Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stalking the wild horses of Shackleford Banks

I’m out of luck for the Friday Shootout theme of “looking up.” I’m on Shakleford Banks, southernmost island of the Outer Banks, with no trees and a perfectly cloudless day. 65 degrees, clear sky, tide going out leaving millions of shells on the beach if the theme were “looking down”. Nice 45 degree angle sunlight on the dunes to our left. And I’m moseying along, thinking to myself:


BUTLER: “It’s not like you have a 1000 mm. lens or something! You should be able to handhold at 200 mm.”

BAGMAN: “Just enjoy the day with Karen!”

And we are. Just the two of us. Alone on 9 square miles of coastal wilderness. To be honest, from checking the ferry logs, there are two women and another man and wife somewhere on Shakleford but we don’t expect to see them. We are expecting…hoping…in addition to shells to find Wild Horses!!

Small horses that survived Spanish shipwrecks in the 1700’s.

BAGMAN: “They must be very old horses!”

BUTLER: “He means the descendents of the horses. But they have been living wild here all that time.”

We’ve been instructed not to try and get too close to them because, while they are gentle, they are wild and will attack if provoked. To see them, we are supposed to walk along the beach and periodically climb up the higher sand dunes to see if we can see them.

After an hour, nothing. We are disappointed. But I remind myself that I’m trying to shoot wild animals…wild wild wild, why do I keep saying that? Because I begin to feel I’m on a true hunt.

Then we see a small moving brown dot far off in the gorse.

BAGMAN: “Gorse?”

I don’t know but the word came to me, so we leave the beach and head into the tangled brush in the middle of the island. “We’ll cut through the gorse and come up on them from downwind,” I whisper loudly, pretending I know what I’m doing.

We find horse tracks. We find telltale hints of manure…actually lots and lots of manure.

Suddenly movement behind us. I spin and shoot. But the horse is gone in a blur.

I freeze, listening for a sound, smelling the air. The hunter! My intensity is broken by Karen who gaily shouts out, “There are a couple of them over behind that dune,”

I hold up two fingers, wave them in a circle, and duck down, make another hand signal that either indicates I’m going to circle the dune or that I have lost my mind entirely. Karen accurately assumes the second and sits down on a dune to watch the horses while I play out my fantasy.

In awhile I’m crawling up a dune, moving over the top. I shoot but the grass is in the way. I crouch and shoot. The horse is busy eating. I stand up and it keeps eating. I guess that there isn’t much to eat on this island so the horses don’t care. I want it to lift its head. I walk closer. Finally a yell, “Hey, pose!” I make neighing sounds. It ignores me. No longer the stealthy hunter, I walk up to about 25 feet from it and shoot a picture.  It feels like a petting zoo except I'm not about to pet it. 

I even notice that there are some plastic bottles and other trash around.  Some wilderness!

We go back to looking for shells.

A mile further, I climb the dunes and 200 feet away behind another dune is another one. I walk down and up the tall dune next to the horse. It is also eating. I’m beginning to wonder if any of these horses have heads or if they are simply necks that are connected to the ground.

But at the top of the dune, I slip. I fall backwards, my glasses falling off, protecting my camera from sand, my legs flying in the air. As I turn and look, the horse is straight, tall, staring at me with extended neck and nostrils flared. I shoot from the hip, but in that second, his head is already lowering to eat.

I make neighing sounds. Nothing. So, being the ultimate photographer, I take a deep breath and fall down backwards, throwing my legs in the air, but keeping my camera at my eye. He looks up. I shoot.

But he’s not really all that interested in slapstick anymore. And later, I realize he has the most distracting color on his nose that I’ve ever seen.

So, knowing we have to catch the last ferry back, Karen and I turn and walk back, collecting a few more shells. As we reach the place where the ferry is due, there are two more horses waiting for us. It is hard to call them “wild” anymore. I decided to rename them the “hungry, bored, and passive-aggressive horses of Shackleford Banks.

It was a very good day.


  1. HAhaahahah! lmao! I don't know where to start, except that I have for 5 decades wanted to go see those horses, ever since reading "Misty of Chincoteague" back in the day. I would have done exactly the same thing...sneaking up on them like a wildlife photographer only to realize they don't give a damn.

    What IS that on that horse's nostrils?

    Nice shot of Karen grinning with those lazy horses lounging in the background (one for your Christmas card!)

  2. how fun and interesting. I would really enjoy something like that. love horses. too bad some are leaving trash around.

  3. I had NO idea there were wild horses in the Outer Banks! What beautiful photography. You must be a horse whisperer.

  4. So you were looking up for this post, too. Not to be a neighsayer or anything.

  5. You had so much fun. I loved the imagery of falling backwards.

  6. nice-
    when I go into Wilderness where humans are allowed to go I always carry a plastic sack, empty, which I fill with the detra left by those nature loving humans that might have passed before....

    glad you two are enjoying your time together -

  7. My guess is that those horses are glad when the tourist season is over, and when there are still five or six humans come over with the ferry, they think "Gods!! Can't they EVER give us some peace?! These days, one can't have a decent meal without one of those bloody tourists pointing their bloody camera at you, making noises they imagine sounds like neighing..."

    I will never understand the illogical behaviour of some people. While they managed perfectly well to carry a FULL, HEAVY water bottle around with them, once it is empty and a lot easier to carry, they throw it away and spoil the place for everybody else. Is that what they do at home when they have had a drink or something to eat, too? I wonder. I really do.