Hurricane Matthew is gone. But its effects linger: Hundreds—possibly thousands—dead, and hundreds of thousands without homes, without power, in the Caribbean and southeastern US. And there’s every indication that storms like Matthew will only become more common as the climate continues to change.
But humans aren’t the only locals whose lives are put into jeopardy when a hurricane comes to town. In North Carolina—where flooding has reached record highs—about four hundred feral horses live on the Outer Banks, a series of barrier islands skirting the state’s coast. And while horse fans might be inclined to round up a posse to help, their help is neither needed nor wanted. The animals are the descendants of domesticated horses that either survived shipwrecks or were abandoned by their owners during the Spanish colonization period. They’ve thrived on the hurricane-vulnerable islands for 400 years.
Horses don’t share all of humanity’s problems with exposure to inclement weather. They’ve evolved to live in the open wilderness. They’re incredibly tough, and pretty good at finding adequate shelter when things get stormy, even when they’re all by themselves. But still, hurricanes? “It’s amazing what they can use for shelter,” says Sue McDonnell, head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “If there are no trees, they’ll use landscape to their advantage to break the wind and driving rain.”
Also, the horses use teamwork. Each adult male hangs out with squad of a mature females and their young, who break off to form their own harems (a technical term, apparently) when they grow up. And even if you’re a stallion who’s not quite a stud, you can always bro down with a bachelor herd (also a real thing). Whatever group they join, the horses will instinctively hoof it to higher ground, then huddle—with all the colts and fillies between them—with their backs to the wind.
Instincts don’t always help on the Outer Banks, though. The barrier islands are pretty flat and barren, though some have shrubs and small maritime forests for the horses to shelter in. “The harems are usually very territorial, but in hurricane conditions that all goes by the board,” says John Taggart, a professor of environmental studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, who has studied these feral horses. “I saw a number of groups clustering side by side together in order to sustain themselves.”
But the biggest risk to the horses isn’t something they can protect themselves from, no matter how big the herd: Water. Horses can swim, but only for so long. Even the sturdiest hooves can fail when storm surges and massive flooding come their way. “We had five horses swept off the Rachel Carson Reserve during Hurricane Isabel. Some of them were washed over to other barriers, but a few of them did drown,” Taggart says.
And even if the horses survive the deluge (which clearly most of them have), a wave of salt water washing makes life difficult. “There can be tremendous change to a landscape of a barrier island after a hurricane,” Taggart says. “High winds can shift dunes and destroy their food source, and if you get a complete washover, the fresh water they drink at the center of the islands can be contaminated by salt water.”
Though it might seem callous to leave the horses so exposed—especially because they’re charismatic, and a popular tourist attraction maintained by a government organization—the animals really do seem better off in the storm than being nannied by human caretakers. “You’re going to lose some to a terrible storm, but you’re not as many as you would if you tried to help,” McDonnell says. “When the Bureau of Land Management rounds up and transports feral horses out west, they plan on losing 5 to 10 percent to injury or stress-related death.” Wild horses panic when they get rounded up and transported. Because, again, they are wild. Plus, round ups tend to tear apart social groups and separate foals from their families. That’s a big neigh-neigh.