The Wild Horses of Sable Island
Sable Island’s history, creation, and thriving existence are all part of what makes the island a truly mystical place, but I believe the horses are the focal point in sparking people’s curiosity and passion for the island. There is just something about wild horses in this uniquely uninviting but livable environment that draws people’s interests.
A Brief History Lesson
The Sable Island horses were released during the late eighteenth century. Boston merchants stocked the island with horses in hopes they would become a dependable horse supply to ship off to and sell to the mainland. Horses were later transported to the Sable to improve the herd’s breeding stock and to assist with lifesaving operations and daily living on the island. Horses were also brought to the island during the expulsion of the Acadians. During the 19th and 20th centuries, horses were periodically rounded up and kept by islanders or transported to the mainland. Horses who found homes on the mainland were sold as cheap, labor horses and worked in unfavorable conditions such as the coal mines. There has always been a feral component to the Sable Island horses, and as the human population on Sable began to dwindle away, all the animals were left behind to be wild and free. The horses are technically not “Wild” as they were once domesticated, rather they are a feral horse population.
In 1960, the Canadian government suggested that the horses be removed from the island in order to save tax-payers the cost of feeding the animals during harsh winters. The horses were assumed to be auctioned off to unfavorable homes, or worse, to be slaughtered. This sparked a national school writing campaign in Canada, as well as people from all over were writing in support of protecting the horses. Every letter was written with its own unique solution, but everyone shared the same desire that the Sable Island horses were not to be harmed. Diefenbaker was so moved by people’s passion for the horses that he declared it law the horses were to be protected from any human interference and remain on the island. Today, the horses are managed by Parks Canada, who took over responsibility of the island in 2013. Parks Canada deems the Sable Island horse as a naturalized species, which means the horses are recognized as an integral part of the island. Although the horses are an introduced species, they play a crucial role in the balance of Sable’s ecosystem.
Does Size and Colour Really Matter?
Often mistaken as a pony due to their small stature, the breed is actually a horse due to its phenotype and ancestral background. The horses are descended from a variety of breeds such as European bloodstock, Acadian breeds, and Spanish barbs. Their ancestors were smaller than today’s horses, and the harsh climate on the island make it ideal for the horses to maintain small (~13.2 hh to 15 hh) for survival. You’ll find light chestnut with flaxen manes and tails, to black, browns, and bay colored horses on the island. No colored or grey horses roam Sable’s sands as these were thought to be inferior colors and the animals bearing those colors were culled out. Whatever origins the Sable Island horses came from, I believe they have become their own distinct breed. They have been left to live and reproduce on Sable for hundreds of years without interference. The Sable Island horse has gone through a process of de-domestication and have evolved in a way that gives them optimal chance of survival in their harsh environment. The Sable Island horses have a distinct kindness and curiosity about them. The horses are the only terrestrial animal on the island, and there is an absence of predators. I believe having this isolation has faded the horses fear instinct and let their natural curiosity for the world become more dominant. There is something about the dreadlock, dangling manes of the stallions, the softness in the mare’s eyes, and the spunky personality among the foals, that makes you feel as if these horses are the most beautifully pure things you’ve ever encountered. They are a true beauty to our world.
In 2013, the horses had a recorded population of over 530 individuals. That number has been as low as one hundred and fifty in some years due to the harsh climate and the dynamics of the herds themselves. Animals have an incredible ability to self regulate themselves to ensure the survival of their kind. It is my belief that the horses are thriving on Sable Island, and have become an important factor in maintaining the balance and prosper of the island’s environment. Yes, Sable Island is not the horses natural environment, but they have naturally adapted to its conditions and proven they can exists and grow in such a harsh place. I am a strong advocate supporting the continual protection of these horses. I believe the horses should be studied for our own personal knowledge and be left to remain wild and free on Sable Island.