The descendants of Ocracoke's feral horses are pastured in a "pony pen" along N.C. Highway 12. Not much of their wild heritage is apparent today. All were born in captivity and fed hay and grain, and some are even broken to ride. Stallions are kept in separate pens, and the males not chosen for breeding are gelded. For all practical purposes, they live on a horse farm.
Even so, these Banker horses represent the last vestige of an important aspect of Ocracoke's history. A brief synopsis of their supposed origins stands mounted on a plaque in front of the paddock. As with all Banker horses, legends, theories, and a few definite facts vie with one another to explain their origins. They themselves have lived their lives in domesticity, but their ancestors ran free on these shifting dunes for centuries.
The village of Ocracoke flourished on turf that was once a temporary base for notorious pirates such as Blackbeard. Every family on Ocracoke had at least one horse, and each of the free-roaming horses had a nominal owner. But most of Ocracoke's horses lived their entire lives running wild, breeding at will, only deliberately handled by humans during the annual pony pennings. The ponies would often wander into town, looking for handouts. They would intrude into gardens and devour the vegetables if the gates were left open. Occasionally a herd would stampede through town.
July Fourth pony pennings were a long-anticipated celebration, a festival of hard work and hard play for Ocracokers and mainland visitors.Foals were matched to mothers and branded with an owner's symbol. Banker horses-easy going, smooth-gaited animals with flowing manes and tails-were in demand on the mainland, and were sold during the roundups. Sometimes the highlight of the pony pennings was a rodeo-like riding of untamed broncos, with much bucking, twisting, and struggle. Most of the time, though, Banker horses were trained in a gentler fashion, tempted with sweets, petting, and scratching of itchy spots.
Major Marvin Howard retired from his military career to Ocracoke Island, to find that his hometown had a problem-there was no appropriate leader for the proposed Boy Scout troop. Major Howard, who found great satisfaction in working with both children and horses, founded troop 290, and most of the boys on the island enthusiastically joined. In the 1950s, Ocracoke boasted the only known Boy Scout troop on horseback.
For the freckle-faced, barefoot boys of Ocracoke, the Scout troop and the ponies were the center of the universe. Each boy selected a wild pony to catch, train, and ride. Each pony, though living free, technically had an owner; some were privately owned, and some were the property of the federal government. The price was $50 per pony, a steep sum for a young boy isolated on an island in the 1950s. Fortunately, there were jobs available for any boy willing to work hard mowing lawns or assisting fishermen with the day's catch.
The troop would compete annually in horse races held on the beach at Buxton. For this, they had to ride a total of 26 miles each way, including a 40 minute ferry ride, during which the boys would hold their stallions on the open deck. After the long ride to Buxton, the boys would often best stiff competition that included Arabians and Quarter Horses. About 500 head of cattle still roamed freely on Ocracoke Island during this time, and the scouts became skilled at cattle round-ups and pony pennings, showing off their superb horsemanship skills for the benefit of the visitors. They also helped around town, and served as mounted honor guards for the Coast Guard.
The Ocracoke mounted scouts often captured national attention. They were featured in Boy's Life magazine, and in a children's novel by Steven Meader titled Wild Pony Island.
Aside from the $50 investment to purchase the pony, there was no expense to the boys in maintaining their mounts. They were caught when the kids wanted to ride, and released, when not being used, to grow fat on marsh grass. There was no food to buy and no barn to clean.
When the Cape Hatteras National Seashore took over Ocracoke Island, it was a mixed blessing.The new status of national park would allow Ocracoke to remain wild and beautiful, and would offer some protection against the onslaught of condominiums and tourist accommodations ruining many east coast beaches. The National Park Service didn't want feral horses competing with the native wildlife the parks were established to protect, however. Cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats that roamed the island had already been mostly removed, and the government saw no reason why horses should be treated any differently.
Captain Marvin Howard and the other Ocracokers put relentless energy into saving the Banker horses.The scouts petitioned to fence a large pasture as a sort of a compromise-the horses wouldn't roam free anymore, but they would remain on the island, to be enjoyed as a reminder of Ocracoke's bygone days. The Park Service granted a special use permit and provided fence posts. Money for fencing was raised along with the funds for the first year of supplemental feeding. The state of North Carolina also contributed funds toward the new lifestyle of the herd.
Eventually, the Boy Scouts of America demanded that the boys carry insurance if they persisted in riding the horses in the name of scouting. These children couldn't afford insurance, and without the support of the Scouts, the pony pasture grew too expensive to maintain. Ocracoke's mounted Scout troop only existed for about ten years. The Park Service took over the management of the ponies in the late 1960s. Before long, the herd was on the verge of extinction, dwindling to a low of nine individuals in 1976.
In 1973 Park ranger Jim Henning was transferred to Ocracoke from Bodie(pronounced "body") Island, and together he and his wife Jeanetta resurrected the herd. Today, the herd is managed at a steady 25-30 animals. Breedings are carefully planned to maximize the gene pool. Tourists can view today's Ocracoke Bankers from an observation platform overlooking a pony pen, or from a handicapped-accessible deck overlooking the pasture.
Boy Scout photographs courtesy of the Ocracoke Preservation Society, Ocracoke, NC & text from Bonnie Urquhart, author of _Hoofprints in the Sand www.feralhorse.com and/or the publisher of Hoofprints in the Sand, www.eclipsepress.com
Ocracoke Pony Pasture
Ocracoke, NC 27960