Sable Island Summer Stories – A History of the Horses

Hello! This is Shania, your archives storyteller, with some interesting history on the famous horses of Sable Island.

It is unknown how exactly the horses ended up on Sable Island.  While many believe that the horses were introduced to the island through the many shipwrecks that took place there, there is little evidence to back this idea.  The most prominent current theory is that they were livestock stolen from Acadians being deported from their homes in the Great Deportation, which occurred in the mid-1700s.  Thomas Hancock, who had been paid to transport Acadians from their homes to the United States, either bought or took some of the horses left behind, and settled them on Sable Island in 1760.  By the early 1800’s, the horses were no longer domesticated and lived wild on the island.  

Sable Island Horses. (Photo credit: Unknown, The GLW Vickridge Collection)

By the time the Humane Establishment was being set up around 1801, the horses were well established on the island.  Ideas for how these horses might be made useful for the people of the Establishment varied.  One letter makes mention of attempting to hunt the horses for meat, and a later letter notes that pigs were being fed “old horse beef” in the winter, indicating that some horse meat may have been eaten on the island –

“the swine increase fast there is at present about 40 at the settlements domesticated fed through the winter with seal meat and old horse beef”. 

There are very few references to this however, suggesting that this only occurred rarely.  This makes sense as there were far more productive means of making use of the horses available to the people of the island.  Frequent discussion is had on the subject of catching horses to be sold on the mainland.  Earlier documents talk about the difficulties in attempting to catch the feral creatures, with the first attempts having little success –

“it was utterly impossible to Catch any Horses, for you at this time but will endeavour to have some by Spring if possible”

Edward Hodgson, 1829

While the Establishment soon began to have some success in its endeavours at acquiring horses to be sold, that does not mean there were not growing pains.  A letter from 1832 writes of how some mares intended to be shipped died before the vessel could even leave the island, as no one had been assigned to care for them –

“The Vessel not Sailing last night, I went on board this Morning where I found one of the Fine Mares dead and Capt Thompson complained that he had no one to attend them”

Joseph Darby, 1832

Even as late as 1850, difficulties arose from wild horses killing tame horses that had been let loose in the hopes of breeding more calm animals then currently occupied the island, with it being suggested that new Stallions be sent to the island for the same purpose, with the current stallions being removed to decrease the chances of continued failure –

“A few unsuccessful experiments have been tired, and the tame Horses being let loose, have been killed by the wild ones.  I would recommend that at least two Stallions, the best that can be purchased in Nova-Scotia for Fifty Pounds a piece, should be sent to the Island early in the Spring and kept in the Superintendent’s Stable, the Mares at the proper season being driven into a Paddock to receive them, The new blood would then become speedily and safely mixed with the old.  To export, or geld the old Stallions, (who, if the intruders were loose, would certainly fight for the possession of their Harems,) might render the infusion of new blood more rapid”

Joseph Howe, 1850
Wreck of the “Arcadia” in 1854. (Photo credit: Unknown, The GLW Vickridge Collection)

As time passed though, the Establishment and its workers became quite adapt at catching and training the wild horses, to the point that shipping the horses to Halifax for auction is a frequent point of discussion in documents throughout the mid 1800s.  In one list of articles shipped to Halifax from Sable Island, several horses of various ages and sexes are marked to be sent to the mainland, from yearlings to pregnant mares –

“5 horses of one year old @ 20/. £5.0.0

32 do of Two years old @ 30/. 33.0.0

15 full grown horses and mares @ 60/. 45.0.0

10 mares with colt @ 60/. 30.0.0”

D. McKenna, 1853

It is clear from the archival evidence that the sale of horses was a profitable venture on the behalf of the Humane Establishment. 

The sale of Sable Island horses at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The horse with the tag is Trixie Boutillier’s pet ‘Bonnibell’. (Photo credit: Trixie Boutillier, The GLW Vickridge Collection)

Not all horses that were captured were sold.  Some were trained for use on the island, as horses were a necessity to help haul essential materials and goods saved from shipwrecks around the island.  Teamsters, the men who guided the horses while they worked, were important fixtures on the island, and their ability to work with the horses were a major factor in keeping the Establishment functioning.

Trixie Boutillier and her Sable Island pony, ‘Midget’, originally a wild stallion. (Photo credit: Trixie Boutillier, The GLW Vickridge Collection)
Horse-drawn wagon. (Photo credit: Unknown, The GLW Vickridge Collection)

Considering the amount of horses from the island being captured and sold, it is somewhat miraculous that Sable is still home to so many of them.  Indeed, in the 1950’s there were plans to rid the island of the horses and use the animals to make glue and dog food.  Such an act would have destroyed an important and beautiful part of Sable Island’s ecosystem and history.  Fortunately, a letter writing campaign saw children writing in droves to beg the Prime Minister to protect the horses from such a grisly fate.  They succeeded, and the horses remain on their home to this day, a living reminder of Sable Island’s long and fascinating history.

Sable Island Horses, 2002 (Photo credit, Pat Martin)

I hope you enjoyed this story!  This is my final tale, and I am so grateful for everyone who has read and commented on these stories.  Thank you for your interest, and your support.