Wild, Feral, Free-roaming: The Sable Island Horses

Two units in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare have been dedicated to issues surrounding the management of wild/feral and free-roaming horse herds. The first unit was focused on the 2013 US government shutdown and how that impacted the herds managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The most recent unit has taken a broader perspective, looking at how herds are managed in other countries.

The management of these populations is an incredibly complex topic which demands the consideration of numerous, site- and herd-specific factors. The issues are further muddied by the varying opinions of well-intentioned wild horse advocates, the general public, scientists, veterinarians, and government bodies charged with the actual management of the animals, some of which I may tackle in a future post. But for now, I’ll keep things light and share some information on free-roaming and feral horses on the east coast of Canada.

Sable Island Horses: Life in “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” 

I am in awe of the Sable Island horses, of which I first became aware in 2008 through the documentary Chasing Wild Horses. The film follows photographer Roberto Dutesco on his second visit to the island to photograph the horses, in 2004. You can watch it here. And if you’re ever in NYC, be sure to visit his gallery. The larger-than-life photographs are incredible!

Sable Island is a 42 km (26 mi) long, 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide sandbar located 160 km (99 mi) southeast of Nova Scotia, Canada, where the arctic stream and gulf stream meet, shaping the land. Covered in fog for about 200 days a year, it is a fragile, primitive landscape populated by over 400 feral horses, along with seals, birds, terrestrial insects, and aquatic life in a small freshwater lake. It is estimated that 30 to 40% of Sable Island will eventually be lost to sea level rise, a projection based on a 3-metre rise.

Known exclusively as “The Sable Island Horses,” like the feral herds across the US, they cannot be classified as a breed. Rather, their origin is nearly impossible to link to any specific breed(s), as they are thought to be descendants of a wide variety of horses that arrived on the island, some possibly by shipwreck, of which there have been nearly 500 since the 16th century. The more popular theory, however, is that they were introduced to the island in the mid-1700s, along with cows, sheep, goats and hogs when the British seized animals from the Acadians and expelled them from Nova Scotia. The idea was to let the horses fend for themselves and periodically harvest and sell them for a profit. Through the 1800s the horses were used to patrol the shores of Sable Island for shipwrecks.

By 1950, biologists working on the island proposed they be removed. Being an introduced/invasive species, they were said to be damaging the ecologically sensitive land. The Canadian government formulated a plan to have the horses shipped to the mainland to either work in coal mines or be slaughtered for pet food. In the wake of this decision, schoolchildren across the country initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Prime Minister, urging him to spare the horses. In response, Prime Minister Diefenbaker declared full protection of the horses and amended the Canada Shipping Act to restrict access to Sable Island.

Today, the horses are the only terrestrial mammals on the island and they continue to be lawfully protected from any human interference. While other feral herds generally experience population increases of up to 20% per year, doubling every four or five years, growth on Sable Island is slower and more or less kept in balance by the severity of the winters and the sparseness of the landscape.


CBC News. (2014, Sep 4). In Depth|Sable Island: The wild horses’ history and future. Last updated Sep 10, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/sable-island-the-wild-horses-history-and-future-1.2755142 

Dutesco Art. (undated). The Wild Horses of Sable Island. Retrieved from http://dutescoart.com/the-collection/.

Harris, J. (2008). Chasing Wild Horses [Documentary]. Canada: Arcadia Entertainment.

Image: Sable Island Horses “Love Bite” by Roberto Dutesco. Retrieved from https://haligonia.ca/roberto-dutesco-the-wild-horses-of-sable-island-photography-exhibit-opens-94241/

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