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1) Where is Sable Island located and what does it look like?
Sable Island is located 160km off the coast of 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.
2) How did the horses get there?
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 ancestors of these horses. Currently there are approximately 350-400 horses on the island.
3) What breed are they?
A great deal has been written about the heritage of these horses, their genetic origins and surmised pedigrees. 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.
4) Who lives there and who can visit?
There are few permanent human residents on Sable Island. The Canadian Coast Guard operates a small station there with a permanent manager and meteorologist with a small crew of maintenance personnel. The station is powered by a wind farm, thermal energy and diesel generated electricity. Visitors to Sable Island are restricted in order to preserve the pristine nature of the island. Access by sea is risky, so the only practical means to get to the island is via Maritime Air Charters who have the only plane/pilots with access to the island. Permission to visit the island is at the discretion of the Coast Guard and Environment Canada.
5) Why is it called the Graveyard of the Atlantic?
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.
6) Who protects/manages the horses?
Since 1961 the horses have been protected under the Sable Island Regulations of the Canada Shipping Act. This protection is tenuous and exists only as long as the Canadian Coast Guard has a presence there. The herd is completely unmanaged and as such is one of the few examples of wild horses living without human interference.
For more information on Sable Island please visit the links page. The following are recommended books:
Wild and Beautiful Sable Island: Pat and Rosemarie Keough
A Dune Adrift – the Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island: Mark de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
The Horses of Sable Island: Barbara Christie