National Park Service Ocracoke Island, North Carolina

National Park Service

Ocracoke is an island that’s practically a National Park.

The National Park Service (NPS) has an enormous presence on Ocracoke Island, because the majority of the island is designated as part of the Hatteras National Seashore and federally protected. It’s the reason the island can boast miles of undeveloped, protected beaches, and why Mother Nature is so pristine here.

National Park Service Programs

The NPS offers a wide variety of interpretive programs, guided walks, and ranger programs—and each is a great way to explore the island. Turtle talks, Seashore Arts, and Evening Campfire are some of the most popular kids’ programs. The Visitor Center the NPS manages and maintains is a great place to learn about the island ponies and seashore history.

Ocracoke Banker Ponies

On the sound side of the island seven miles north of Ocracoke Village is a 188-acre plot of land. Behind a wooden fence lives the herd of Ocracoke Banker Ponies, descendants of Spanish mustangs who survived a shipwreck just offshore several hundred years ago. Due to the traffic on Highway 12 through Ocracoke, the Banker Ponies were penned in 1959 and have been cared for by the National Park Service ever since.

Legend has it that the “Banker” horses of Ocracoke were left here by shipwrecked explorers in the 16th or 17th century. European ships commonly carried livestock to the New World. If a ship ran aground near the coast, animals were thrown overboard to lighten the load so that the ship could be re-floated. The livestock were often left behind when the ship again set sail. Sir Richard Grenville’s ship Tiger ran aground at Ocracoke in 1585. There is speculation that he may have unloaded Spanish mustangs on the island.

Horses have been documented on Ocracoke since the first European settlers came to stay in the 1730s. There have been as many as 300 horses on Ocracoke. While small and powerful, they are full-grown horses that are often called or referred to as Banker ponies as their range included most of the Outer Banks. Physically, the Ocracoke ponies are different from other horses – they have a different number of vertebrae and ribs as well as a distinct shape, posture, color, size, and weight that sets them apart from other horses.

The ponies have played a major role in the island’s history, serving residents as beasts of burden at work and play, in beach rides and races. When the early colonists settled Ocracoke, they used the ponies to help make life easier on the island by pulling carts to haul freight and fish. The U.S. Lifesaving Service used them for beach patrols and to haul equipment to shipwreck sites. The US Coast Guard kept a small band of Banker ponies to patrol the beaches in World War II. As time progressed, the families that lived on the island claimed the ponies, holding pony penning in the summer. Riders would start early in the morning at the north end of the island and drive the ponies into the village where holding pens had been constructed. Once in the pens they would sort out the ponies and brand the new ones. Some ponies would be broken for riding or sold, and the rest were turned loose to roam free again.

A visit to the Pony Pen is a must for any traveler to Ocracoke. The ponies have a wide range of sound-side beach and marsh to explore, but they prefer to hang around their paddocks and stables (especially near feeding time), so you can almost always spot a few. The Ocracoke Pony Pen is located right off NC Highway 12 and is always open to visitors.