Welcome to Sable Island, a fascinating, frightening, windswept watery grave for thousands of helpless sailors, and home to the hardiest equines imaginable.Sable island horses wild in Atlantic

Sable Island is a 1.5 by 42 kilometer long remote windswept ecosystem, 300 kilometers east-southeast of Halifax known as “the Graveyard of The Atlantic” thanks to the 350 plus ships who have foundered and lost their fight against its hidden sandbars since 1583.

How did wild horses come to be living on Sable Island?

Popular folklore would have us believe that the ancestors of these horses jumped off the doomed ship’s decks and swam to the island and survived, but its more likely the horses are descendants of farm animals that were seized from the Acadians (French settlers in Nova Scotia) by the British during their expulsion from the colony in the late 1750s and 1760s.  Thomas Hancock, a Boston merchant and shipowner, was paid to transport the Acadians to more distant colonies with the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou country set as the principle export destination.  Thomas was the cousin of John Hancock who signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776.

In 1801, after forced shipwrecks and pirate plundering a “Humane Establishment” was set up on the island to offer comfort to future shipwreck victims. James Morris and his family along with some male employees took on the daunting task of manning the life stations, patrolling the beaches, erecting warning flagstaffs and surviving brutal weather all-year round.

Records tell us that some of the wild horses were trained to help in saving shipwrecked sailors and a stallion called Jolly was brought to the island to improve the breed.

In 1916, a fisherman/lighthouse keeper was posted to the number 3 life station on Sable Island with his family and other employees. In 1988 his daughter left a wonderful recording of her 14 years there which showed that life there was an incredible experience with much of it centering around their leisure and work activities with their horses, both tame and wild.

Sable Island Changes Once Again

Sable island Horses being transported in the 1960In 1958, with fewer shipwrecks due to advancements in science and oceanic navigation, the rescue station was closed and Sable Island became a weather research station. The wild horses remained, and in 1960 it took an intervention by an animal-loving John Diefenbaker to save them from a planned slaughter. Canadian schoolchildren wrote countless letters to the Prime Minister asking him to spare them. In 1961, the Canadian Shipping Act prohibited interfering or removing the horses from Sable Island.  Today there’s a large healthy herd that ranges from 200 to 350 horses. In 2008, the Nova Scotia government made the horses one of the official provincial symbols – they are also the official horse of Nova Scotia.

There are other horses from Sable Island who exist at Shubenacadie Wildlife Park in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia; they are descendants of horses taken from the island in the 1960s and 1980s.

What Breeds of Horses are on Sable Island?

Summertime is pleasant but winter can be brutal.

Summertime is pleasant but winter can be brutal.

The feral island horses are stocky and tough, can cope with any terrain, grow shaggy coats, have low set tails and most are bay with others being chestnut or black. There are no greys.

The Acadian horses were descendants of several shipments of French horses, including members of the Breton, Andalusian and Norman breeds, later crossed with horses from New England, including Spanish Barbs. The Boston merchant and shipowner Thomas Hancock purchased some Acadian horses and transported them to Sable Island in 1760, where they grazed the island as pasture. Although often referred to as ponies due to their small size, they have a horse phenotype and an ancestry composed solely of horses. Today the animals roam in herds from four or five or more with a stallion as the alpha male.

What Feed Do the Horses on Sable Island have to eat?

Marram grass is their pasturage but the sand they ingest eventually wears down their teeth and starvation often claims the older horses. About 40% of the island is covered in vegetation and over 175 plant species can be found including sand wort, cranberry communities, bayberry, wild rose, blueberry and six species of orchid.

There are a few ponds created from rain and snow between dunes while the marram grass stabilizes the sand and keeps the ocean waves from washing in. Shelter from the brutal winter winds and snow must be found by huddling together in dunes or beside higher points of land; over the past 100 years 80,000 trees have been planted on the island but only one, planted in the 1960s has survived and stands just a few feet tall.

Zoe Lucas has spent more than forty years (mostly alone) on Sable Island.

Zoe Lucas is a researcher on Sable Island and she gives us great insight into her work with the horses saying that, “The horses have the same status as other wildlife here – protected from disturbance and invasive procedures, except where research permits are provided by Parks Canada. Thus far, being considered as a population of wild animals, the horses have not received veterinary care. I’ve been involved in long-term monitoring of the population, all of which has been based on using non-invasive procedures.”

Sable Island Horses grazing on grass

Biological samples are only taken from dead animals that die of natural causes and while this is a slow way to collect data, it means that researchers don’t interfere with the lives of the horses. One interesting fact is that this data will be used to assess foot health with results possibly available in 2014. Regarding internal parasites, Lucas says that the Sable Island horses through preliminary surveys appear to have the same ones as domestic horses in Canada.

Traveling to Sable Island Requires Permissions and Multiple Permits

The horses are left alone to enjoy their days free from human interference.

The horses are left alone to enjoy their days free from human interference.

Interested in seeing these hardy horses? A trip to Sable Island is not something that can be easily accomplished and must be well planned in advance of the journey. Prior permission must be granted, and there are strict luggage weight restrictions. Nothing can be left behind on the island, and nothing can be taken away. Above all, no animals are to be disturbed.  There is no medical facility, no camping allowed, no pets and traveler can expect long delays both going in and leaving the abode. A mandatory waiver warns of tsunamis, quicksand, shark and wildlife attacks. Oh, and the cost is over $6,000 plus landing fees and other charges if an overnight stay is granted on the island. On the upside, it is a once in a lifetime experience.

Recently a Mississauga, Ontario company announced that they plan to organize trips to Sable Island. You will get to see some of the hardiest horses in the world living in their natural environment, untouched by man just hanging out at their beach!

Here are more interesting facts about the horses on Sable Island

• Sable Island became Canada’s 43rd National Park on June 20, 2013.

• Arthur McUrdy first photographed the horses in 1898 when visiting with Alexander Graham Bell.

• Photographer Roberto Dutesco began photographing the horses on 1994 and has a permanent display Wild Horses of Sable Island at his New York Studio. His photos are stunning.

• While Sable Island is the windiest place in Nova Scotia, has the least sunshine and the most fog, winter temperatures range from +5 to -5 and the hottest summer days at 25C usually occur in August.

• Data on the horses and herd size is collected regularly, but fog and weather conditions sometimes hamper efforts; some foals may be a few weeks old before they are noticed and recorded.

Read more about Wild Horses in Canada, Pests or Precious Heritage? on Horse Canada.