Cumberland Island in Georgia is known for its beautiful beaches, untouched wildlife reserves and uncommercialized island characteristics. It is perhaps most notably known for wild horses that can be seen from practically anywhere on the island. Whether you are taking a hike through the marsh forests, sitting in your back patio or relaxing on the beach, you will find the 150 or so wild horses scattered around the 20 mile long island, going about their own business.
The Cumberland Island horses are a band of feral horses. Popular myth holds that these horses were brought by the Spanish in the 1500’s. They are similar to the bands of horses living on the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague (off the coast of Virginia) made famous by the book, Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. In the 1700’s the English settlers in Cumberland Island domesticated the horses and used them for recreational and practical purposes.
There are a few controversies about these horses on the island. Visitors to the island are attracted by the fact that they can see the horses in their natural habitat. But the horses were brought here, so it is not technically a location they naturally belong to. While the island is largely wild, horses do not typically live in this ecosystem. Secondly, they feed on the plants growing in the marsh, which are also responsible for the health of the oceans, lakes, and rivers of the area. The park authorities have noticed that the horses have over grazed wild sea oats and dune grasses, causing the health of the water inlets to suffer.
These horses also tend to have many different parasites and afflictions such as worms and mites because they do not receive the veterinary care that most domestic herds receive. You can tell some of the horses have white spots, others look severely malnutritioned, with their ribs showing through their skins. The average life span of the horses on the island is 8-10 years old, in contrast to 25+ years
Many people have argued whether horses are generally wild or domestic animals. Are they happy running wild and eating wild grass, or do they need human beings to care for them? Should we interfere with nature, or let it be?
The National Park Service has contemplated downsizing the bands of horses, removing them from the island, or taking care of them. However, in 1996 legislation was passed by Jack Kingston that prevented the National Park Service from taking measures to manage the horses. So there is no organized human interference and the horses are free to suffer the consequences of being wild on Cumberland Island.