History on Hooves
By Meg Puckett
When I was a little girl I would spend hours daydreaming about what it would be like to have my own beach pony. A fearless, salty little thing I could spend hours riding across the dunes and through the breakers, who would live half-wild on the island and be my best friend.
Somehow, 30 years later, that’s pretty close to the life I’m living, and I often have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not still a daydreaming 10-year-old. Every day that I spend as the herd manager for the nonprofit Corolla Wild Horse Fund is a dream come true, but last year in particular, history did what my college professors always said it would do – it became cyclical, and my childhood thundered back to me in the form of eight special mares.
In the spring of 2017 the Corolla Wild Horse Fund received a call from Jerry Wright. Not unusual, seeing as how the Wright family has been connected to the horses in one way or another since before the fund was started. Jerry said that he needed to talk to us about the horses on Dews Island, a piece of property that sits in the Currituck Sound behind the Wright’s family farm in Jarvisburg.
I knew vaguely about the horses; mostly just that they existed and had been somewhat cared for by the fund and the Wright family since the 1990s. But like a lot of local history, the details were shrouded in the same kind of heavy fog that hangs low over the soybean fields on early fall mornings. You can make out shapes and shadows, but it’s only because you’re already familiar with the landscape that you know there’s a tree in the middle of the field, or a sharp curve in the road just ahead. I knew there was an island, and I knew there were Corolla horses on the island, but I’d never learned how or why the horses ended up there in the first place.
Dews Island is accessible only by driving across the Wright’s property, and then crossing a narrow footbridge. Even through several changes of ownership, the Wrights have always had a stake in the place, and the family has been caretakers of the land for several generations. There’s a historic hunting lodge there, but most of the property is undeveloped marshland. It’s well preserved and pristine, and stepping foot onto Dews Island really does feel like stepping back in time. Not much has changed there in the past 150 years, but there was one big change in the late ‘90s – the addition of a small band of wild Banker ponies.
Between 1985 and 1996, 20 wild horses were hit by vehicles on Route 12 between Duck and Corolla, leaving only about 20 horses in that 17-mile stretch between the villages. The horses were an integral part of the Corolla community, and not just because they were a draw for visitors. Individuals within the herd were well known, and people still talk about certain characters today. Little Red Man, the bright chestnut stallion who raided vegetable stands. M&M, a stallion whose fiery image is memorialized on the Corolla Wild Horse Fund’s logo. Star, the magnificent black stallion that was tragically killed by a vehicle.
It was Star’s death that really brought the plight of the wild horses to the public eye. By 1997, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund had formed, and a sound-to-sea fence was installed at the end of the paved road. The 20 or so horses left in Corolla were rounded up and herded north of the fence.
But the problem wasn’t quite solved. The stubborn streak that gives the Banker horses their incredible will to live also makes them unlikely to do anything that comes unnaturally to them. It was Little Red Man in particular who saw the fence as merely a suggestion, and anyone who knew Little Red Man will tell you that the stallion had a mind of his own and an attitude to match his fiery, copper colored coat.
The Banker ponies’ parents and their grandparents and generations on back for centuries had spent the seasons grazing widely. Fences had always been something to go over, around, through, or under, so why was that fence any different? Little Red Man took his mares south, and they easily made their way back into Corolla. Volunteers herded them back, but the horses only stayed on the “right” side of the fence for short periods of time. Little Red Man and his girls always seemed to make it back to Corolla, where they charmed visitors out of their groceries and played dangerous games of chicken with nighttime traffic.
Little Red Man and his harem had to be removed from Corolla for their own safety. But where to put them?
Islands have been used to contain livestock for hundreds of years. Up and down the East Coast you’ll find spits of land with names like Hog Island, Horse Island, and even Monkey Island (although it’s doubtful monkeys were ever kept there). Luckily, the fund was well connected with someone who had an island and loved the horses – Jerry Wright. Wright family lore maintains that the first Wright arrived in northeastern North Carolina via a shipwreck off Duck. It seemed only fitting that the little band of Banker horses would end up with humans bearing a similar story about how their ancestors arrived on the Outer Banks.
In July of 1999, Little Red Man, two mares, and a foal were moved from the crowds of Corolla to the safety of Dews Island. The Wrights welcomed the horses like family members, because, in a sense, they were.
