Wild Horses

SHACKLEFORD BANKS, NC - There is perhaps no other animal that captures the pioneer spirit better than the horse.  During the early colonial years of what we currently know of as North America, horses, although large and heavy, were important cargo on ships arriving to the new world.  These horses of Spanish descent became commonplace in North Carolina, and stray horses soon occupied the outer banks of North Carolina.  These stray horses make up several herds along the outer banks to this day and have survived many hurricanes, storms and disease.

I had never photographed the wild horses before, so I decided the best spot to start with would be Shackleford Banks, NC.  Shackleford Banks is a primitive island just off the coast of Beaufort, which according to the National Parks Services, contains about 130 horses in its herd.  This herd is divided up into smaller groups called harems.  Harems are made up of an alpha stallion, smaller stallions and mares.  There are also bachelor groups which contain only males which do not have their own harem.

In order to visit the island, I boarded a ferry and after a fifteen minute ride, the ferry beached, dropped its ramp and off we went to find the horses.  On this day, the horses were easy to locate as they were just west of the ferry drop off point.   Fortunately, I was smart enough to already have my Sigma 150-600 lens mounted on my 1D and hanging from my shoulder.  Once I hit the shore, I was face to face with these amazing wild horses.

A fight between a younger stallion (left) and the apha stallion (right).  This fight ended with the alpha fully in charge.

This was a completely new experience for me as mainly I photograph birds and smaller mammals.  Only moments after I landed, there was a squabble between the alpha stallion and a younger and less wise stallion.  There was a great deal of biting and loud neighing (more screaming really).  There is no doubt that I was on their turf, and they made the rules.  

With the help of our guide, we continued to track the horses across a large tidal pool and into the scrubby interior of the island.  Here the horses began to take go about their daily routine of eating, playing and sleeping.  The horses do eat quite of bit of the natural grasses on the island which gives them a fairly bloated look.  I am told this is due to the fact that the vegetation often has a layer of salt on them, and the horses have no choice but to ingest it.

The alpha stallion watches over his nearby harem.  It is his job to protect the harem and keep rival males from stealing away the mares.

I followed this harem for the remainder of the day and was amazed at how comfortable they are around people.  This comfort level, according to our guide, is because Shackleford is more heavily visited by humans than the other herds on the outer banks.  
From a photography perspective, you don't need amazing equipment to photograph these horses.  Even a smartphone will do in a pinch, because they are so used to people.  On the other hand, if you want extreme closeups and isolation shots, I do recommend a zoom lens in the 200-400mm range.  In my case, I brought my Sigma 150-600 C and my Canon 50mm.  For camera bodies, I had the Canon 7D and my Canon 1D Mark II attached to my Fotasy harness/strap.  You can take your tripod, but I really don't recommend it here, because you are going to be on the island in strong lighting.  This is due to the fact that you can't even get out to the island until 8:30am.  The ferry doesn't run at dawn.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the trip to Shackleford Banks for both photography and as a rare treat to view such a historic and important animal in our nation's heritage.  I do caution you that this is a primitive island and as such there is no running water or electricity.   There is a makeshift pit toilet about a half mile to a mile down from the ferry drop off location.  Ferries run all day long so you can easily go back if you find yourself sick to your stomach.  At any rate, this is a totally amazing experience and you will not be disappointed.


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