Photographing Wild Horses
on North Carolina's coast


     I have focused exclusively on my bird photography in these pages, but I would be remiss if I did not devote some space to talk about my other main photography interest, the wild horses of North Carolina's coast. For starters, you should read through my article at NCWildHorses.com, covering a four-day "safari" of Shackleford Banks and the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve at Beaufort. It will give you a well rounded introduction to the interesting options in that area for wild horse photography.

Stallion and mare on Shackleford Banks
     The other area to find wild horses in North Carolina is on the northernmost coast of the Outer Banks, between Corolla and Carova. The NCWildHorses.com site also has more information on that location, as does my CarolinaOuterBanks.com section on the wild horses of Corolla.

Photographing on the salt marsh at
Rachel Carson Reserve
     These two locations of wild horses differ greatly not only in how you go about reaching them and the types of shots and scenery you can get, but also the techniques and equipment you would use for each scenario. Each location has its regulations about how close you are allowed to come to these wild animals (no closer than 50 feet). Very often you can actually get that close, but there are no guarantees.

Lens Choices:
     The long telephotos you use for birds are not always necessary, as a rule, for subjects this large, certainly not for distances of 20 yards. I've used a 24-105mm, a 70-200mm and a 300mm in the past to cover all the bases. Now though I just carry my 100-400mm. Keep in mind these are wild horses that go wherever they want to. On rare occasions I've wished I had the 500mm with me, but that's a two-edged sword. The farther away they are in this coastal air, the more haze you can encounter, so moving closer if you can for the shots is the better answer. Also, the terrain can be challenging, and sometimes you will be unable to get as close as you would like. For example, at Beaufort and Shackleford the horses may be frolicking on a shoreline beyond water too shallow for a boat, or a bit too deep to safely wade closer with a camera. Or you may need to cross mucky marsh mud, laced with starp, jagged oyster shells, and not have proper footwear for the situation.

Besides the horses, these environments can present opportunities for great bird photography, so having along your big glass for birds may prove valuable to you. Of course there are scenic and landscape opportunities here too. That favorite wide angle in your camera bag could prove handy. What it boils down to is "bring whatever you're willing to carry". Keep in mind though that these locations will require some hoofing it, so keep your total equipment weight to something you can handle.

About Corolla/Carova:
Horse groups hug the surf line
     Reaching the wild horses north of Corolla on Currituck Banks requires 4-wheel drive, whether you drive your own or ride in someone else's, such as with one of the tour companies out of Corolla. NC Highway 12 dead ends onto the beach at Corolla, and the 11 miles from there to the Virginia border is 4-wheel drive only. Beyond Corolla there are no gas stations, no businesses and no facilities of any kind, just wildlife reserves and small beach communities of homes. You should be aware that sections of this beach are littered with tree stumps from an ancient maritime forest, which most surely can be a serious driving hazard. (See my web pages regarding this phenomenon at this CarolinaOuterBanks.com link.)

     About 100 horses are sequestered on the northernmost end of the Currituck barrier island between two fences that stretch from ocean to sound. One fence is just north of Corolla where Hwy. 12 ends onto the beach, and the other is on the North Carolina-Virginia border. The fence crosses the beach here too, which also keeps vehicles from driving into Virginia. The fences keep the horses from wandering south into Corolla and being hit by cars on the highway, and keeps them out of False Cape State Park along the Virginia border.

Galloping down a high dune at Carova
Galloping on the beach at Carova
     Arguably the best photos of these horses can be obtained on the beach, which is certainly a rather unique backdrop. The beach faces east with generally high dunes on the west side. When the horses venture onto the beach, which they use as a trail between feeding areas, they usually keep near the surf. Photographing early in the day will mean you tend to be shooting into the light with dark subjects backlit against a light sky and shiny water, unless of course, you want to stand waist deep in the ocean and shoot from there. That doesn't make things easy. At high tide you will often have little to no room on the beach in which to work, so being aware of the tide schedule is important. Remember, you must keep 50 feet or more away from the horses. Despite the challenges, it is occasionally possible to get some interesting shots, such as the one at left, where I lucked into a group of horses that decided to move onto the beach from atop a 30-foot high dune.

