Outer Banks horse left all alone in pasture may have had to swim to survive hurricane

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A mystery has emerged in the telling of how the Outer Banks’ wild horses survived Hurricane Florence.

Instincts dating back five centuries compel the feral mustangs to either huddle on high ground — butts to the wind — or seek refuge in the maritime forest during storms, say experts.

But news has come of a Shackleford Banks horse named Merlin who was fenced in an “inundated” quarantine site during the storm, according the Foundation for Shackleford Horses.

Merlin some how survived and it “may have involved swimming,” says Margaret Poindexter, president of the foundation that co-manages the herd on National Park Service land.

“Given the condition of the site, Merlin was likely in deep water during part of the storm. His water trough was full of salt water,” she said, noting two volunteers hiked an hour through mud and debris to find him.

“Candidly, (we) anticipated they would be much more likely to find Merlin’s body than Merlin himself. But despite the fact that the barn was destroyed and much of the fencing was covered with debris and even laying down in some areas, there was Merlin, prick-eared, bright-eyed, and happy to greet them.”

Merlin’s survival is all the more impressive, she says, given he’s nearly 30 and was in quarantine for Equine Infectious Anemia, an incurable horse disease.

The quarantine site, which sits alongside the Core Sound, had been been “over washed” by storm surge and was left covered in deep marsh mud, grass and debris, Poindexter said.

How did Merlin survive?

“Not sure we will ever know. He was all by himself,” Poindexter said. “How he survived is a testament to the instincts and hardiness of this herd. They have survived on Shackleford Banks for centuries, certainly not an easy place to live. But those qualities also mirror the spirit and the heart of the people in Down East Carteret County, and is perhaps why folks here feel such a kinship with the horses.”

Merlin was already considered a survivor before the storm, she said. He was one of nine horses put in quarantine for EIA, and the other eight have died, she said.

The site in coastal Carteret County was created because the foundation was determined not to have the infected horses euthanized. (More than 70 were euthanized before the quarantine area was created, she said.)

Historians believe the free-roaming Outer Banks herds descend from horses brought to the New World by explorers 500 years ago, according to OuterBanks.org. Herds can be found at several spots along the Outer Banks, including the Shackleford Banks, Ocracoke Island and Corolla.

Those other sites have surveyed their herds and found all survived the Hurricane Florence, but the Shackleford Banks herd of 118 has not been fully accounted for yet, Poindexter said.

That’s partly because they are adept at hiding in the dense maritime forest that runs down the center of the island, she said.

Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs