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When we learned that we were going on a cruise to Sable Island, Nova Scotia, we began looking for information about the wild horse herds that run free along the 26-mile (42-kilometer)-long national park.

Zoe Lucas
Zoe Lucas
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We didn't find answers to all our questions until Adventure Canada introduced us to the expert horse researchers, biologists and Parks Canada staff who traveled with us on the cruise and joined our hikes on Sable Island.

Zoe Lucas

What Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees, Zoe Lucas is to the horses on Sable Island. Both have devoted their adult lives to research and both are ardent advocates for the species that they've studied.

"I had no intention of staying here when I first visited Sable Island in 1971," she said. After doing volunteer grey seal research, she gathered data on beach litter, did beach surveys of oiled seabirds and transplanted beach grasses to restore sand dunes.

In 1985, she began her horse field studies. Since then, Lucas has gathered data on the life histories, behavior and biology of the only terrestrial mammal on Sable Island, other than humans.

Based on her non-invasive research, she has published numerous studies and articles, ranging from the genetic diversity of Sable Island's horses to their reproduction. For her work as a citizen-scientist, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, awarded her an honorary degree.

Grazing Sable Island horse
Grazing Sable Island horse
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

What is the equine population?

How many horses are there on Sable Island? It depends on the year. Currently, the population of free-ranging horses is around 500, but Zoe Lucas has seen numbers fall to as low as 150 after a severe winter. "It's a struggle for the horses to survive in winter because the vegetation dies back and it's a poorer quality," she said.

As we watched the horses grazing, we asked Lucas if she has named them. "Yes, I have given some of them names, but I use numbers for my field notes." (Their scientific name is Equus caballus.)

What do the horses eat?

According to Zoe Lucas, the diet of Sable Island's feral horses includes fescue, poa and marram grasses, as well as beach pea (Lathyrus maritimus). There are also reports of horses eating seaweed.

We wondered if the abundance of sand beneath their grasslands forage wore down their teeth. An analysis of horse skulls, collected by Lucas, showed no unusual tooth wear. (The teeth of young horses continue to grow for six years. Older horses may have teeth that are ground down by sand.)

How did the horses get to Sable Island?

The story that Sable Island horses were survivors of shipwrecks is a myth. The fact is that a Boston minister, Andrew le Mercier, first introduced them to the island in 1737 and 1738. Thomas Hancock (who transported expelled Nova Scotia Acadians to New England colonies) shipped five dozen of their horses to Sable Island in 1760.

Wild stallion
Wild stallion
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After life-saving stations were established on Sable Island, residents used the horses as draft animals and rode them to search for shipwrecks. Between 1801 and the late 1940s, several horses were rounded up for sale in Halifax.

Free as the wind

In 1960, people who believed that horses were causing ecological damage to Sable Island created a proposal to remove the animals and make them into pet food. They were considered to be surplus government property.

In response, thousands of children wrote letters to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, asking him to save the horses. One letter-writer said: "Instead of sending them to the glue factory, they should be as free as the wind." The words later inspired Jamie Bastedo to title his children's book about the wild horses, Free as the Wind.

What breeds are the horses?

In 1961, the Diefenbaker government legally protected Sable Island's horses under the Canada Shipping Act. Since then, the population has been genetically isolated.

Prior to the law, stallions and brood mares were brought to Sable Island from the mainland to improve genetic stock and make the horses larger and stronger. Superintendents gelded native stallions and culled horses that they didn't want in the population.

As a result of the introduced Clydesdale, Morgan, Thoroughbred and Canadian breeds, we saw horses of different colors (with the exception of white, grey and spotted). When Sable Island National Park Reserve was established in 2013, Parks Canada began managing this naturalized population of horses as a wild species.

Are they wild or feral?

"Sable Island horses are a feral population that is now wild and unmanaged," said Julie Tompa, the Parks Canada manager who helped establish the reserve. Because the horses are protected by law from interference, you can't touch them, harass them or even provide veterinary care if they are sick.

