Chasing Wild Horses: "Beauty has a way of teaching us what matters in life."
April 6, 2008 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, tiny Sable Island has a population of about 15 humans, assorted marine birds and seals, and more than 300 wild horses. The island is a bastion of purity, wildness and beauty unmatched in the world.

Sable Island and its horses are protected from human habitation and development by strict laws. The only people allowed to go there are government-approved wildlife and Coast Guard workers, people who are shipwrecked or in distress at sea, and those with individual approval from the provincial government. There is no tourism there. Only a small number of humans will ever experience Sable in their lifetime.

In 2007, fashion photographer Robert Dutesco made his second journey to the island, which resulted in this stunningly beautiful and haunting set of photographs of feral horses, a small peek into life on Sable Island as it exists every day, untouched by the often-destructive hand of humanity.

If you have the opportunity, do make sure you see the gorgeous documentary Chasing Wild Horses, which documents Dutesco's time on the island and the emotional journey he takes there with these magical horses as his subjects and temporary companions. It aired on Bravo in Canada this weekend and hopefully will come to a channel or Internet near you.
posted by loiseau (27 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Lovely post, lo!
posted by Dizzy at 6:25 PM on April 6, 2008

Excellent post. Thanks for bringing this place to my attention.
posted by Roman Graves at 6:27 PM on April 6, 2008

How cool is this post!? Answer: very. Wild horses truly are majestic things. Thanks loiseau!
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:32 PM on April 6, 2008

Those are some gorgeous photos. Thanks.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:34 PM on April 6, 2008

Also the subject of a National Geographic cover article of September 1965, "Safe Landing on Sable Island, Isle of 500 Shipwrecks".

In the late 70s my grandma gave me 35+ years of National Geographics (1930s ~ 1960s), and a World Book encylopedia set from 1965.

That, + having no TV, was an amazing self-education that I recommend every parent give to their kid(s).

posted by tachikaze at 6:36 PM on April 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Incredible. I adore wild horses. Knowing that they have this beautiful place as their own and that they are so protected makes me happier than anything has made me in quite some time. What a great post.

Thank you very much.
posted by perilous at 6:44 PM on April 6, 2008

There's also a book about the island: Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:56 PM on April 6, 2008

wow those are amazing photos.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:00 PM on April 6, 2008

"A bastion of purity" and "untouched by the often-destructive hand of humanity."

How does this fit with the fact that these are introduced horses? Sorry to piss over the post, but my antennae are raised as an ecologist - unless these are a strange pre-iceage remnant population of equus (and they're not) then they're certainly not 'pure' and I bet the island is not 'untouched'. I wonder what damage the hard-hooved horses do to a sand island? And what sort of population dynamics are at work without any predators?
posted by wilful at 7:31 PM on April 6, 2008

Those ponies have nice dreads.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:31 PM on April 6, 2008

wilful...don't give all ecologists a bad name with your puritainism.

it's true, the horses were not "native" to the island, so to speek. however -- and if you'll go to the websites provided, there's lots of information -- they have reverted to the behavior of wild horses, as they have been relatively untouched since the 1800's and completely untouched by humans since mid-twentieth century.

all things being equal, sable island is a remarkably good example of people actually getting it right. there are conservation efforts and scientific efforts, but no tourism whatsoever.

loiseu, thanks so much for this lovely post.
posted by CitizenD at 7:52 PM on April 6, 2008

Great links, thanks!
posted by amyms at 8:44 PM on April 6, 2008

I have to agree with wilful that the horses are hardly a bastion of purity, as they are clearly an introduced invasive species.

There is no "so to speak" about it-- they're not native.

That said, there are plenty of examples of introduced species around the globe, and North America certainly has its share (humans included). The idea of "environmental purity" has been lost for most (if not all) of the continent.

