Advocates determined to keep horses roaming OBX

Heritage Park kicks off education series
By JENNIFER PREYSS (Staff Writer) | | Friday, November 21, 2008
Photo by Darlene Wells/The Daily Advance

COROLLA — “Strong, powerful, determined to survive.” That’s how Wild Horse Fund Director Karen McCalpin describes the herd of wild horses that have roamed the beaches of northern Currituck County for centuries.

McCalpin delivered a talk earlier this week, “History of Hooves,” at the 100-year-old Corolla schoolhouse, now the home offices of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. McCalpin’s presentation kicked off the Currituck Heritage Park’s Winter Education Series.

A crowd of about 25 listened intently as McCalpin discussed the origins of horses, starting as far back as 75 million years ago with a creature known as Eohippus, or the “dawn horse.”

As horses evolved, McCalpin said man realized he could domesticate the animals and put them to work, rather than hunt them for meat.

But how did a herd of wild horses end up grazing on the Outer Banks?

During 16th century Spanish explorations to the New World, massive ships would bring along horses. Noted explorers such as Pedro de Castañeda and Christopher Columbus, McCalpin said, both documented transporting livestock on their voyages, which included as many as 20 horses at a time.

Historical documents indicate six ships, transporting as many as 100 horses, explored an area in 1526 that is now the modern day Carolinas, McCalpin said. According to the documents, the horses were suspended from ropes, tied to poles on deck, even thrown overboard when the crew needed to lighten boat’s weight. About half the horses perished at sea.

The horses that survived were bred, and eventually led to a surplus of horses on the east coast of what later would become the United States — more than 100,000 in the 17th century, McCalpin said.

Today, the horses are becoming scarce, and McCalpin is out to assist their survival.

Currently the Corolla herd lives on the undeveloped terrain of the northern Corova beaches, protected and cherished by tourists and residents alike.

It isn’t uncommon for residents of the area, like Whalehead Club Director Edna Baden, to see the horses meandering through private property.

“Two things you need to know is that you don’t mess with Corova and you don’t mess with horses,” Baden said.

Corolla’s wild horses are a tremendous revenue generator for tourism in Currituck, but an airtight horse management plan signed in 1997 by the Wild Horse Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, threatens the herd’s survival, McCalpin says.

The plan restricts the herd size to 60, a genetically unhealthy number, according to equine geneticist Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University, who released results of a DNA study he conducted earlier this year.

Cothran’s study determined that over time, the horses have become inbred, and they are currently at risk for developing a variety of illnesses. Cothran recommended increasing the herd from 120 horses to 150, saying it would allow for more genetic variability and a healthier herd.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not agreed to any changes in the 1997 agreement. The agency has agreed, however, to discuss a language change allowing several horses from Corolla to be exchanged for several from the Shackleford Banks herd. The Shackleford horses share the same genetic makeup and diet as the Corolla herd.

McCalpin hopes to use programs like History on Hooves to give the Corolla horses a voice.

“I feel more hopeful than ever that we will (eventually) have a genetically healthy herd,” she said. “The day will come when the (herd) can’t roam wild and free, but that day isn’t today.”

Corolla residents seem appreciative of the Wild Horse Fund’s efforts.

“I’ve lived here for two years and I have a real love for the horses, and I wanted to learn more about them,” said Carol Straley, who attended the program.

Article: Daily Advance: Advocates determined to keep horses roaming OBX

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