'The Wild Horses of Sable Island' Article and Photos by Sandy Sharkey (published in Equine Canada Magazine)

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'Take the time to sit, take it in, and let your soul catch up with you'.  The words of expedition leader Stefan Kindberg, addressing the passengers aboard the ship, Sea Adventurer.  We were an hour away from getting into the Zodiac boats that would take us from our anchored ship to the land of the wild horses on Sable Island, and Stefan knew we were giddy with excitement.  I had dreamt about visiting Sable Island since I was a kid, with illustrated stories about the wild horses tucked underneath my pillow in hopes that one day I would have the opportunity to see them.

Our time on Sable island would be fleeting, and I appreciated Stefan's words of wisdom.  Especially since there was a good chance that I would implode from excitement once I finally saw the wild horses. 

Three hundred kilometres east of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sable Island is a crescent-shaped island that is 42 kilometres long, and 1.4 kilometres wide.  It is situated right in the path of some of the most treacherous currents in the world.  Storm waves and winds carry sand onto the beaches, where it is whipped further inland and trapped by plants.  Sable Island's narrow interior is sheltered between two ridges of sand dunes, which protect the foliage and freshwater ponds, the lifeblood for the few hardy species that survive on this crescent-shaped sliver of land. 

Sable Island is home to one of the world's last wild horse populations.

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How did the horses get there?  According to legend, the horses were survivors of ships lost at sea.   The island is known as the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic', and with over 350 known shipwrecks dating back to 1583, it was irresistible for writers of fiction to conjure up this connection.  But the truth is much less romantic.

Today's Sable Island horses are descended from the horses that were confiscated from Acadians during their expulsion from the United States in the 18th century.  Boston merchant Thomas Hancock brought sixty Acadian horses to the island in 1760, as work horses for a new life-saving station.  The horses eventually returned to a wild state, thriving under the harsh conditions. 

Sable Island horses were periodically rounded up and transported to the mainland, where they were auctioned off, frequently for dog food.  By the late 1950's, the horses were nearly extinct. 

In 1960, an extraordinary event took place that would forever change the course of history for the Sable Island horses.  Children from coast to coast sent thousands of cards, letters and drawings to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker pleading that the horses be saved.  A self-professed animal lover, Diefenbaker declared full protection for the wild horses of Sable Island.  Children all over North America thanked the Prime Minister for allowing the horses to be 'as free as the wind'.

In 2008, the Sable Island horse was named the official horse of Nova Scotia.  The Canadian government officially declared Sable Island as Canada's 43rd national park reserve on December 1, 2013. 

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In conjunction with Parks Canada, Canadian company Adventure Canada offered a June voyage to Sable Island, and I jumped at this chance of a lifetime.   Scientists and researchers, writers and photographers, artists and dreamers, all sailed from St John's Newfoundland to our destination:  anchorage one mile off Sable's southern shore.   We were briefed about the importance of zero-impact visits to the island, and keeping a mandatory 20 metre distance from the horses (we were also warned that the horses would not necessarily be where we wanted them to be, and a horse-free visit was a possibility).  It was finally time to strap on my life-jacket, grab a seat in the Zodiac, and step onto the sands of Sable Island. 

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Guided by Parks Canada staff, our small group hiked north between the sand dunes, following established horse trails so we wouldn't disturb fragile vegetation and nesting birds.  Within minutes I had spotted a line of hoof prints in the sand leading up to the top of a ridge.  But that ridge was off-limits and nowhere near our designated trail.  Since I enjoy hiking and daydreaming at the same time, eventually I imagined myself sneaking away, following the sandy prints, finding the horses, enjoying the horses, photographing the horses, then re-joining the group and not one person being the least bit suspicious.

I didn't need to daydream any longer.  Just behind a grassy dune, twenty-five metres away, a dark brown stallion and two chestnut mares grazed contentedly on rich marram grass, barely offering a glance in our direction.  Wild horses of Sable Island.  My eyes were wide and I could feel tears welling up, maybe because I had expected to cry at the very first dramatic, romantic sighting of a Sable Island horse, which I had assumed would be a rearing stallion on a ridge-top, mane flowing in the wind. 

Still shedding her winter coat, one of the mares was as shaggy as a sheepdog... in stark contrast to her stallion, who had already shed his extra coat to impress as many mares as possible.   The horses were smallish, between 13 and 14 hands, stocky, with thick bodies, small ears, tails low set and shaggy, and long manes that covered their eyes as they grazed.  Our group watched them in silence.