     Sometimes all you need is a bean bag in your window or on the hood for shots on the beach, assuming you're parked at a good angle in relation to the horses. You may spend quite some time parked on the beach waiting for action. You can see a couple of miles up and down the beach, so binoculars will help you tell the difference between horses and people when you spot distant figures in the hazy air. Otherwise, getting out for handheld shooting or to use a tripod is necessary. Generally, walking over the dunes to scout for photos requires only short treks lasting a few minutes, so taking a bag or backpack is relatively easy.

Horse family on the beach

     Just finding the horses out on the beach is a combination of luck and patience. Do not expect you will be alone either, for much of the year the beach is a busy "highway", not to mention the tourists. (Note the beach is literally covered with vehicle tracks in the photo at left.) The heat of summer and pesky insects helps drive the horses onto the beach or just behind the dunes where the ocean breeze offers some relief. The problem is, they swap the pesky insects for the pesky tourists and traffic that infests the beach. I never bother going between June and September. I recommend avoiding summer altogether .... you're outnumbered, and taking a photo of a horse on the beach is all but impossible without also getting a dozen tourists and/or cars ln the frame. Early spring and late fall are better times, while the weather is still fairly warm. Windy and cold weather keeps the horses sound side among the trees of the maritime forest, and out of the wind. The tourists mostly fade away during October, except for the weekends. The weekends can be nearly as problematic as the tourist season until November rolls around. The same is true during May, which can be suitable during the week, but forget weekends. It is more often than not a complete waste of your time during tourist season, and you will virtually never find horses on the beach in bitter weather.

     You can also drive over the dunes and through the housing areas to find horses wandering about in yards and on the sand paths that serve for roads. While those images may satisfy the tourists' curiosity, they are hardly worth the time of any serious photographer as photos of "wild horses". Compounding the problem is the fact you cannot tell where public "roads" end and private property begins. The "roads" are so narrow and riddled with huge mud holes, they're not safe to drive, and often not passable. After a few such forays, I quickly tired of it.


     Climbing over the dunes and scouting behind them on foot can provide opportunities in the more open areas between the beach communities. Case in point: I was once photographing a stallion and mare grazing behind the dunes when the stallion suddenly took off at a gallop and ran some 300-400 yards from the beach to the distant tree line. Apparently he went to retrieve a wayward mare, and chased her the entire distance back towards me. The sheer terror on that mare's face is unmistakably evident in the series of photos above. I was shooting with a 70-200mm on a full frame body, because I was just there to take some short distance shots of them grazing near the dunes. I had not expected a long distance chase and was unprepared with no long telephoto handy. The moral to the story is....if you think you won't need it, bring it anyway.

Charging over the dune
     My point here is that although the horses tend be somewhat predictable once you are familiar with their habits, they can also be completely unpredictable. They occasionally provide this sort of surprise action which, along with the classic fights between two (or more) stallions, makes photographing them such a rewarding challenge. You eventually learn to read their body language and therefore are more prepared when such action breaks out. It doesn't mean you will be in the best position for photos when it happens, but sometimes it gives you enough warning that you can at least make the best of it. At other times you have no warning at all. Once I was parked parallel to the beach, up next to the dunes, patiently watching far down the beach when I caught motion in the corner of my vision. A black stallion came charging over the dune right next to me, headed straight for my truck. Out of sheer reflex I grabbed my camera from the seat next to me, blindly pointed it at arms length toward the passenger window and squeezed. A second later he veered around the truck and out onto the beach. The shutter happened to be in continuous mode, and still I only got four frames before he was gone. At left is the first and best frame, an uncropped image. The other three were completely out of focus and useless. It happened so fast it's a wonder I got anything at all.

