Horses of Cumberland Island

by Bethany Plonski July. 14, 2019 232 views
One of several stallions we saw, grazing and keeping an eye on his mares. :)

One of several stallions we saw, grazing and keeping an eye on his mares. :)

Cumberland Island is a barrier island off the coast of Georgia that is only accessible by ferry. You can camp there, but it is still more or less uninhabited by people, so it is a wonderful place to see wildlife.

One of Cumberland's claims to fame is its herd of feral horses - there are about 150 of them roaming the 17-mile-long island. I've only seen wild horses one other time, when I was much younger, at Chincoteague Island, and they were so far off that it was difficult to see them at all. So this was a really exciting experience, wandering the beautiful island right alongside them.

However, feral horses have very different manners from their domesticated counterparts, and they can be much more unpredictable and dangerous when people approach them. When you board the ferry, the rangers give instructions not to feed, approach, or touch the horses, because they have injured visitors before. Not surprisingly, in the age of Instagram, one of the most serious injuries was when a girl tried to take a selfie with a horse, and it bit her right on the neck. She had to be airlifted off the island!

I was frustrated by how little fear and respect people had for these animals, even after hearing all this. It was especially shocking to see parents bringing their children much too close (as you can see in the photo of this mare and her foal). I'm genuinely surprised that I didn't see anyone get hurt.

Skin problems and parasites are common because of the relentless bugs on the island.

Skin problems and parasites are common because of the relentless bugs on the island.

Having spent a lot of time around domesticated horses, I was struck by the physical condition of most of these wild ones. It's not an easy life for them on the island, and many (but not all) of them had distended bellies, visible ribs, and poor muscle quality.

This one breaks my heart. I'm not sure what was wrong with this poor girl, but she was skin and bones. The Cumberland herd is not managed by the park service, so the horses get no veterinary care if they are ill - nature just runs its course.

As I've been reading more about the horses, I can see why animal and environmental activists are concerned about them being on the island. Yes, they are beautiful, but they are a non-native species and their presence has a lot of complicated implications for the ecosystem and the horses themselves. I'm very grateful that I had the opportunity to see them, but I don't know if I can say what is right after being there.

Scratching an itch :)

Scratching an itch :)

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There are 25 comments , add yours!
Russell Smith 6 months, 1 week ago

Beautiful series. I think it was Lucy Carnegie that gave the horses free reign of the island and they had more rights than the humans living there. I think it is the only one or one of the only herds on the east coast that are not managed in any way.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Russell Smith 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you! I was reading that UGA did a genetic study on the horses, and they were all pretty fancy breeds like Arabians and Tennessee Walkers and Paso Finos, so I'm thinking they are all descendants of the ones the Carnegies brought there. I'm surprised they've made it this long without being managed.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Russell Smith Replied to Bethany Plonski 6 months, 1 week ago

I think you are correct. If you ever get back down to the area  I would suggest going across to Fla Amelia Island. There is a Fort there that looks across to Cumberland but anywho there is a "cruise" that goes over to Cumberland and tells the history of the island which I find quite interesting.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Russell Smith 6 months, 1 week ago

I will keep that in mind - haven't been to Amelia Island, but my mom went recently and it looked gorgeous. The area definitely has an interesting history (and ecology).

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Russell Smith Replied to Bethany Plonski 6 months, 1 week ago

The Pippi Longstckings house is also in Amelia . Also a lot of history there too. Plus tons of Sharks Teeth/Fossils too . Just do not go on a Holiday prices get inflated. There is also a great resturant Ceder Creek I think is the name of it . Reasonable prices and a ton of good food.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Russell Smith 6 months, 1 week ago

Oh fun! If we do go back, I'd love to go before summertime to enjoy cooler weather, so off-season sounds like the way to go. Thank you for the recommendations!

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Lynn F Medley 6 months, 1 week ago

Very interesting series,, and great images!

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Lynn F Medley 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you, Lynn! It has been eye-opening to see them and learn more about how difficult their lives are.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Greg Blaney 6 months, 1 week ago

I've never heard of this place, Bethany, but then why would I - I live on the other side of the continent. You've captured the horses wonderfully in all their beauty and dismay. This post was very interesting - thank-you.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Greg Blaney 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you! So glad to hear you found it interesting. The geography was very different obviously, but in some ways it reminded me a little bit of the islands we visited in BC, just in the sense of being more remote and isolated than many other beaches around here.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Andi Saw 6 months, 1 week ago

There should be a vet service... I mean, they could spread disease or something... No vet volunteers? Weird. 
Anyway, i think your skinny friend will be fine. She has a serious and horrible wound on a back leg. Probably she couldn't move for a very long time. Now she's up, and eating... It's a good news. 

