Sable Island Ponies after being unloaded from a steamer to be sold at auction – 1902.

Sable Island Ponies after being unloaded from a steamer to be sold at auction – 1902.

Welcome to Sable Island…fascinating, frightening, remote, windswept, watery grave to thousands of helpless sailors and home to the toughest, hardiest equines imaginable.

Sable Island is a 1.5 by 42 kilometre long remote windswept ecosystem, 300 kilometres 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 the fog, storms and hidden sandbars since 1583. This begs the question: with all the shipwrecks, how did the horses get on the island in the first place? Fiction and folklore would have us believe that they jumped off the doomed ship decks and swam to the island and survived. The truth is slightly less romantic and involves the deportation of the Acadians and the placement of the horses, sheep and other animals by Boston merchant Thomas Hancock (cousin of John Hancock of the American Declaration of Independence fame) in the mid-1700s.

In 1801, after forced shipwrecks and pirate plundering, a “Humane Establishment” was set up on the island and 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 whatever Sable Island threw at them 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 Changes Once Again

In 1958 with fewer shipwrecks and advancement in science, the rescue station was closed and Sable Island became a weather research station. The wild horses remained and in 1960 intervention by an animal loving Prime Minister John Diefenbaker saved them from a planned slaughter after Canadian schoolchildren wrote him countless letters asking him to spare them. In 1961 The Canadian Shipping Act prohibited interfering or removing them and today they exist on the island as a largely healthy herd ranging from 200 to 350 horses. In 2008, the Nova Scotia government made them one of the official provincial symbols and 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.

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. They roam in herds from four or five or more with a stallion as the alpha male. Marram grass is their pasturage but the sand they ingest eventually wears down their teeth and starvation often claims the older horses. 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 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.”

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.

Not for the Faint of Heart

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 planned overnight. Prior permission must be granted, there are strict luggage weight restrictions, nothing is left and nothing is taken, no animals are to be disturbed, there is no medical facility, no camping, no pets and delays both going in and leaving are frequent. 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 – so I read!  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!

• 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 really stunning; take a look at the website.

• Although often referred to as ponies due to their small size, the Sable Island equines have a horse phenotype.

• 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 though incoming fog and weather conditions sometimes hamper efforts; some foals may be a few weeks old before they are noticed and recorded.

• About 40% of the island is covered in vegetation and over 175 plant species can be found including sandwort, cranberry communities, bayberry, wild rose, blueberry and six species of orchid.