The Corolla Wild Horse Fund continued its partnership with the Wrights and moved a couple more horses to Dews Island over the years. There was one memorable mare named Swimmer, who wouldn’t stay on the island and was later taken to a farm on the mainland and domesticated. Another was called Chaos, who produced at least two more horses, both called Daughter of Chaos. Little Red Man kept an eye on all of them until his death in 2008. After that there were only mares left on the island.
Last spring, after Jerry called, we went to meet him on his family’s property. He told us stories about the Banker ponies he’d grown up with, and when he talked about Little Red Man his eyes got bright. Jerry told us the stallion was mean as a snake, but the prettiest horse you ever laid eyes on. And fast. By all accounts, as much of a stinker as that animal was, he was very much beloved.
After driving us over the footbridge on his golf cart and showing us both the property and the horses, Jerry told us that the island’s majority landowners had decided that they wanted the horses removed. During duck season they spread corn around the island to attract waterfowl, and the horses (understandably) disrupted that. The mares had also become quite aggressive towards dogs.
We tried to come up with a way to leave the mares on the island without interfering with hunting season, but in the end there just wasn’t a good solution. The Wrights hated to see them go, as did their long-time caretaker, Billy Beasley, but the fund was at least able to ensure that the horses would have a safe, permanent home at our rescue farm in Grandy.
The rescue farm usually houses horses that are removed from the wild due to extreme illness or injury. Those horses are sometimes adopted out, but any Corolla horse has a life-long home with the fund if needed. The Dews Island mares presented some new challenges however, one of which was the fact that we were bringing eight wild horses in at once. They were also eight horses that had never really been handled, a few that were in their 20s, and all of them had developed some bad habits over the years. And even more immediately daunting: How were we going to get them safely off the island when we couldn’t drive a truck and trailer over the footbridge?
The fund’s trainer, Nora Tarpley, and I spent time on Dews Island with Billy as we got to know the horses and developed a game plan. Billy also filled us in on some of their history. He’d been watching over the horses since they were brought to the island, and he told us that Brownie was the boss mare and the mother of most of the other horses. If we gained her trust, the others would probably follow. We decided to set up a pen on the mainland side of the footbridge, and Billy started walking the horses over there every day to feed them so that they wouldn’t be as difficult to round up on moving day.
We also reached out to some expert livestock handlers – Wayne and Steve Mizelle, and Mike Cowan – and had five experienced volunteers lending a hand. When the time finally came, Billy led six of the eight mares over the bridge bright and early, and they walked into the trailer with just a little bit of encouragement. We had been worried about them panicking and hurting each other, but the mares were quiet and sensible about the whole thing.
Convincing the remaining two mares to walk over the footbridge into the pen took some patience, but it wasn’t the most difficult roundup our team had faced. The mares gave us a good chase, but as soon as they decided to settle down, they walked right into the trailer just as quietly as their friends, and were soon reunited with the other six horses.
The rescue farm went from housing four horses to twelve, all in one day. It was an adjustment, to say the least. With a little bit of trial and error we got into a routine, and the mares quickly embraced being fed twice a day – domestication isn’t too bad after all. After a couple of weeks, Nora got halters on all of them and over the past few months we’ve been working to gain their trust, teaching them about things like grooming and leading, and we’ve even gotten them all wormed. Their individual personalities are beginning to shine through, and I think they’re starting to feel at home with us.
As it turns out, you really can teach an old horse new tricks. Brownie, in particular, may be able to do some educational outreach this summer. She loves attention, and her story definitely needs to be told. The younger horses may also be the foundation of a breeding program for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. After genetic testing is conducted to confirm their Colonial Spanish mustang heritage, they could produce foals that might be the start of a new conservation program for this threatened breed. Either way, the Dews Island mares will carry on Little Red Man’s legacy, and will help the Corolla Wild Horse Fund continue to promote the protection of their relatives in the wild.
When I was about 10 years old, Santa brought me a framed photograph of a group of horses in Corolla. This was probably 1991 or 1992, and the photograph has hung in every house I’ve lived in since. The image shows a group of horses walking down the beach with shells under their hooves. The sky looks heavy with rain. There’s a mare in front (there’s always a mare in front), and behind her is a young colt with a big star on his forehead.
I now know that colt is Little Red Man.
Historians don’t often have the chance to study history that’s still living and breathing, and, above all, it’s certainly a rare thing to be able to wrap your arms around the offspring of your daydream’s neck.