11 things you need to know about the Sable Island Horse


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In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous – Aristotle

As part of my Master’s degree, from the other side of the North Atlantic, I have had the pleasure of studying a renowned animal population situated on Sable Island, Canada. Though this species is not the first that comes to mind when you think of an island made of sand, within the last few centuries Sable Island has become home to a population of feral horses (Equus ferus ssp. caballus). These horses vary in shape, colour and size, and have now captured the minds of the public and scientists alike, as well as my own.

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For those of you who have never heard of the Sable Island horse, or even for those who have, I have put together a helpful ’11 interesting facts’, so you can learn everything you need to know about these compelling creatures:

  1. Today’s population of Sable Island horses originate from horses first released on the island by European travellers during the mid-1700s, and though genetically distinct as a subspecies, are most closely related to Nordic breeds.

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2. Previously, the horses have been used for a range of purposes on the island, including use as breeding stock for sale on the mainland, hauling lifeboats for the past lifesaving crews, and exportation for the meat trade (mainly dog food).

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3. During the 1950s, scientists said the horses were damaging the sensitive ecology of the island, and proposed their removal. Following a strong public campaign, the Canadian government gave the Sable Island horses legal protection in the 1961 Canadian Shipping Act, protecting them from all human use and interference in the future.

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4. Due to their protected status, the horses are now treated as a wild and naturalised population. As a result, all people visiting and living on the island have to maintain a distance of at least 20m away from the horses at all time.

5. Currently, there are approximately 550 horses living on Sable Island.

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6. Sable Island horses live in all year-round social groups, called bands, which either contain bachelor, unmated males or typically consist of anywhere up to 15 individuals, with 1-3 dominant males (stallions), adult females (mares) and young offspring (typically foals and yearlings).

7. In the Sable Island population, the sex ratio is heavily male-biased. This is because a lower number of females are surviving on the island, due to the different, more extreme conditions they experience in comparison to males, such as with breeding.

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8. The Sable Island horse’s diet is composed mainly of tough American marram grass, other grass species and beach pea, though they will feed opportunistically on a range of other species.

9. The horses are found in a range of colours, but there are none that are spotted, grey, white, or coloured on Sable Island. It is suspected that this is because these colours were kept out of the population previously.

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10. The Sable Island horses have been part of an ongoing long-term individual-based study since 2007, meaning every individual is surveyed between July to early-September each year. As a result, every individual is followed from birth to death, can be individually identified, and have their very own name, such as Orbit, Ripley or Maria.

Orbit and house

Orbit

11. Alongside the Sable Island Horse Project (a collaboration between the University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary), my research has focused on investigating the genetic basis of foal body size and the potential for it to evolve in the Sable Island horse. Data collection for this research involved a special piece of equipment consisting of two lasers and a camera attached to a frame. This allows for photos to be taken from a distance that were then used to calculate reliable body size measurements.

Laser standard

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Disclaimer: All horse photos (from wide shots to zoomed in) were taken from at least the minimum of 20m away from the subject(s)

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