     To sum up the Corolla wild horses, accessing them requires only a 4-wheel drive to get there. It is possible to just park on the beach and wait for a family group to stroll by. You may spot a few grazing behind the dunes, or you might brave the deep sandy paths and huge mud holes to drive around for hours and never see even one. It has happened to me more than once. If you know where to go on foot without trespassing on private land, you can trek out to the sound side maritime forest and marshes to get "natural" photos, but I have not learned those places yet. That will require a local guide who knows the areas off the beaten path and has permission to use private property. But if you have the time, patience, luck and persistence, it's not at all "difficult" to at least get worthwhile photos of the Corolla wild horses on the beach.
Oceanside rolling dunes
Sound side maritime forest

About Shackleford Banks:
     Shackleford is a completely different situation from Corolla. It's an unpopulated barrier island about a half-mile wide by 9-miles long, with the only access being by boat. Kayaking here is an option, but the distances are much greater than at the Rachel Carson Reserve. I wouldn't recommend kayaking from the mainland without a touring class kayak and experience on open water that can get rough. Passenger ferry service and charter service is available out of Beaufort.

     Shackleford is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the island and horses are under the jurisdiction of the Park Service. The same 50-foot approach rule is enforced here. The most often visited area to photograph the wild horses here is the easternmost end of the island, adjacent to Cape Lookout. The ocean side of the barrier island is open, with high and dry undulating dunes of grasses as in the photo at right. The sound side of the island is maritime forest and thickets mixed with tidal marsh wetland, and small grassy islands that may flood at high tide, but be barely above water at low tide.

Wading sound side to reach horses Sound side island at low tide
     It is a good idea to wear boots and clothing suitable for muddy, marshy trekking. Better yet, be prepared to wade through salt or brackish water from 6 inches deep to two or even three feet deep. I have used both calf-high neoprene kayaking boots and knee-high waterproof snake boots. My snake boots are great for hiking, mud, and shallow water, but for the deep wading I recommend something different. I have ankle-high water rescue/first responder type boots with neoprene inserts, the sort of footwear Navy Seals use. These have treaded soles for hiking and mud, but are also designed to be used IN the water of any depth, and seal out water like a neoprene dry suit. I wear a neoprene bootie sock inside them for extra comfort. I also wear thin fast-dry hiking pants with zip off calves, which can also serve as a bathing suit for when the water gets thigh-deep to waist-deep. The same type of fast dry shirt (like a fishing shirt) is a good idea too. If all else fails, bring an old pair of sneakers you don't care about ruining in marsh muck and salt water, but proper hiking footwear is a better idea. You do not want to go barefoot or in flip-flops wading in these areas. Marsh muck will suck off anything not strongly attached to your feet, and beware of shells and other sharp surprises that lurk beneath the water. Be safe and smart. Come prepared.

Shackleford stallions'      
disagreement      
     Mud, muck and unknown underwater surfaces can be slippery, so you may want to bring a hiking pole for extra stability. Slipping and falling in two feet of salt water with a backpack or handful of expensive camera gear would be a disaster. The extra leg provided by a pole can prove invaluable, not to mention you can use it as a depth finder to test the water depth ahead of you. I use an aluminum ski pole I found at the Goodwill Store for $2.00. I scuffed it with sandpaper and sprayed it with a pattern of camo paint. Then I added three colored stripes across it - a green stripe for ankle depth, yellow for knee depth, and red for crotch depth. It won't rust, and if it gets lost I'm only out $2.00. It's not collapsible, but for a couple of bucks you can't have everything. At least I'm not likely to unexpectedly find a deep hole with my foot before the pole finds it.

Short lens shooting on Shackleford Open spaces on Shackleford
     Whatever you bring, remember you have to get on and off a boat with your gear. A single backpack of gear and a tripod is enough to carry around, load and unload. The boat rides can be choppy and rough at times, often with salt spray, so provide cover for your gear in transit. Even if the weather is pleasant, the wind can be chilly at boat speeds, so have something warm to wear that's packable when not needed. There are also no facilities on Shackleford. The Park Service does have a couple of compost type toilet buildings on the island, but they're far from the east end. Bring water and snacks with you, and carry off your trash.

     Shackleford has about 100 horses in residence, but they are spread out across a nine-mile long island. The most common sightings are groups of two to four, though I have seen as many as eight in a group. If you see a dozen wild horses during a single outing on Shackleford you've had a good day. It's not uncommon to hike from one to three miles on an outing here. It's also possible to luck into a couple of family groups in plain sight out among the grassy dunes where you land the boat and you won't have to wade the marshes, streams and sloughs to get your shots.

