Sable Island Horse

  • HEIGHT: 13–14 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Nova Scotia
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Adapted to life on Sable Island; natural amblers; recognizable Spanish traits
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Endurance, pleasure riding, and ranch work

Sable Island, a twenty-mile-long, treeless, grassy sandbank, lies about one hundred miles off the east coast of Nova Scotia. Feral horses have been present on the island for a very long time, and considerable controversy exists regarding their origins. Some believe that the first horses to arrive on Sable Island came with Portuguese explorers in the sixteenth century. Others believe that the first horses were survivors of the many shipwrecks in the area. According to the Sable Island Preservation Trust and the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, however, there is no evidence to support the shipwreck theory, and they give no credence at all to the Portuguese theory. Although there may well have been earlier horses present on the island, the first horses positively known to have reached Sable Island were sent to graze there by a Boston clergyman in 1737. Passing fishermen and privateers probably stole most of those animals.

The first horses sent to New France (Quebec) by the French king in the early 1600s were of Breton, Andalusian, and Norman descent. In 1632 French settlers of Acadia, the coastal area from Nova Scotia to northern Maine, brought in from France a shipment of horses that were mixtures of several French breeds. After about 1680, breeders frequently interbred French horses in Nova Scotia with stallions from the New England colonies, often selecting Spanish Barb stallions because of their stamina and ability to thrive in tough conditions.

The ancestors of this tough feral horse have survived in harsh conditions for centuries.

Horses have lived on tiny, remote Sable Island for more than two centuries.

During the French and Indian War (1755–1763), however, British soldiers expelled these French immigrants if they refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown. The soldiers seized all their assets, including livestock, and deported the Acadians to various American colonies and to prisons in Britain and France. Some were sent to Sable Island. During this time, a ship owner from Boston, who had a contract to transport Acadians to American colonies, seems to have taken sixty Acadian horses for himself and turned them loose on Sable Island. These horses survived and became feral.

The mix of French, Spanish, and possibly some English breeds formed the gene pool for the Acadian horses and the Sable Island Horses. Barbara J. Christie, in The Horses of Sable Island, writes that the first record of origin for a particular island horse was for a stallion of the old Acadian breed named Jolly in 1801. Many horses had been taken to Sable Island before him, but he was the first individually identifiable horse on the island, and he left his mark on subsequent generations of horses.

Between 1801 and 1940, feral horses were periodically rounded up on the island. Some ended up with the small colony of islanders, but most of the captured horses were thrown, tied, and wrestled onto stretchers that were then lifted into small boats, four horses to a boat. Handlers then hoisted the horses by their tied legs onto larger ships, which transported them to Halifax, where they were ultimately sold, often for meat.

By the late 1950s, people were rounding up and selling the horses almost exclusively for dog food. As word that these long-surviving feral horses might be so cruelly exterminated reached newspapers across Canada, huge numbers of children wrote to government officials begging them to put a stop to this practice. In 1960, the horses of Sable Island were spared from all such activities and given full protection by the government of Canada.

Usually bay, the Sable Island horse has a full mane and tail and in winter an exceptionally shaggy coat.

Today the horses run free. There is no management of the herds on the island, although some noninvasive, observational research is conducted.

Life in the Herd

The horses live in small family bands of about six animals, usually comprising a stallion, mares and foals, and possibly some young bachelor colts that tag along. There are forty to fifty herds on the island, each with a home range of about three square kilometers. Foals are usually born in May and June. The population of the island rises in mild years and falls during severe winters, typically fluctuating between about 160 and 360 animals.

Because they are the only land mammals on Sable Island other than humans, the horses have no natural predators. Their primary food source is a tough grass called marram, which wears down their teeth, as does constant exposure to sand. Older horses may die of starvation when their teeth become too worn down to manage the grass.

Breed Characteristics

The Sable Island Horse represents one of the few gene pools of early breeds that have not been “improved” by selective breeding, and therefore could be a valuable resource of genetic material in the future.

Many of these horses are natural amblers. The coat is extremely shaggy in winter and the mane and tail are long and full.


The typical Sable Horse is 13 to 14 hands. Stallions may weigh about 800 pounds; mares are usually about 660 pounds. Their size is limited by the quantity and particularly the quality of the food. Horses removed from the island and fed improved diets have produced offspring that are considerably larger than island horses. The feral horses on the island today continue to possess recognizable Spanish traits, including shape of the head, arched neck, sloping croup, and low tail set. They have short pasterns that are adaptive for life on rough ground and sand. Sable Island Horses are thick-bodied, stocky, and short. Some have a dished profile, but a straight profile or a Roman nose is more common.

As with many island breeds, the quantity and quality of food determine the size of the horses.


The most common colors are bay and a wide range of browns. Light bays with mealy muzzles and dorsal stripes are common. No zebra stripes on the legs have been observed, and there are no grays, roans, duns, palominos, or spotted horses. Several individuals have been described as being black but may have actually been dark bays or browns seen from a distance. About 45 percent of the horses have white markings on the face or lower legs.


According to the Sable Island Green Horse Society, the Sable Island Horses are not managed by any governmental agency or private group, though they have been protected since 1961 by the Sable Island Regulations.

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