The Feral Horses of Sable Island

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THE FERAL HORSES OF SABLE ISLAND:
Their Environment, History, Behavior, Population, and Ecological impact

By Janice M. Ladendorf

Sable Island lies 100 miles east of the Canadian Maritime Province of Nova Scotia and somewhat south of its capital city, Halifax. The island is one enormous sandbank, 20 miles long and crescent shaped. In French, sable means sand. Sable Island is also known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic;” offshore are hulls of 350 or more wrecked ships. Many species of birds, as well as seals and feral horses live there. In 2011, the Canadian government turned it into a National Park Preserve.

The Island is covered with verdant grasses, multi-colored flowers, berry bushes, low shrub, and beach pea. Marrram grass stabilizes the sand dunes, binds the island into one cohesive whole, and helps feed the horses. The island has two fresh water ponds, as well as a lake with brackish water. Especially in dry times, the horses dig holes to find water.
Sable Island horses by one of the fresh water ponds. Photo by Kordas.

Sable Island horses by one of the fresh water ponds. Photo by Kordas.
Sable Island horses by one of the fresh water ponds. Photo by Kordas.

Various theories exist about the origin of these horses. The import of various French breeds of horses to Canada began in 1665. Included were Andalusians, Barbs, Friesians, and haubini (gaited Asturians from Iberia). In addition, the breeds in Acadia (Nova Scotia) have been influenced by horses brought up from New England. In 1738, the Reverend Andrew Le Mercia found no horses on Sable Island. By 1753, 20 to 30 horses lived there. Some still believe these horses had swum ashore from shipwrecks. From 1755 to 1763, the British deported all of the French settlers in Acadia who had refused to swear allegiance to the crown. The settlers left their possessions behind and many believe they abandoned some of their horses on Sable Island. Later, 60 Acadian horses were brought there to haul lifeboats and other equipment used to rescue shipwrecked mariners. Modern DNA analysis has shown they are related to the multipurpose horses of eastern Canada.

Survival on the island selected for a recognizable type, similar to that of the original wild horse or steppe pony. The horses vary from 13 and 14 hands with a weight from 600 to 800 pounds. They are ponies in size, but small horses in their genetic heritage. Poor nutrition in their early years has limited their growth. They are chunky horses with heavy necks, strong shoulders, narrow deep chests, sloping croups with low set tails, and short heavy-boned legs. About 50 percent are bay and the rest are chestnut, palomino, or black. Dorsal strips and mealy noses are common. The horses have a relatively short stride, but some have natural ambling gaits. Stallions usually have excessively long forelocks, manes, and tails.

A typical Sable Island herd. Photo by John DeVisser.
A typical Sable Island herd. Photo by John DeVisser.

Since 1801, a few humans have lived on the island to man lifesaving stations and lighthouses. In 1802, the Sable Island Commission was established to manage the wild herds. They built a shelter and put out hay, but the horses ignored their efforts. The shelter gave them no escape route and the hay carried the man smell. In an attempt to upgrade the wild herds, the commission imported new stallions, but most of them were killed by the wild stallions. Only a few lived to be returned to Halifax. The modern herds still show a few minor characteristics inherited from this breeding program.

The commission regularly harvested the herds. Brutal methods were used to catch and ship the horses. A few were kept and used by the islanders as riding or draught horses. Before shipping the rest to Halifax to be sold at auction, they slaughtered the poorest horses. Most went to coal miners or plantation owners. Fishermen bought some and a lucky few found good owners. In 1853, the horses sold for an average price of $20.

Sable Island horses waiting for auction in 1902.
Sable Island horses waiting for auction in 1902.

As the use of horses for work declined, more and more of the wild ones were sold for dog food. In an attempt to save of some of these unique horses, a few were sent to the mainland to live in the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park. With better feeding, they reached a larger size than the ones left on the island.

Sable Island horses that live in the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park.
Sable Island horses that live in the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park.

In the middle of the 20th century, plans were made to remove all of the horses from Sable Island, but an outraged public forced these plans to be dropped. In 1961, they came under the protection of the Canadian Shipping Act, and nonintrusive research or photography is all humans are allowed to do with them. Many photographers have taken advantage of the opportunity to visit the island and have produced beautiful photos of the feral horses. The most notable one is Robert Dutesco, who has exhibited his photographs in his New York gallery and has recently published them in a book, The Wild Horses of Sable Island.

