If you’ve had the opportunity to travel to Ocracoke Island, then you may have stopped to visit some of the island’s most popular residents: the Banker Ponies that are protected and cared for by your OBX national park staff.
But how did these ponies come to be on the island?
According to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, it is likely that the ponies first came to the island in the 1500 or 1600s aboard the ships of European (Spanish or English) explorers.
Numerous legends have arisen as to the ponies’ origins. A brochure from your parks’ Museum Resource Center archives lists several possibilities:
- The ponies are descendants of Juan Ponce de Leon’s (the famous Spanish explorer who discovered Florida) horses.
- The ponies descended from ponies or horses that survived a circus boat wreck off the coast in 1861.
- The ponies descended from Barbary pirate ponies who were cast off ships or left behind.
- The ponies are descendants of Sir Richard Grenville’s (the English explorer who led Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to the New World) horses, which he brought with him on his ship the Tyger in 1585, but had to be removed from the ship to lighten its load when it needed repairs.
According the brochure’s author: “…careful study of the horses themselves and historical data lead strongly to the conclusion [that] they are the descendants of Spanish horses brought to the East Coast of the United States in the sixteenth century.”
Despite the ever-changing winds and waves of the Outer Banks, the Ocracoke ponies have established their home on our island for more than 400 years! Banker Pony herds also live along North Carolina’s Shackleford Banks, which make up part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Several of your ponies Ocracoke Island herd are direct descendants of the Shackleford herd.
The Ocracoke ponies are also related to the wild Spanish Mustangs that make their home in the Corolla and Carova areas of the northern Outer Banks. Our friends at Corolla Wild Horse Fund work diligently to protect and preserve the Spanish Mustangs through herd management, visitor education and a rescue farm/rehab facility for sick or injured wild horses. They told us the Ocracoke ponies share a common history with the Spanish Mustangs, which is currently being investigated through DNA testing. The Banker Ponies differ from the Spanish Mustangs in that domestic stock was introduced into their gene pool in years past.
Ocracoke’s Coastal Guide estimates that Banker Ponies weigh anywhere from 800 to 1,000 pounds and are between four and five feet tall. Meg Puckett, the herd manager of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, explained that Banker Ponies possess incredible endurance and stamina and are able to self-regulate. If they begin to tire out while walking, they will slow down until their heart rate drops and then speed up again. Banker Ponies are highly intelligent and very sturdy, capable of carrying heavy loads and full-sized people.
When people began to settle on Ocracoke in the 1700s, they began to domesticate some of the ponies. Cape Hatteras National Seashore reports:
“When the early colonists settled Ocracoke, they used the ponies to help make life easier on the island by pulling carts to haul freight and fish. The U.S. Lifesaving Service used them for beach patrols and to haul equipment to shipwreck sites and the U.S. Coast Guard kept a small band of ponies to patrol the beaches in World War II.”
Up until World War II, the Banker Ponies were “penned” each summer on or around Jul. 4, when they were corralled into an enclosed area and branded and/or sold. After the war, the penning tradition resumed.
In the 1950s, Boy Scout Troop 290 took over the care and feeding of the ponies and became the first — and last — mounted Boy Scout troop in the United States. At that time, the free-roaming ponies became a point of contention for both Ocracoke Island residents and the National Park Service. The ponies would wander onto the island’s new highway or into unfenced yards and gardens to eat, and the National Park Service feared the ponies’ continuous grazing would undermine their efforts to prevent erosion of the sand dunes that protected most of the island (the ponies would often chew on grasses that had been planted to help stabilize the dunes). It was decided that a portion of the island’s marshland should be dedicated exclusively to the ponies.
Ocracoke residents started a campaign for the new pasture project and raised $1,300 dollars from people across the nation and around the world for fencing for the ponies. The National Park Service donated three acres of land and contributed fence posts to the project. The pens were completed in 1959 and the National Park Service took over care of the ponies in 1960.
We were proud to be given the opportunity to care for these amazing ponies through our Adopt A Pony program which re-launched last year. For $35 a month, you can partner with us to provide care and feeding for a pony of your choice. In return, you will receive an official adoption certificate and a picture of your pony to keep!
The Ocracoke ponies are truly a special part of Outer Banks history and culture. As our friend Meg said: You could tell the story of the Outer Banks through the horses.
As a friendly reminder, if you visit the Banker Ponies or see the wild Spanish Mustangs in the Outer Banks this summer, please refrain from feeding them, as apples, carrots and other human foods are deadly to wild horses. And while you can approach the Banker Ponies at their pen, make sure to admire the wild Spanish Mustangs from afar!