About The Rachel Carson Reserve:
Horses returning from feeding in
the tidal marsh at Rachel Carson
     The Rachel Carson Reserve is similar to Shackleford, requiring a boat to reach it. Passenger ferry and shuttle service is available from the Beaufort waterfront on Taylor Creek, as is charter boat and guide service for small groups. Kayaking is a reasonable option, as the distance between the waterfront and the reserve is just two hundred to three hundred yards. Crossing by kayak and hiking the area is a very practical option.

Stallions test each other
at Rachel Carson
     The reserve is part of the N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve. [Do not confuse this location with the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge which is in Maine] Unlike the Corolla herd and Shackleford herd, these horses are considered "feral". They originated from Ocracoke and Shackleford horses, which are considered descended from the Spanish Colonial stock brought by early explorers and settlers. However the Rachel Carson herd was mixed with some thoroughbred and farm stock decades ago, before the horses or property came to be the Rachel Carson Reserve.

     The reserve has maritime forest and brush, and large areas of tidal marsh, but there is much less in dry grassy areas here, and distances are much shorter than at Shackleford. The whole island complex is one-third that of Shackleford, with much more of it being tidal marsh than dry land area. There are only about 35 horses here, but they are generally much easier to find. Unlike the Shackleford horses, which tend to keep their family groups of 3-5 horses mostly isolated from other family groups, the Rachel Carson family groups seem to tolerate other family groups more easily. Thus you will often find several family groups in close proximity while grazing. This provides a better concentration of horses in one area as subjects. It also means you are more likely to encounter interesting action, such as stallions taking exception to each other's presence. I have witnessed only one such encounter on Shackleford, but have seen several at Rachel Carson, some of which were only quick scuffles. They still provided good action for photos though.

Stallions at Rachel Carson
Reserve
Black Skimmers at Rachel Carson
     The same sort of footwear and clothing as Shackleford is recommended here also. Something to consider at both locations is the damp, marshy ground of the tidal marsh at low tide. You might bring a large trash bag, a 2x2-foot piece of heavy plastic or other waterproof ground cover to set your backpack or camera bag on when swapping out lenses and bodies. Keep in mind the wind can easily carry off such plastic items if you're not careful. To keep muck off your tripod leg locks, you can extend the smallest leg sections just six inches or so, keeping the lower leg locks away from the ground without adding unnecessary flex to your tripod. Then just get your needed height from the upper leg sections.

     The greater accessibility of the extensive tidal marsh at Rachel Carson will provide more opportunities than Shackleford for some great bird photography. This is especially true when kayaking into the tidal marsh at high tides. Depending on the season, you can get close access to the horses feeding on the marsh, as well as spectacular flocks of Black Skimmers, plenty of White Ibis, and a plethora of peeps, sandpipers, yellowlegs, oystercatchers, and even an occasional loon. Paddling the marsh can be a tricky business though. The good thing is if you get caught with the tide going out, you can just get out and walk..... not that it's much fun having to do that. Hitting the tide just right takes some knowledge and experience, but it can be done with great results. Be warned that the sharp dangers of extensive oyster beds here must not be ignored, whether wading or paddling.

Advice on Clothing and Footwear:
     Although I mentioned footwear and clothing in the above sections, this section will cover clothing and footwear in more detail. It goes without saying that sun screen lotions are advisable any time you're out in the sun and nature.

     For Corolla - you will be mainly on sand, whether soft and deep, or hard packed. Suitable shoes or even sandals work fine, keeping in mind the air temps. Shoes with higher tops will obviously help to keep sand out. At Corolla you might wish to shoot from the surf toward the beach so the sun is to your back, so the right footwear and fast dry clothing would be recommended. When shooting from the surf , water sandals, water shoes or perhaps even bare feet in warm weather would work. Short pants or fast dry clothing is a good idea too, since your legs will certainly get splashed.