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We continued north and hiked past a freshwater pond, one of several on the island.  When water is scarce, Sable Island horses have learned to dig deep into the sand to find a fresh source. The ponds rarely freeze in the winter but if they do, the horses will eat snow.  We followed another line of sand dunes-  the island is forever shifting and changing due to the sand that is sculpted by the winds.  A band of ten horses appeared at the top of a ridge, under clear skies against a backdrop of deep blue sea, as close to a perfect scene as any one of us could ever imagine. 

Sable Island bands wild horse bands usually consist of a dominant stallion, one or more mares with offspring, and one or more subordinate males.  Males unsuccessful at earning the right to lead a family band will often form 'bachelor groups'.

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Keeping our distance, we observed true wild horse behaviours, with the occasional scuffle between stallions, mares grooming each other and tiny foals showing only the slightest curiosity towards the hikers.  Human presence on the island has been limited to a handful of research scientists, naturalists, artists and weather experts, and with Parks Canada's promise to keep the status quo with a 'hands off' approach to the horses, they show no fear whatsoever. 

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We followed the band as they descended the ridge and approached the sandy beach.  With short pasterns that allow them to move easily in the sand, the horses walked directly to a huge piece of driftwood-turned-rubbing post, waiting patiently for their turn to enjoy a good face rub against the weathered wood.  Without a single tree on this windswept island (except for one tiny pine that has somehow survived for years), the horses will seek anything to rub against.  A radio receiver station once needed expensive repairs because it became irresistible to itchy horses.

In 1974, Halifax native Zoe Lucas worked as a cook for scientists studying seals on Sable Island.  Eventually she began to research the flora, fauna and wildlife of Sable Island, becoming intensely involved in the study of Sable Island horses.  A field camp on Sable Island has now become her home, and there is no one more knowledgeable about the Sable Island horse.

The morning after our arrival, Lucas greeted us on the southern shore as we arrived for another three hour hike.  Lucas' research has shown that the Sable Island horses are genetically closest to Icelandic horses.  There is a 50/50 balance between the sexes.  Some horses have lived over twenty years but the average lifespan is twelve to fifteen years.  The horses are bay, brown, or chestnut.  There are no grays, roans, duns, palominos or spotted horses.  In the late autumn, the horses do a curious thing.  They bite the dead sections off the marram grass they feed upon, leaving a sheath that contains moist vegetation to sustain them throughout the winter. 

 Me, Zoe Lucas and photographer Michelle Valberg

Me, Zoe Lucas and photographer Michelle Valberg

Lucas has also learned that the wild horses of Sable Island like clove oil.  To soothe an aching tooth, she had been given a bottle of clove oil, the contents of which emptied in her coat pocket.  Wild horses from all over the island galloped towards Lucas that day, drawn to the source of the curious aroma.   

A diminutive woman with an easy smile, Lucas is the biggest champion of the Sable Island horse, stressing the importance of continuing to study these unique animals for scientific understanding of horse health and behaviour.  She eventually founded the Green Horse Society, as a form of public education about the horses and their island home. 

Our final exploration of Sable Island was not on foot, but from Zodiacs at sea, 200 metres from the shoreline so that we would not disturb the grey seal colony lazing on the beach.  The sun was low in the blue sky, the seas were calm, and we were about to witness true drama unfold. 

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We had spotted a band, nine mares and two foals, under the watchful eye of a dark bay stallion.  From our vantage point, we could see another bay stallion a kilometre away, galloping furiously towards the band.  The band stallion began to move his mares and foals away, pushing forward, and occasionally stopping to look back, as the challenger galloped closer and closer.  One kilometre became five hundred metres, the challenging stallion charging along the sandbar, mane and tail flying in the wind, momentarily plunging into the sea  to send a message by pawing aggressively at the water.

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We held our breath as we witnessed the band stallion abandon his mares and foals to charge furiously towards the interloper.  A chase ensued along the sandbar, with the band stallion furiously running his competition up the grassy ridge where his band watched from a distance.  Finally, both stallions reared, teeth and hooves clashed ... and it was over. 

The band stallion returned to the family that he had rightfully earned, with the challenger trotting away to continue life as a bachelor.

The population of horses on Sable Island is in a constant state of flux.  As of June 2014, there are 560 horses sharing this slice of sand and dunes, the highest number that has ever been recorded.  I asked Zoe Lucas if the future of the Sable Island wild horse was hopeful.  She said that she did have hope, as long as the horses have a source of food and fresh water, and that we keep doing what we are doing.

Which, ironically, is doing nothing at all. 

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