Band of feral horses with two foals
Band of feral horses with two foals
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

To prevent them from becoming habituated or expecting treats from people, Parks Canada rules require visitors to stay at a respectful distance of 65 feet or 20 meters. "Some horses are inquisitive, so if they approach you, we ask that you step back," said Tompa. During our visit, the horses were nonchalant, grazing and living their lives as if we were not even there.

Are they ponies or horses?

Although they are naturally selected to be shorter and stockier than artificially selected domestic breeds, the Sable Island herds are genetically horses, not ponies.

Their wind-blown manes, forelocks and tails are their most common features. We wondered how they could see through the forelocks that sometimes covered their eyes.

How many horses are in a band?

Our Sable Island trip was in June, when many of the adults were shedding their thick and shaggy winter coats. They traveled in bands comprised of a dominant male, mares, yearlings and foals. Sable Island has 40 to 50 bands of horses.

Band sizes range from two to 15 horses. Family bands of five to eight individuals are most common. "Horses don't stay with one band for their entire lives," explained Zoe Lucas. "They may move from one band to another."

Stud pile
Stud pile
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Herd structure

Young stallions that don't yet have a harem often travel together in bachelor groups. We occasionally watched these immature males rear up on their hind legs and raise their front hooves in play-fights to practice challenging herd stallions when they are older.

During our hikes on Sable Island, we spotted some stud piles. Bill Freedman, a biology expert and lecturer on our cruise (who, sadly, has since passed away), explained the significance of the communal piles of manure.

"Local horses smell the stud pile. If the hormones in the poop indicate that it came from a non-local neighbor, they search for the interloper and chase him from their harem."

When is the best time to see foals?

Females first breed around the age of three. They foal (give birth) 11 months later, usually between April and July.

We watched long-legged fillies and colts nursing and following their mothers. Zoe Lucas told us that 90 foals were born on Sable Island last year.

Wild horse vocalizes
Wild horse vocalizes
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Horse behavior

Horses are itchy. They are always looking for places to scratch their backs. They roll in the sand to relieve the itch. They rub against the old telegraph poles near the former life-saving stations.

They also rub against the fence surrounding Environment Canada's weather station equipment. "When we're watching TV and it suddenly goes fuzzy, we know that a horse is rubbing its rear end against the satellite dish," said Daryll Mooney, Parks Canada operations coordinator.

We occasionally heard the horses vocalize—mares nickering to their offspring, a solo horse neighing and two males challenging each other with aggressive screams.

Where are the best places to see wild horse?

We spotted horses grazing around Bald Dune, galloping along North Beach, walking along trails through the vegetation and silhouetted against sand dunes. Horses also like to hang out near the East and West Spits, at both ends of the smile-shaped island.

Horse drinks from freshwater pond
Horse drinks from freshwater pond
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Judging by the number of hoofprints around the freshwater ponds, they are also good places to observe horses drinking. Zoe Lucas noted that she has seen horses up to their knees in water.

In areas without ponds, the horses dig for underground water with their hooves. After they dig a hole, family members take turns sipping the water.

What is the ecological impact?

Bill Freedman described Sable Island's habitat as equigenic (created by horses). "From an ecological perspective, the challenge for Parks Canada is to balance the horses' grazing pressure and ecological damage to the island against their cultural value and ecological benefits," he said. "By taking in nutrients and defecating, they speed up nutrient decomposition, which may be beneficial to certain plants and invertebrates."

What is certain is that the population of feral horses will continue to be monitored and studied. In the meantime, they bring great pleasure to visitors, like us, who feel privileged to see them roaming free on Sable Island.


Sable Island Institute

Adventure Canada

Sable Island National Park Reserve

More things to see & do on Adventure Canada Sable Island cruises:

Gully Marine Protected Area - Habitats for Seabirds and Whales

Sable Island Birdwatching - Gulls, Terns, Petrels and Ipswich Sparrows