I would never get close to mommy horse with her baby. 
They're amazing. 
If I lived there, I would bring one home smile  (Yes, I read about how impredictable they are, and I don't care. It's a horse for free! And they mow the lawn!

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Andi Saw 6 months, 1 week ago

I would love to see that too. Even just de-worming them could help a lot. 
I noticed that wound on her leg too! I'm assuming it had something to do with her overall condition too (or parasites, since she looked so malnourished). I hope for the best, poor girl looks like she has been through enough.
As for your grass, a horse can eat about 25 lbs of grass per day if you let them. smile

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Buster Bruce 6 months, 1 week ago

Beautiful work Bethany. My only experience is was with the wild mustangs in Nevada. They too, being wild, suffered with malnutrition and disease. We have all been used to seeing domestic horses, well fed, well care for- the wilds are different but very natural. Thanks for sharing this interesting subject-

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Buster Bruce 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you, Buster! Glad you enjoyed it, and that's a great observation about natural vs. domestic appearances. Many of the horses I see at shows today are the equivalent of Olympic athletes, not average Joes. A good thing to keep in mind. smile 
I remember reading about mustang herds in the 90s for a research report, and I was horrified to learn that managing a herd often involves rounding horses up for slaughter too (and I saw some awfully graphic images of what that process looked like). Has stuck with me to this day! But on a positive note, I have a friend who has a mustang rescue horse, and he is an absolute gem. So I'm glad to know some of them find happier lives.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Camellia Staab 6 months, 1 week ago

Wow Bethany, while I like your pictures, I don't like what I see. They look awful. Really sad situation.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Camellia Staab 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you! I walked away from this with very different feelings than I expected to have. Now I can't stop reading and thinking about it.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Antonio Gil 6 months, 1 week ago

To live in the wild it's not easy. The pictures are very good. Perhaps they ought to be displaced to another location

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Antonio Gil 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you! So true, not easy at all. The more time I spend observing wild animals, the more respect and reverence I have for their strength and will to survive. It's awe-inspiring.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Sherry Hill 6 months, 1 week ago

beautiful series.. and my heart goes out to their suffering.. i know there is something to be said about living wild and free.. but we treat and release every kind of animal out there, why  not these horses? 

and as for the touristy daringly stupid = i've learned i don't need to "humanize" the moment, to be part of it..  that simply being silent witness to it, is indeed, being part of it,, of this!

thanks for sharing the experience! green heart

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Sherry Hill 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you! Glad to share it. This definitely made me think differently about what it means to be wild and free. And knowing how easy it is to manage common health problems like worms - such simple treatments for it - I really wish they would reconsider at least minimal veterinary care for them.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Berckmans Peter 6 months, 1 week ago

Good tribute to these beautifull animals.Sad to see the condition they are in.They should get some extra food and care. An animal in good condition will not easely hurt somebody.The green people have a problem with animals that are not native to a place, I see that here all the time. Ok capture the m and bring the m to a place where they belong and can be cared for;

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Berckmans Peter 6 months, 1 week ago

Thank you! It was definitely an eye-opening experience to see them. It's a situation without an easy answer. And kind of odd for people to be upset about non-native animals, when we ourselves are the worst offenders in pretty much any ecosystem you look at today. smile

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Berckmans Peter Replied to Bethany Plonski 6 months, 1 week ago

We think we are superior.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Björn Roose 6 months, 1 week ago

I get the impression that the horses will not be there for ever, at least not in those numbers. Unlike people other animals tend to limit their kind to sustainability.

As far as those people approaching the horses way too close are concerned: even with a tame horse it is a good rule never to turn your back on it ...

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Björn Roose 6 months, 1 week ago

I think that will be the case too. In drought years, their population drops much lower. And there are developers pushing to build condos on the island now, so if they get their way that will probably lead to a review of how the herd is managed. Lots of controversy over that already.
You are right about being careful even around tame horses! I was a nervous wreck watching all these people put themselves in harm's way.

6 months, 1 week ago Edited
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