When the ship rescue stations were no longer needed, the facilities were closed down in 1958, but they were replaced by a meteorological research station. In 2011, the horses received more protection when Sable Island became a National Park. To protect the fragile ecology of the island, human access has been strictly controlled.  This protection increased when oil was discovered near the island.

Like all other wild horses, the ones on Sable Island live in harems or bachelor herds, but the stallions do exhibit some unusual behavior. As long as their male offspring does not become aggressive, they are allowed to stay with their birth herds. When two harems meet, the stallions engage in some ritual posturing around piles of manure, but avoid challenging each other. Finally the bachelor herds and a few of the herd stallions will occasionally join each other for play days on one of the beaches. Their nonaggressive behavior may be a reflection of the fact there are no predators on the Island.  Unlike some of the herds studied on the American barrier islands, the stallions are not territorial. Like the wild horses of Nevada, they have ranges and will only defend a core area.

Despite the lack of predators, the feral horses have had to deal with two natural enemies. The first one is sand. To move over it without harming their legs, they had to develop shorter legs with heavy bones and strong joints. The first roundups failed because the domestic horses were ruined or lamed by chasing the wild ones through heavy sand. As the feral horses grazed, they were forced to consume sand along with the grass. Chewing sand wears down their teeth and the older horses eventually die of starvation. Unlike the feral horses of Assateague Island, they never learned to shake the sand off the grass before they chew it. Because the soft sand does not wear down their hoof walls, many have excessively long toes.

Their other enemy is the severe winters. The horses can grow heavy coats to protect themselves from the weather, but their main problem in the winter is finding adequate food. They can paw through the snow, but what they find to eat may be low in nutritional value. During the severe winters, half of the horses may die. In the good years, weak or unhealthy horses may survive and the population can double.  On the average, one half of the foals die every year. Many live for just a few days. As the population rises, mares have fewer foals and as it declines, they have more foals. Such adjustments are nature’s provision for adjusting the total population to what their habitat can support.

Considerable research has been done on population fluctuations. Prior to 1961, the existing records indicate the horse population varied from 150 to 300. The slaughter and sale of captured horses did not appear to have had any effect on the overall population total.  After 1961, regular counts were done by airplane and naturally they were the lowest in early spring before the new foals were born.  When human interference was stopped, the population still remained relatively stable. For example, in the years from 1970-1972, the population low was 208 and the high was 302. In 2004, a published estimate ranged from 200 to 250. Despite all these fluctuations, over time birth and death rates have stayed relatively equal. In recent years, the population has increased, probably due to a series of mild winters.

Many controversial opinions exist as to what should be done with the free-roaming feral herds of Sable Island. Some horse lovers want to either feed them hay or take them off the island so they can receive better care. To protect the fragile ecology of the island and the other wild species, some scientists want the horses to be removed. These people may be unaware of the research in England and Europe which has shown how wild horses can be used to improve the quality of grassland environments. These experiments suggest the Sable Island horses may have improved their habitat with the fertile quality of their manure and by dropping various seeds to increase the available forage.

Information Resources:

Christie, Barbara J. The Horses of Sable Island. Petheric Press Ltd., 1980.
Dutesco, Robert. The Wild Horses of Sable Island. teNeues, 2014.
Evans, Margaret. “The Wild Horses of Sable Island,” Horse Journals, Feb. 28, 2014.
Plante, Yves. “Genetic Diversity in a Feral Horse Population from Sable Island, Canada,” Journal of Heredity, vol. 98, no. 6, 2007, pp. 594-602.
“Sable Island: Should the feral horses be removed?” Nova Scotia – CBC News, Jan. 25, 2015.
Sable Island Green Horse Society. Sable Island Horses, Aug. 2002, revised April 2004. www.greenhorsesociety.com.
Welsh, Daniel A. “The Life of Sable Island’s Wild Horses”, Nature Canada, April-June, 1973, pp. 7-14.

Acknowledgements:

Photos 1, 3 and 4 are from Wikipedia. Photo 2 is from the Canadian Encyclopedia.Horses in the New World ad nov 15