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'm using a 24-105mm and a 100-400mm to cover pretty much everything. However, keep in mind that these are wild horses that go wherever they wish. The terrain can also be challenging, and sometimes you will be unable to get as close as you would like. You may need to resort to your longest bird lens at times. Also remember that these environments can present opportunities for great bird photography, so having along your big glass for birds is a good idea. You will find 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".

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.

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 both birds and wild horses. What I don't like are the lodging options in the Beaufort/Morehead City area, none of which are very convenient for both distance from the reserve and providing space to park a vehicle pulling a boat trailer. If you're not towing, then nice lodging on the waterfront is available in Beaufort, which makes this a primo site.

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.