Wild Horses of legend

By Amy Kruzan

A wild Spanish Mustang in the Outer Banks

A wild Spanish Mustang in the Outer Banks


Visitors to the Cape Lookout National Seashore walk right into a fairytale. Dressed in bathing suits and slathered in sunscreen, these pedestrians watch as strong herds of wild horses gallop past. For 600 years, colonial mustang stallions have roamed the bright white beaches of the Outer Banks, persisting long past their original owners. However, days before Hurricane Florence was expected to make landfall in September of 2018, this fairytale turned into a nightmare.

Despite dire predictions of Florence’s might, those making the decisions about the fate of the Outer Banks’ wild horses had only one answer to the question hordes of people were asking on social media: the wild horses would not be evacuated and would be left to their own devices as Florence neared.

An organization of only a few people had no shot at evacuating an entire herd of over 118 horses, including intact males. Despite this explanation, some people—among those following the story all the way across the world—disagreed with the decision to leave the horses free, saying, “Sorry but to say that these horses will ride out this storm because ‘they're smarter than us’ and they've been through storms for hundreds of years seems a bit flippant when Florence is an unprecedented, historically, biblically severe storm with record high storm surges’” on the group’s Facebook page.

Every single horse at Cape Lookout National Seashore survived the onslaught of salty floods and 100mph+ winds. And yet, that same fairytale didn’t turn out the same on a different coast, in a different year, and with a different- yet altogether too similar storm.

A storm approaching the Outer Banks

A storm approaching the Outer Banks

Hurricane Harvey barreled into the Texas coast in August of 2017. It is best known for its destruction to Houston, but what the storm left behind in rural communities is just as severe.

Darolynn Butler, of Cypress Trails in Humble, Texas, was well-prepared for Harvey. By noon on August 26, 2017, all her horses were removed from the low-lying parts of her property. The move was calm and without incident. But when she returned to her ranch with the animals weeks later, she found black sludge coating her fields and water up to 20 feet over most of her 10 acres.

“There was a sewage treatment plant just upstream from our ranch that overflowed.”

And because of the bridge just downstream from Butler, which acts as a dam when the creek floods, most of that nasty sediment settled at her ranch. “For months afterward, we continually dug black nasty scum out of their feet.” This process continued for almost a year, Butler says, in a place that is mostly sand. Her horses received no health check-ups, though she says she wished they had. Veterinary costs are expensive. A checkup for each horse would cost anywhere from $100-$300.  

Butler is no stranger to this kind of situation. During the Tax Day flood of 2016, she had a lot of difficulties getting the horses to higher ground. “They kept trying to go back to the barn, which was on the lower part of the property.” A few of her horses broke away from the high ground and were carried downstream, the currents too strong for even their natural instincts to fight.

Those horses did not survive the flood.

“Just like horses running into a burning barn, they have an interesting instinct to try to go ‘home’ even though that is where the danger is.”


Once more during Hurricane Harvey, managers at Horses on the Beach Corpus Christi chose to evacuate all one-hundred of their horses to areas further from the coast, all over concern for their safety. It took almost two weeks for them to move their horses back to the coast. Yet, Horses on the Beach says it was “worth every penny.”

Unlike Butler’s horses, the wild horses of Cape Lookout National Seashore receive no immunization and are never provided water, not even in an emergency situation. Normally, the horses find fresh water under the barrier islands in wide, deep lenses, which fill surface pools.

But a storm surge following a hurricane can carry unprecedented levels of hazardous toxins, from festering livestock, E. coli, feces, and rotting plant matter. The horses’ only protection from disease is their own natural sense of toxicity and whatever their immune system can cope with. However, Sue Stuska of the National Seashore says this is not something they are concerned with. “Horses have strong immune systems and can drink water that humans would consider contaminated. There would no feasible way to protect the wild horses from floodwater.”

And indeed, during Florence, the Outer Banks wild horses retreated to high ground and refused to drink contaminated water.

Had Butler not evacuated her horses during Hurricane Harvey, more might have perished, like in the Tax Day flood. So what is it about wild horses that makes them different? Perhaps they are more in-tune with their natural senses and are able to adapt more easily to change. Perhaps they have learned from years of living in the wild and have evolved, or perhaps the difference is a circumstance of time and place. The wild horses of the Outer Banks might have an inherent natural sense for danger, unlike Butler’s domesticated horses, but with the frequency and intensity of coastal storms increasing, the time may come when the storm is so severe that even the horses’ natural instincts might not be enough.

A storm that kills the wild horses would be so severe that the humans in the area wouldn’t survive either, says Stuska.

These dead horses are important because they are a small piece in a much larger story. Horses exposed to contaminants in the floodwater cannot transmit these diseases to humans, but humans can also get diseases from the floodwater, and the more horses that die and infect standing water, the worse the conditions become for people living in the surrounding area. Humans are an incredibly adaptive species, and so far have shown their resilience when facing hurricanes, like horses. Caring about horses also means caring about humans, because neither will survive a future catastrophic hurricane.

Florence was the first time people were concerned with the wild horses’ ability to survive. Harvey was the first time that Darolynn Butler was pushed to evacuate her entire herd, spending thousands of dollars to ensure their safety. The year 2018 marked the most powerful hurricane season on record. Since the start of the 20th century, hurricanes are getting stronger and lasting longer. Both horses and people are losing their homes, their families, and their lives.

Hopefully, the fable of the wild horses in the Outer Banks will remain a fairytale; a symbol of freedom that swimsuit-wearing tourists can continue to capture on camera, and one that the next powerful coastal hurricane won’t erase.