The horses of Sable Island

A breed of their own, living to five-years-old

Sable Island is a crescent-shaped island 300km southeast of Nova Scotia, Canada. It acquired its name from the small, pony-sized feral horses who live there. Legend says that the Sable horses stand for the rebirths of sailors who lost their lives on the island as a result of the many shipwrecks. There is no proof as to how they got there, but the fact that they have been able to survive in an austere, unforgiving environment with no trees for shelter, and only sea grass and rainwater ponds for sustenance, is of great interest to conservationists.

Sable Island and its climate

Sable Island is only 42km long and 1.5km wide and consists of grasslands and sand dunes. The island is situated in what is referred to as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’. This part of the Atlantic has treacherous waters and is known for its many shipwrecks resulting from very rough seas as well as thick fog.

Sable Island’s sandy shoals are constantly shifting and it has been referred to as the fastest-moving island in the world due to the shifting plates below, strong winds and violent ocean storms, including hurricanes. The island is also subjected to intense north-westerly winter storms. In the centre of the western part of the island is a brackish lake called Lake Wallace. It has slowly shrunk in size over the years as a result of drifting sand from the intense winds. There are several freshwater ponds on the island, but they are situated more towards the south of the island.

The Sable Island horses

The horses on Sable Island are between 13 and 14hh in size. Male horses average 360kg and females 300kg. Their size is limited due to the scarce availability of food on the island. The horses resemble Spanish horses with arched necks and sloping croups. Their big heads appear bulky on their short, muscular necks. They have shaggy coats and very thick, long manes and tails. The Sable horses have coats of varying colours from chestnut to black to bay. Their bodies are built to protect them from the cold winds and storms, and they have strong limbs and hard hooves which contribute to their resilience.

The wild horses live in small herds of two to 10 members. These herds can consist of stallions or family members, and normally consist of one dominant stallion, one or more mares, their offspring, and sometimes one or two subordinate mature males. Males who are not part of a family herd sometimes band together in bachelor groups, or if they are older, as solitary stallions. The social behaviour of the Sable Island horse differs from that of a domestic horse. They maintain strong relationships between each other and you will never find a loner in a herd.

The horses breed naturally, with foals arriving between May and June. One hour after birth the foals are standing and nursing from their mother, whose milk is rich with antibodies and protein that will ensure that the foals are able to survive the harsh conditions on the island.

Conditions on the island

The Sable horses live off sea grass and natural ponds

The population of horses on the island varies between 400 and 550. It’s remarkable that this number of Sable horses are able to survive the harsh climate, but it is even more remarkable that they survive despite the lack of nutritional food and fresh water.

The number of horses are controlled naturally. There are no predators on the island, but horse numbers will decline during the cold and wet winters. These would normally be the older horses, horses who are not in good health, as well as some weak younger horses. Older horses normally die of starvation after their teeth are worn down from having eaten marram, which is the tough grass that grows on the island. The lifespan of a Sable horse is a mere four to five years.

Researchers have noted that there are fewer horses on the east side of the island due to there being even more limited food and water. These horses dig into the sand for water and then queue to drink from the well they have dug. On the other side of the island, water is more readily available in permanent water ponds.

Text: Audra Friday
Photography: Roberto Dutesco, Sandy Sharkey

The full article appears in the September issue of HQ > Shop now