By Jeff Hampton, The Virginia-Pilot
The leggy Corolla colt with a white star on his forehead cautiously followed his mother into the pasture.
He pawed the ground and sniffed the new green grass. His fuzzy ears rotated back and forth. Suddenly, he bolted down the white fence line at full speed, stopped at the end and returned galloping, his tiny hoofs flicking dirt behind him. He circled his mother, kicked up his back legs and ran again.
It was the first time he scampered and pranced like a wild horse in the month since he was born – living up to his name, Vivo – Spanish for “I live.”
That’s because Vivo – one of two foals born this year in the area’s wild horse herd – had a defect that caused his leg tendons to contract and forced him to walk on the tips of his hoofs. Without treatment, he could have become crippled and died.
Last year, two of eight foals had defects. One was so severely handicapped, it had to be euthanized. Two years ago, one of seven foals had a deformity.
“I’ve been saying this was coming,” said Karen McCalpin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. “Now, it’s here.”
McCalpin attributes the trend to the small gene pool in a herd of 101 horses. Genetic testing indicates they descended from Spanish mustangs left here more than 400 years ago. Visitors flock to see them.
A bill that stalled in Congress for the third straight year would permit the herd to grow to between 110 and 130 horses. North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones has sponsored the proposal each year. It has failed to advance in the Senate despite support from North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr, a Republican, and Kay Hagan, a Democrat.
The bill would “provide for the care and management of these wild-roaming horses and give local organizations and authorities the tools they need to manage these horses without excessive federal involvement,” Burr said in a statement.
McCalpin hopes to bring Shackleford Banks horses to Corolla for breeding and diversifying the stock. A management plan allows the Shackleford Banks herd to reach up to 130 horses.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the Department of the Interior opposes a larger wild horse herd.
Federal officials maintain wild horses are not a species native to the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge in the four-wheel-drive area north of Corolla. Refuge officials view the horses as a hindrance to habitat management and have fenced off areas where waterfowl feed.
“Sustaining a herd of 110 or more horses concerns us,” Greg Siekaniec, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, testified before Congress three years ago.
The 60-horse limit in the wild horse management plan has not been strictly enforced. The horses roam more than 7,000 acres, including the 4,500-acre refuge.
An equine veterinarian repaired and wrapped Vivo’s legs and administered muscle-relaxing shots to help cure his condition.
Vivo will never return to the wild herd after getting handled so much by people, McCalpin said. He is staying with his mother on a horse farm in Grandy. Both will one day be up for adoption.
In a year or so, he will grow into a larger-than-average stallion, and his smoky gray coat will turn black, she said.
“He is going to be a very handsome guy,” McCalpin said.