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The Outer Banks’ mysterious mustangs

Survival of the fittest truly defines the members of the Equus caballus species that for more than 400 years have freely roamed the environmentally challenging Outer Banks of North Carolina.

About 60 wild horses, the descendants of Spanish mustangs, continue to thrive among the hot sands, freezing winds and salty sprays from the Atlantic Ocean with help, only recently, from an organization formed in 1989. Donna Snow, co-director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, took a few minutes to discuss the attributes and history of these majestic creatures.

Q: Where did the horses come from?

A: The horses were brought to North Carolina's Outer Banks as early as 1521, when Spanish explorer Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon landed near what was thought to be Cape Fear. The Spanish brought horses bred in the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico. Upon meeting resistance from American Indians, they were forced to flee, leaving behind their livestock, including the horses.

Other Spanish-bred horses made their way to the Outer Banks aboard English ships bound for the English colony on Roanoke Island. The Roanoke voyages of 1584, 1586 and 1590 provided other opportunities for horses to have disembarked from or survived the wrecks of English ships.

Q: How do you know they are true Spanish mustangs?

A: A combination of science and recorded history. We have historical documents that help us trace the horses, where they came from and how they have changed or not changed over the past 400 years.

In addition, in 1991, experts from the Spanish Mustang Registry, a nonprofit organization formed to preserve the last of the true Spanish mustangs, came to visit the wild horses of Corolla.

They compared a number of physical characteristics of Spanish mustangs and the Corolla horses, including size and stature of the horses, the facial quality, the gait, how the legs are positioned, the tails and so forth. The Corolla horses are equal to the original Spanish mustangs.

More scientific evidence also was gathered. Using past autopsies, it can be shown that the wild horses of Corolla share skeletal similarities with the Spanish horses that American-bred horses don't. The Spanish and Corolla horses both have 13 pairs of ribs, as opposed to 12, and they are missing their sixth vertebra.

The Spanish Mustang Registry concluded that the horses are true blood descendants but also suggested that we have further genetic, or DNA, testing done.

Q: Did you have that blood testing done?

A: Yes, between 1992 and 1994, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, working with the University of Kentucky Department of Veterinary Science, drew blood samples from 17 of the horses and put them through a series of DNA tests.

Those scientific tests confirmed that the horses of Corolla are close blood descendants, possibly the purest known, to the original Spanish horses. This purity is attributed to the fact that the Outer Banks, until the last 40 years or so, were secluded and that the horses did not breed with other strains of horse, domestic or wild. Instead, they were allowed to live and run free with relatively little change or interference for more than 400 years.

Q: What are you doing to help keep the horses alive?

A: The Corolla Wild Horse Fund works to educate people, both visitors and natives, about the wild horses. A huge part of that education is trying to get people to understand that these are not domesticated horses and that they need to keep a minimum distance of 50 feet from them. Additionally, they cannot feed, pet, entice or attract the attention of the horses.

Q: How many horses are allowed to roam the lands?

A: Our mandate is to have a herd of about 60 horses on the island. Historically, when the babies are born, we have more colts (males) born than fillies (females), which can cause problems as the colts get old enough to want to fight the older stallions to take over the herds. Too many stallions can cause a lot of fighting and trouble, including injuries to the horses.

Q: Are you trying to control the herd's population growth?

A: Yes and no. We are looking at different methods of population control, including administering birth control, and recently went down to Shackleford Island, N.C., where they are using birth control.

Reproductive biologist Jay Kirkpatrick, working with the University of California at Davis, began working on wild-horse contraception in the mid-'80s and, more recently, professor Irwin Liu with UCD has attempted to create a viable birth-control agent that could be administered to wild horses in controlled doses.

The method that works, called "immunocontraception," is actually an inoculation against pregnancy, where the female horses are darted with a vaccine that prevents conception without interfering with either the horses' natural behaviors or the food chain -- such as when vultures or gulls eat the horses' carcasses.

At this time, however, we are continuing to work toward herd management and adoptions as ways to control the Corolla wild-horse population.

For more information about the horses, including availability for adoption, visit www.corollawildhorses.com.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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