For those that love wild horses, this is a neat story with nice pictures. I have a herd of feral horses not far from me, and they're certainly cherished by the local population. The herd is beautiful to watch as the gallop through the local rivers, but they introduce a new dynamic to the local ecology, and I hardly consider them "native" or "pure."
posted by F Mackenzie at 8:59 PM on April 6, 2008

Horses, or very horse-like animals, did exist in North America before humans and may have originated there. They were among the megafauna that died out around 13,000 years ago for reasons that remain in dispute, but almost certainly come down to overhunting. So you can make the argument - and people do - that today's mustangs are a reintroduction, more like condors or wolves than true ferals. Some even want to reintroduce pachyderms.
posted by rdc at 9:00 PM on April 6, 2008

I am not an ecologist nor am I claiming to be. Yes the horses were thought to have been introduced about 275 years ago, but they are now considered wild. My premise is not that the island was never touched but that the horses are wild animals reverted to pack life and physically adapted to their very unique environment and since the Canadian government ruled that the animals should be in no way interfered with by humans hopefully they will live there for a long time to come.

If you get a chance to see the documentary (check your local listings) you'll see that these horses are living the enviable freedom that you can almost see in the eyes of the sad horses that tow tourists around. On a world where humans have stuck their dirty fingers into everything, there is a freedom and naturalness on Sable Island that rivals places like the Poles.
posted by loiseau at 9:42 PM on April 6, 2008

rdc, you'll note that I knew that horse or horse-like animals were around in north America until recently. But were they on remote northern sand islands?

Anyway, it's a nice post about an interesting island. Just a little bit over-egged/naive in it's description. And I would like to know what damage those horses are doing and what the population dynamics are.

CitizenD, most ecologists are far more puritanical than me.
posted by wilful at 9:43 PM on April 6, 2008

PS. My primary goal was to show off the photographs, which are amazing.
posted by loiseau at 9:43 PM on April 6, 2008

Jeepers, ten year anniversary on that draft strategy.

Anyway, pg. 35 has the money quote: At present the state of knowledge pertaining to the horses' effects on the island do not justify any decisions to manage them.

And basically most of the horses die in cold winters.
posted by wilful at 9:58 PM on April 6, 2008

Very cool post. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 12:11 AM on April 7, 2008

I remember a song about Sable Island on an Omar Blondahl record my parents had when I was a kid. I've had no luck digging up any reference to it, but I can still hum the tune. It was an eerie, shipwreck-oriented song, but I'm pretty sure there was a snippet about the ponies.

The chorus went: "There are mountains high 'neath the pale blue sky and the something somethings roar, and the moon at night casts a fading light on the Sable Island shore".
posted by tangerine at 12:37 AM on April 7, 2008

Pretty, romantic, and cute? Yes.

Ecologically beneficial, natural, and part of the balance? Not so much. Horses are eating machines, and can be very hard on local fauna. Here in Maryland, the Chincoteague wild ponies are implicated in the loss of a lot of native species of plants. They quickly remove the species they like to eat best, destabilizing the dunes. This changes the entire ecosystem, affecting the local small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. They are also local vectors for encephalitis. Local ecologists repeatedly demonstrate how quickly the harm could be reversed (by putting up fences that keep ponies out), and they beg to have them removed. But the horses are pretty, and photogenic, so they stay and continue to cause damage.

Nice photos though.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 6:57 AM on April 7, 2008

My best friend's girlfriend got to go there to study the soil or something. I am still a bit envious, even though there's really nothing to see there but sand and grass and ponies.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:05 AM on April 7, 2008

Yeah, after almost 300 years living on that island, I'm *sure* those horses are a real danger to destabilizing the ecosystem. Any day now...
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:21 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Last night I couldn't tear myself away from the photos on this site, to the point where I ended up with tears streaming down my face. The birds...the birds. The migration stories and the birds washed up on shore dead, was just overwhelming.

Thank you, loiseau.
posted by Stewriffic at 2:36 PM on April 7, 2008

And basically most of the horses die in cold winters.

So do they "re-introduce" a few hundred each year or something? Otherwise I'm skeptical.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:17 PM on April 7, 2008

Civil_Disobedient, I wasn't speaking tautologically (you can work it out).

Ghostinthemachine, could perhaps consider that the ecosystem is already destabilised, and is stable at a far from optimal point? Or that many ecological processes take more than 300 years to fully realise?
posted by wilful at 6:05 PM on April 7, 2008

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