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A twenty-five mile stretch of sand, located off of the Nova Scotia coast, is the home to the untouched wild horses of Sable Island.
The horses have survived alone for centuries under remarkable conditions.
The tenacity of their continued existence has captured hearts and imaginations the world over.
About the Wild Horses of Sable Island
Brought to the island in 1737, the Sable Island horse breed has developed over time to do one thing. Survive.
Short of build, at only fourteen hands, many incorrectly label them as ponies.
These horses have developed their characteristic build, uncommon in their domestic counterparts, as a result of their unique environment.
Long flowing manes, with tails that brush the ground, the Sable Horses have a whimsical and wild appearance. In the winter months, an incredibly thick and shaggy coat protects them from punishing frigid elements.
Surviving the elements alone, without any interference, allows this wild horse breed to develop and thrive in a pristinely untouched way.
History of the Sable Island Horses
The history of the Sable Island horses is directly connected to the strange history of the island itself.
As far back as the 16th century, ships were landing or shipwrecked at Sable Island. There were some early attempts to colonize the isolated stretch.
Horses and other animals were initially introduced in the early 18th century to provide food for shipwrecked sailors.
In 1760, a Boston merchant introduced an entire herd of 60 horses. Acquired from French settlers who’d been expelled from the region, they are the true ancestors of the modern-day herd.
His intention was to develop a livestock business on the island, and with the horses, he’d brought a multitude of farm animals. However, he abandoned the idea and the animals.
Of all left behind, only the horses survived.
What Do the Horses Eat and Drink?
The Sable Island horses are fully sustained by what the island provides.
There are some freshwater pools on the island. Fresh rainwater will seep through the sand to float on top of the saltwater.
The horses know how and where to dig in the sand to create their own freshwater pools.
Having adapted to the island so well, the horses have a diet primarily sustained by the native Marram grass.
Becoming gluttons in the lush summer months, the wild horses will eat to bursting. The intended build-up of fat reserves sustains them through winter.
The island in winter is mild with plenty of forage. On the occasions when snow falls, the horses will dig through the white layer to uncover the nourishment below.
Sable Island Herd Preservation
Without any natural predators or interference from the off-island world, the herd of wild island horses has continued to flourish.
There are other famous wild herds worldwide, some of which have incredibly high numbers of wild horse populations.
On the largest scale, Europeans introduced horses to Australia in the late 18th century. The more than 1 million-head Brumby herd remains feral to this day.
On a more equitable scale, the Corolla Island Wild Horses of the American North Carolina Outer Banks also remain feral, protected, and thriving.
See our article on the Corolla Wild Horses here.
Sandy Sharkey, a Photographer and Sable Island Guide, explains:
“The main difference between the Corolla horses and the Sable Island horses is probably the fact that the Sable horses are completely left to Mother Nature. Mankind is 100 percent hands-off. The horses are fully protected.”
The Fate of the Wild Sable Island Herd
Renewed efforts in 2014, when Parks Canada declared Sable Island a national park, have ensured the preservation of the herd.
Continual extensive research, with support from the Canadian people, ensure that the horses will stay on the island forever.
Efforts like this one, to preserve the wild horse herds, have been a priority for many on every equine-inhabited continent.
Here in America, the fate of our Wild Mustang herds is regularly debated by politicians and activists.
As a supporter of the conservation of wild horses, I continue to pay close attention to the activities of my local government on this issue. I strongly encourage you to do the same.
And for now, the Sable Island wild horse’s lives will continue on as they have for centuries.
A movement to remove the horses from Sable Island was started in the 1950s, and a letter-writing campaign from school children across the country saved the herd.
Biologists and Ecologists argued that the horses were destroying the island and, as they are non-native, they should be removed to preserve the environment and habitat of native species.
In 1960, the feral herd was placed under federal protection and a small herd from the island was sent to three wildlife sanctuaries on the mainland to promote the conservation effort.
A 30-year-old unnamed Sable Island horse, the last from that herd in captivity, was euthanized in late 2019.
With his passing, it can once again be said that Sable Island horses are a completely wild and treasured breed. Free from the interference of humankind in every way.
Here is a beautiful video of the horses:
Visiting Sable Island
Isolated and protected, getting to the island is possible with strict federal and natural limitations.
To get there, Parks Canada is the only ticket in town. They have a firm visiting season set from summer through early fall.
Visitors are able to hire private transportation. However, visitors must pre-register to be allowed on the island.
Only accessible by air and sea, the weather and island geography limits access even further.
The federal participation in tourism helps to maintain consistent regulations for the conservation of the herd.
Thanks to Sandy Sharkey Photography for the photos used in this article. Follow Sandy on her Facebook page, and Instagram. Prints & photos of Sable Island wild horses are available on her website here.
For more information on visiting the island yourself, visit the Parks Canada – Sable Island National Park Reserve website.