. Hooves may look like they have experienced wear and tear from crushed shells and hard rock. No specific markings are seen.

What Are They Used For?

As they live and breathe now, the horses are used as a tourist attraction on the Island of Cumberland. They are accustomed to wilderness and although they may not be averse to humans, they may consider them intruders.

Where Do They Live?

These horse breeds live on Cumberland Island, but were brought to the island and have no native affinity to it. They have adapted to it over many years, dependent on the natural habitat for survival.

How Long Do They Live?

The lifespan of horses on the island may be as short as 9 to 10 years. This is largely due to exposure to parasites, lack of any structured care, age, drought conditions and natural accidents. Suspected encephalitis and West Nile virus could also be possible causes of death.

How Fast Are They?

Most horses walk with a sluggish gait, but can garner a faster walk with the rear legs exceeding the impression of their fore feet.

How Much Do They Cost?

These horses are the only herd of feral horses belonging to the coast off the Atlantic. As such, they aren’t traded for sale.

Are They Good For Beginners?

These are wild horses that tend to bite and kick when humans get too close. As they have been left untrained for years, they are not used to close human contact.

Conclusion / Summary

Commonly nicknamed “Marsh Tacky”, these horses, left to fend for themselves, have done a decent job of it. They are good to look at and have short lifespans owing to the consumption of sand, causing abdominal distention and blockages of the intestinal tract.

As these horses pose a risk to the natural environment of the island due to the bulk of flora they consume, it has been recommended that their numbers be reduced to around 70.