Sable Island is located approximately 300km off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (44N 60W). It a remnant of the Wisconsin glacial deposit made between 10,000 and 45,000 years ago located at the edge of the Continental Shelf. The crescent-shaped island is approximately 42km long and 1km wide and is comprised entirely of sand. Many small ponds occur and are the result of a lenticular aquifer just below the surface. Much of the island is covered with grassy meadows and heathlands.
It is believed that horses have been on Sable Island since the mid 1700’s. Early settlers used the island to graze their horses and other livestock to establish ‘ownership’ of the island. Later, in 1801, a Human Establishment was founded by the government for the purpose of rescuing ship-wrecked seafarers. The Establishment, which continued until 1958 at one time comprised of 50 people and their animals. The horses assisted in farming and in rescue operations. The horses that exist on the island now are descendants of these horses. Currently there are approximately 400-500 horses on the island.
A great deal has been written about the heritage of these horses, their genetic origins and surmised pedigrees. Most literature on their background suggests that the original horses were a light farming type used by the Acadian settlers. They would be similar to the modern Canadian Horse. More recent studies suggest that origins may stem from Dutch bloodlines brought over by European settlers.
These are my own observations. A wide range of types exist here, some with the dished faces common in Arabian breeding, others with regal ‘roman’ or convex profiles suggestive of old European bloodstock, and still others with the bone and fine build associated with the North American thoroughbreds. On average their sizes ranged from 13.2 to 15.2 hh and ranged in colour from light chestnut with flaxen mane and tail to bays, browns and blacks. No greys or horses of colour are here, as they were at one time considered ‘inferior’ and culled out long ago by the settlers. History shows that ‘improvement’ sires were brought to the island in the early 1900’s which included draft, Thoroughbred and warmblood horses.
There are few permanent human residents on Sable Island. Now that the island is under the governance of Parks Canada, (since 2013) they keep a manager at Main Station with one or two maintenance support staff. Environment Canada continues to operate the weather station there with two staff that rotate 12 hour shifts. Zoe Lucas, a naturalist on Sable Island for nearly 30 years, spends most of the year on the island conducting research projects.
Visitors to Sable Island are very restricted in order to preserve the pristine nature of the island and because there is no infrastructure there for tourists. Overnight visits are rarely granted and usually reserved for researchers and scientists. Two expeditions companies (One Ocean Expeditions, and Adventure Canada) offer eco-cruises that make day excursions on to the island. Sable Island Aviation (formerly Maritime Air Charters) operates the only plane that can land on the island, and sometimes can be hired for chartered day trips. NB: I am currently on staff (2016 & 2017) with One Ocean Expeditions for their Maritime tour which stops at Sable Island.
Thousands of lives and enormous amounts of cargo were lost here over the centuries prior to modern navigational systems. It is estimated that upwards of 350 shipwrecks (222 documented) have occurred on Sable Island and its surrounding shoals. These shoals extend at times to 14km offshore and are often fog-enshrouded. In fact the island is fog-bound an average 125 days of the year. This is resulted from its location being at the convergence of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream Current. The fog, coupled with frequent storms, caused many ships to loose their way and run aground. Remnants of sunken ships are still visible when flying over the island, and pieces of old vessels often appear on the beach after severe storms.
Since 1961 the horses have been protected under the Sable Island Regulations of the Canada Shipping Act. This was enforced by the Canadian Coast Guard until 2013 when the island became a National Park and is now under the management of Parks Canada. The horse herd is completely unmanaged and as such is one of the few examples of wild horses living without human interference.
For more information about Sable Island, we recommend the following books:
Wild and Beautiful Sable Island by Pat and Rosemarie Keough
A Dune Adrift – the Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island by Mark de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
The Horses of Sable Island by Barbara Christie
Sable Island by Damian Lidgard
The Wild Horses of Sable Island: A Horsewoman’s Journey by Debra Garside (currently only available through this website).