Shackleford Banks, the southernmost barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore, is home to more than 110 wild horses. This is one of the few places in the eastern United States where wild horses can still be seen. Shackleford Banks is approximately nine miles long and averages less than a mile wide.
The history of the Shackleford wild horses is the same as that of the Ocracoke and Corolla wild mustangs. Like the Ocracoke "Banker" ponies, the Shackleford horses have often been referred to as ponies because of their size, but they are true horses. DNA studies prove they are descended from the Spanish mustangs brought to the Carolina coast by explorers beginning in the early 1500's. Turned loose from shipwrecks, or left behind when explorers failed attempts at colonization, they spread out all along the barrier island chain as they grew in numbers.
They have survived in the wild, isolated on Shackleford and other coastal barrier islands away from the mainland for almost half a millennium. Unlike Ocracoke and Corolla, Shackleford Banks has never been suitable for any significant human population, which has left it virtually pristine to this day.
The wild Shackleford mustangs are accessible only by boat. Ferries leave both from Beaufort and Harkers Island. The ferries that departs from Beaufort will take you to the western end of the island, the western end of the island tends to receive more visitors than the eastern portion. The ferry from Hawkers Island will take visitors to the eastern end of the island and also takes visitors to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse which is located on a separate island. Ferries usually operate from April through November, but may choose to operate throughout the year. I departed from Hawkers Island in hopes having less people in the area. The earliest ferry that I was able to locate departed at 8:00 a.m., this was during the summer months, during the off peak months the ferry departure is not until 10:00 a.m. The ferry also will not depart unless they have at least four passengers. When you purchase your ticket you coordinate the time you want to be picked up from the island. As part of the National Park Service's Cape Lookout National Seashore park, only day visitors and overnight camping are permitted, keeping Shackleford free of dwellings, electrical service or any other trappings of civilization so be sure to bring enough water for the duration of your stay. Insect repellant is recommended particularly in summer months.
The herd divides itself into approximately 25 harems and, loosely, 7 bachelor bands. Horses roam the island, so be prepared to walk to find them. Walking on the island consists of soft sand, sand dunes and around muddy salt marshes. When you find horses, keep a safe distance away - at least 30 feet from the harem. Bring a telephoto lens to allow you to watch from a safe distance. All these photographs were taken with a 200-400mm.
National Park Service – Cape Lookout