Keeping the Wild, Wild
HE wild mustangs of Shackleford Banks con-tinue
to be of great interest to the scientific com-munity.
Princeton University’s Daniel Rubenstein
and his graduate students have been studying and
documenting the social behavior of the horses for
“Colonial Spanish Mustangs are a threatened
equine breed, and this herd represents one of the few in the wild
in the East,” Poindexter says. “The inheritable traits in these
horses that have enabled their survival in such harsh conditions
may also be of benefit in other equine breeds.”
Rubenstein and his students have developed a system for nam-ing
the horses that dictates that the foal’s name start with the
first letter of its mother’s name, essentially to facilitate their daily
“The students named the horses based on the first letter of the
name of their dam. So a mare with a name that started with a T
would have offspring with T names as well,” Poindexter says.
Not everyone is a fan of the names, though.
“Naming is something people do for pets, and these are decid-edly
not pets,” Stuska says. “I do not call them by name to the
public anymore. We have had too many people try to get way too
close and there are other ways to identify them. Their allure for
me is their natural wild behaviors, which can be seen by watching
from a distance. We always endeavor not to change their behaviors
by our position or actions.”
Moving on from watching the two mares, we continued walk-ing
further inland, over the dunes and through the high sea oats
that have made up the landscape for hundreds of years. As wind
and waves move sand around, these grasses trap and hold the
sand, allowing the dunes to build, protecting plant life and fragile
ecosystems from the damaging effects of salt spray. If these plants
were removed, the dunes would quickly blow away, leaving a flat-tened,
more vulnerable island in their place.
Despite the harsh conditions, wildflowers of marsh pinks,
orange and red firewheels, and purple needlegrass add splashes
of color to an otherwise sun-bleached landscape. Deeper into the
island, we came across a forest of cedar, wax myrtle and live oaks
dripping in Spanish moss and tangled vines.
The forest looks completely out of place in what is otherwise a
barren environment. The island was once almost completely cov-ered
with maritime forest, but wave erosion, sand, and countless
hurricanes have all contributed to their demise. On the ocean side
of the groves there’s a beautiful, haunting display of a “ghost for-est.”
Trees killed by advancing dunes and salt spray have left sun-bleached
skeletons protruding from the sand.
We came across a large fresh-water pond and a gathering of
about 10 horses — sorrel, liver chestnut, bay, and black. Some
stood in the cool of the water, others grazed on the banks. They
were smaller and stouter than I expected, standing between 12
and 14 hands, with thick hooves and shaggy manes. A pale gold
foal stuck close to its mother, keeping her glare transfixed on our
We decided to sit quietly and just watch. This was what I had
pictured all along.
“I find their wild behaviors the source of endless fascination
and learning,” Stuska says. “Having known some of these horses
for more than 20 years, I have watched them grow and develop.
It is very important that they take no more notice of me than of
some other object on their island. I do not want them to change
their behaviors because of my presence as I watch them.”
Driving back home, past vacation homes and trailer parks, strip
malls and countless Bojangles, thoughts and images of wild horses,
sandy dunes, maritime forests, and salt marshes ran through my
I asked Poindexter if she thought a story like this might bring
unwanted attention to the horses. Is there a fine line between
preservation and promotion and turning places like Shackleford
Banks into tourist destinations?
“These horses are an intrinsic part of what is special about this
WBM october 2018