     For Shackleford Banks and Beaufort (Rachel Carson Reserve) - the terrain is much more varied on these islands. You will encounter all of these: (1) wading in water from one inch deep to one foot deep (and up to 2-3 feet deep on Shackleford if you are adventurous), (2) soft dry sand, (3) soft wet sand, (4) packed sand, (5) mucky, slippery mud (often laced with sharp, jagged oyster shells), (6) short grass, knee-high and waist-high grasses (often laced with light briars), (7) burrs that grab onto everything like velcro, (8) scrubby cedar thickets with lots of dead dried branches that can scratch, (9) and at times, mosquitos.
     While that may sound like a daunting list, it is really quite manageable. The briars, burrs and especially mosquitos are a minor distraction, and mainly something to be mindful of.
For the months that I visit these places (April, May, early June, October & November) I've seen very, very few mosquitos. Usually the breezes simply keep them blown away, while long pants, long sleeves, very light gloves and mosquito repellant easily take care of it the rest of the time. I also have use of a mosquito net that hangs over my hat, since I hate using mosquito repellant. Actually though, mosquitos are the last thing I have on my mind. And those small dead cedar branches are only an issue if you wish to take shortcuts through the cedar thickets. Otherwise, the landscape is quite open. The real issues are the mud and varying depth of water.
     I nearly always wear fast dry pants (with or without zip off legs) and fast dry shirts (long sleeve). I get the "PFG" (performance fishing gear) type of shirts from Columbia, as well as Columbia pants. There is a Columbia outlet store very close to me, so it's quite affordable. I have both insulated and lightweight water repellant jackets, depending on the season. A jacket hood is handy too. If you're taking a chartered boat to reach the islands, the boat rides at speed in cool air can quickly turn from chilly to downright cold, so depending on the season, you'll want the option to block the wind. If you wear brim hats to keep the sun off your face as I do, a chin strap on your hat is a must so a boat ride can't blow it off. You can encounter some salt spray on the boat, especially on windy days with choppy water, so a spare towel or such is handy to cover exposed camera equipment to avoid getting it sprinkled.
18-inch
snake boot
kayaking boot
(NRS Boundary Shoe)
Workboot/wetshoe
and wetsock
     And now to the footwear. I've collected and use different kinds of footwear for various situations and conditions.
(1) Water shoes/ water sandals - I have simple water shoes and water sandals, which are suitable for photographing on the beach or from the surf at Corolla. I would NOT use these at Shackleford or Rachel Carson (Beaufort). The marsh muck will suck them off your feet in an instant, and they offer no protection from briars and burrs.
(2) Snake Boots - My zip side snake boots are very comfortable for trekking. I sometimes use them at Shackleford and Beaufort, but only if I will not be hiking through the deep mucky marsh mud, or wading in water deeper than 6 inches. These are waterproof to a point, and great against briars and burrs. Deep mud will not tend to suck them off my feet, but I don't like having to clean the black mud off them. So long as I keep to mud no deeper than a couple of inches it's no problem. They are sturdy and protect against the occasional sharp oyster shell. I do not wear them because of snakes, I wear them for comfort. I've never seen a snake on these islands or ever heard anyone speak of snakes at all.
(3) Kayaking boots - I really like my NRS Boundary Shoes, not only for kayaking, but for trekking on these islands. They are supremely comfortable, waterproof, and have a tough treaded bottom that protects from shells. The tread provides grip in muddy and wet sandy situations, and the black marsh mud hoses off them well. Burrs do stick to them sometimes, but they protecet well from briars. Wading in a foot of water is no problem with these, and the mucky mud will not suck them off my feet. What I cannot do with either these or the snake boots is wade in water over 12-14 inches. Obviously the water can go over the top and into the boots. While that is a major issue for the snake boots, it's not actually a problem with neoprene boots, except that I end up with wet socks for awhile. Since they are neoprene inside and out, they will wash up just fine.
(4) Workboot wetshoes - My NRS Workboot wetshoes are my go to footwear when I have to wade deep. This is the kind of footwear first responders and Navy Seals wear. They're rugged, and designed to be underwater, like a wetsuit. Marsh muck will not suck these off your feet. In fact, they're a bit of a struggle to get on as well. I always wear a pair of wetsocks with these, as it makes it supremely easier to get the boots on and off. This is what I wear at Shackleford if I need to wade in deep water to get closer to the horses. They are an all-round solution for every situation - mud, sand, any depth of water, high grass, briars and burrs, and they protect against those hidden objects underwater when wading. Being neoprene, they are completely submersible and washable inside and out, so marsh muck and mud can be cleaned off.
(5) Other suitable footwear - Muck Boots (it's a brand), and other kinds of mud boots will do, but you want them to be comfortable for a day's worth of trekking. If they're not comfortable for walking, you'll regret wearing them. Most mud boots are not really meant for hours of wear, so choose carefully. They need to be comfortable and waterproof. They do not need to be insulated for cold weather. The lighter weight they are the better for hiking they'll be. And be sure they are not prone to slipping off easily. You don't want the mud to suck them down and yank them off unexpectedly.
(6) What NOT to wear - Don't wear your good dry land hiking shoes. Do not wear sneakers, sandals, water shoes, deck shoes, or anything cut below the ankle. They can easily be sucked off by the mud you will encounter, and will be ruined as well. At least above-the-ankle shoes/boots can be tied tightly enough so they will resist being sucked off. If you have to wear old sneakers, wear ones you can afford to trash after a day's trek in mud and salt water. But you will have to be careful to avoid the deeper mud while on the islands.

