Hoofprints in the Sand – Wild Horses of Sable Island

This blog post was written by Abbie Branchflower, Director of Education for Friends of Sable Island, about her first visit to Sable Island in 2021. It is a summary of her presentation “Hoofprints in the Sand” for Sable Island Conference 2021 where she compares other wild horses in North America with those of Sable Island. Her presentation is available at https://www.sableislandfriends.ca/si2021-jan-15-2022-hoofprints-in-the-sand-abbie-branchflower/

My October 2021 trip to Sable Island was literally a dream come true. In fact, sometimes I still can’t believe that I was actually on the island that I’ve dreamt of visiting for so long.

I could not contain my smile!

Like many people, the chief allure of the island for me is the population of wild horses that call it home. Even so, as a conservation and history enthusiast, I was also seriously thrilled to visit such a unique ecosystem, see the colonies of grey seals, and experience a little taste of the fabled island’s history.

Watching the rain come in at the very edge of the island.

But the horses are what I know best, and what I’d like to focus this blog post on. My fascination with wild* horses started at a very young age. I have always been horse-crazy, and the idea of horses living wild and in a natural state called to me, as it does to so many others. As I grew up, I turned that fascination into a passion – learning all I could about various populations of wild horses (especially the Pryor Mountain Mustangs), advocating for populations at risk, and dreaming of visiting them myself.

It should come as no surprise that I did my Bachelor of Science in Animal BioSciences, with my honours specialization in wild horse ecology and management. And finally, my dreams became reality when I was granted the opportunity to visit the Pryor Mountain Mustang herd for the first time in 2015. Awarded annually for several years by Sandy Palen of Wild in the Pryors, Lakota’s Gift is granted to a youth who demonstrates longstanding passion and advocacy for the Pryor herd. Needless to say, I was over the moon to receive this trip.

A lone Sable Island horse makes a striking silhouette.

That first trip turned into many more and I was inspired to submit a Masters proposal to compare the behaviour and ecology of the mustangs in the Pryors, who are managed with a fertility treatment called Porcine Zona Pellucida, with the behaviour and ecology of the Sable Island Horses, who are one of very few unmanaged populations. Of course, if the Pryors are difficult to visit, the Sable Island horses are even more so. While I did conduct my MSc research on the Pryors, I did not have any funding and thus there was no possibility of me studying the Sable Island horses as well.

A Sable Island horse heading for water.

Fast forward to 2020 and almost everything has moved online due to the pandemic. I was thrilled to see a lecture on Sable Island that I could attend virtually. I signed up, asked about 100 questions on the horses, and was later invited to join the board of the Friends of Sable Island Society. Since then, I have acted as a Director at Large and am now the Director of Education. Two of the things I most enjoy talking about are horses and conservation, so it’s truly a perfect fit. When the opportunity came to apply to visit the island, I poured my heart into the application and was ecstatic to be awarded the opportunity of a lifetime. While I was not on the island long enough to do a proper scientific analysis on behavioural differences, I used my many years of wild horse behavioural observation to study the Sable Island horses and noted many of the same behaviours I study in the Pryors.

Two young males greet each other.

Wild horses are incredibly social animals who primarily communicate through body language. You can tell many things about the horses as individuals by just watching how they interact with the horses around them, and how they use their body. For example, a dominant mare (mature female) need only pin her ears to direct a subordinate to move away. Stallions (mature males) who want to get their family on the move exhibit snaking behaviour – lowering their necks and swaying their heads from side to side as they direct the others. Some stallions are more lovers than fighters – they may be much more tolerant of a neighbouring band (family) and allow their young sons to stay with their mothers for longer. Other stallions command respect and a big “bubble” around themselves and their families.

The horse on the right is “snaking” his younger companion.

Bachelor boys are among the most amusing horses to watch in any population. The highlight of my trip was seeing these young boys interact, watched over by a “retired” and aging former band stallion. One of these young males was desperate to play – and would stop at nothing to get a buddy to engage with him. He reminded me so much of my own horse – the mischievous glint in his eye and persistent nudging until finally his companion gave in. While the lives of this wild Sable Island stallion and my own beloved gelding are world’s apart, they still exhibit very similar behaviour.

The mischievous young horse finally got his friends to play.

Walking among the sand dunes of Sable Island, I gained an appreciation for the wild and rugged lives these horses live. The sand is difficult to walk on – yet the horses canter up dunes as if it’s nothing. If I was in awe of the horses before, this awe is no less diminished by seeing them in person. If anything, it is increased tenfold. Sable Island is a beautiful but brutal place. Horses walk the beach steps away from piles of bleached bones and the weather can turn in an instant from sun to pouring rain. No one brings these horses water or provides them shelter. Winter can be cruel to the young and very old. But the Sable Island horses are perfectly, amazingly adapted to the life they live. It was truly a privilege to witness them in their island home.

A curious foal watches us from a distance.

*Sable Island horses are considered a naturalized species and as such are treated as wildlife. While the wild horses in North America are technically feral (as they are descended from once domesticated stock), the word has a negative connotation and so I tend to avoid it unless writing scientific papers. Additionally, there is ample evidence that the horse is in fact a reintroduced native species to the Americas (though not to an island habitat).