The Outer Banks in North Carolina are home to a wild horse herd that some experts and historians think can be traced back to 16th century Spanish explorers. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund is a local non-profit that manages the herd of Colonial Spanish Mustangs across 7,544 acres that includes human neighbours who live in the 700 or so houses in the area. The humans who run Corolla are on call 24/7.

The dedication of the staff is why recently the behaviour of a senior mare named Hazel caught their attention. Herd manager Meg Puckett noted on the group’s Facebook page that Hazel would disappear from her harem (social group of mares and foals led by a stallion) for extended periods of time, and where she went was a mystery.

This mystery was solved one morning when Puckett noticed that a newborn foal was missing from its mother. Before panic set in, Puckett saw an adult horse lying nearby. It was Hazel, who was lying down next to the foal – a filly named Bridget – who was born to another harem. “As I watched, the horse (it was Hazel) rolled and stood up, and then up popped Bridget! She and Hazel had been napping together while the rest of the group grazed. Bridget made her way over to mom for a snack while Hazel stood close and kept an eye on things. Bridget laid back down, Hazel dozed off again, and I was on my way. What a sweet moment to witness!”

Puckett wrote a post on Facebook about the discovery. “Interesting behavior observation of the day: Hazel is an older mare and spends 99% of her time with Junior and his other two mares. But last year we noticed that she would leave them for weeks at a time and “harem hop” around to the other groups. She’s doing it again now and it dawned on us that she is going to visit the babies!”

Bridget with her mom.

According to Puckett’s post, this wasn’t the first incident of Hazel harem-hopping to visit a foal in another herd. “Hazel did the same thing after Allejandra was born last fall and has visited with Betsy this spring, too. There is no question that these horses form lifelong bonds with each other, have unique personalities, and communicate between the different harems.”

Hazel is estimated to be between 22-25 years of age and has had numerous foals of her own. Perhaps now that she’s beyond her reproductive years she just wants to be around other foals.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund also rescues and rehabilitates injured horses. The group purchased the 31-acre Betsy Dowdy Equine Center where the wild horses can be treated and recover. However, once rescued, the horses become accustomed to being handled, so there is an adoption program set up for these animals to find loving homes. Those they aren’t or can’t be adopted are welcome to live in this “off-island sanctuary” full time.

And as reported in the local press, to ensure the knowledge of these special horses is always evolving, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund has initiated a DNA project to determine the ages and connections within the herd.