 
Even the horses can sink into
the mud above their knees
 
I don't mean to harp on the mud.... but...it's important to understand that there are places where you can sink up to your knees or worse if you are not careful. Even the horses can sink in the mud up to their bellies. If you've ever done any photography in a freshwater marsh, you'll know that you can sink into the muddy bottom. A salt water marsh is no different. This creates a vacuum and refuses to let go of your feet. No matter whether you sink 6 inches or two feet, it can and will throw you off balance. Now getting wet and muddy is certainly not fun, but it won't cause you permanent damage. However, if your camera gear ends up wet and muddy, it will be a disaster, and at the very least will ruin your photography outing. On these islands you can avoid the mud by simply not walking in it. But that can limit your photo opportunities. Mostly the mud is a couple of inches deep, but even that much can be very slippery. Whether slipping and falling, or getting stuck and loosing your balance, the end result will be the same.

$2 hiking pole
So what should I do? (1) Follow this rule - stay on the horse paths whenever possible. The horses walk there because the ground is firmer than elsewhere, and the paths get packed firm. You can easily see these paths across the marsh. They are bare of any grasses. You can't miss them. You can even see them in satellite photos. Use them.
(2)
Consider using a hiking pole as I mentioned earlier in this article. To recap, mine is an old aluminum ski pole I found for $2 at the Goodwill store. I put a nylon cord on it for a wrist strap so I can let go to use both hands for photography without dropping it. I sprayed it with camo paint, and put green, yellow and red stripes on it to mark different depths. I can prod the water ahead of me to check the depth when wading. It gives me a third leg for stability in slippery mud. I can use it for a pseudo monopole by propping my lens foot on it to steady a shot. Being aluminum it will not rust from salt water. And best of all, it was only $2. That's really cheap insurance against a disaster.

Final Thoughts:
     My favorite of the three locations is the Rachel Carson Reserve. It gives me the option of enjoying some kayaking along with my photography, with opportunities to capture images of both birds and wild horses. What I don't like are the limited lodging options in the Beaufort/Morehead City area. Only a couple of motels in Beaufort are close to the reserve and provide space to park a vehicle pulling a boat trailer. More choices are in Morehead City, but it takes a few minutes to reach Beaufort from there, which can be a hassle if you're on an early schedule to meet up with a tour boat or charter boat. The options within Beaufort are better if you're not pulling a kayak trailer.

Kayak photography on the tidal marsh
View from kayak on Rachel Carson
Reserve tidal marsh
     I hope this has provided some useful information from a photographer's perspective to help you get a feel for which of these locations might suit your interests as a photographer. Along with the links provided to NCWildHorses.com and CarolinaOuterBanks.com, you should have a better idea of what to expect when visiting each of these wild horse populations on North Carolina's coast. I did not include the Ocracoke horses for the simple reason they are penned behind such a ridiculously high fence they aren't even of much value as a cheap tourist attraction, and are certainly of no photographic interest. Shackleford Banks, Rachel Carson Reserve and Corolla have more than enough to offer for wild horse and bird photography to make a trip to any of them a worthwhile and rewarding excursion.