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The Wild Horses of Sable Island 2009

I have only been home for two weeks from my camping trip in Alaska and it seems rather decadent to be embarking on my next journey so soon. Unlike the Katmai trip, this excursion was planned almost one year in advance.  After finally succumbing to the fact that horses would continue to thrive in every aspect of my life, I had decided that I would like to photograph horses in the wild.  I had heard of several possible wild horse trips in places like Colorado, the famous Chincotigue/Assasotigue ponies and even the ‘local’ Alberta mustangs, but my research indicated that the horses in these areas were either too wild to get good close-up shots, or they were actually ‘managed’ herds that were not truly wild.

Then I discovered the Sable Island Horses. 

Sable Island is a small windswept crescent of sand dunes and meadows about 160km off the coast of Nova Scotia. It has been historically called the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ due to its infamy as a place of shipwrecks. Its dangerous sandbars and shoals reaching as far as 14km from shore were the fate of thousands of sailors, their cargo and vessels. From 1801 to 1958 a ‘humane establishment’ was placed there, a small community whose sole purpose was to rescue these unfortunate seafarers. Over time the establishment was lost and what is left today are only remnants of the old settlements and a herd of wild horses whose ancestors farmed the land and assisted in rescue operations. They survive today in small herds whose total number has reached close to 400.

In the fall of 2008, after making the decision that Sable filled my list of ideal requirements, I set about the task of figuring out how to get there. The first obstacle was to gain permission from Environment Canada and the Sable Island Coast Guard Station to visit the island. Since there are no other accommodations or camping on the island, the only place to stay is in the coast guard station itself, where they have a small area equipped with bunk beds and a common kitchen. It is $150/night and you bring your own food and bedding. Fair enough. I sent an email to Gerry Forbes, station manager and he granted permission for a small group to visit for one week in August 2009. Because of its limitations for landing by sea vessel, the only practical way to get to the island was to fly by charter with Maritime Air Charters. That meant a $10,000 plane ride with a maximum weight of 1400 pounds, including passengers and gear, along with a $500 landing fee to pay the station manager to check the beach for debris (and seals) so that we have a safe landing strip.

Exxon Offshore
The next hurdle was then to try to find three or four people crazy enough to want to spend that much time and money to see some sand dunes and scruffy looking horses.  I thought this could take a great deal of time and advertising, but sometimes all the stars align and things fall into place.  The first four people I asked to go with me accepted with great enthusiasm… My sister Donna was the first to accept (but had to cancel a few months later when she found out her daughter Chelsea was pregnant and due the same week as the trip).  Next to jump on board was Darren Reeves, horse photographer from Langford, BC and husband of show jumping trainer/course designer Meghan Rawlins.  Meg and I go back a very long way, as her mother Alice was my first riding coach and sold me my first pony in Victoria in the late 1960’s.  A phone call to Joan Larson, renowned horse artist from Coombes, BC, revealed that Sable was a dream trip she had always wanted to take.  Ironically Joan and her sister Karen were my riding companions in Victoria when we were all teenagers.  Joan’s long time friend Claudia Notzke, a wild horse expert and anthropologist signed on a few days later.  Within two weeks I had enough interest to make the trip viable. I finalized all the bookings and took deposits from the other three crazy horse people.  The trip is on and we are all meeting in Halifax on August 2nd, scheduled departure to Sable Island, 9am August 3rd.



For those of you that have not seen the Sable Island docufilm “Chasing Wild Horses”, the BRAVO special by fashion photographer Roberto Dutusco, I highly recommend it. For anyone that has already seen it you should know that the horse in the movie that appears to be very lame (in fact has a broken leg) is still alive and well four years after the film was made. Although Roberto is not a ‘horse person’ per se, he certainly captures the mood of the horses and their environment, and his passion for the animals really comes through.

Reflecting back on my short time with the Sable Horses, I too have fallen under their spell. Their remote and amazing environment should be protected at all costs. I was prepared for the worst on coming to the island. Visions of starved and lame horses in all states of condition crossed my mind. Nothing could have been more opposite. The horses were in excellent health, sound and managing beautifully without human interference. Certainly, there were exceptions and I did see the occasional skeleton, but in context, life and death in the wild can often be much more brutal than on Sable Island. In fact I will remember the Sable horses and their fascinating environment as a place of peace and prosperity. As with such special places on earth, we can only hope that its pristine nature is preserved for generations to come. I hope to return to the Sable horses, perhaps in winter, to continue their extraordinary story. You should join me…

Five Islands, Nova Scotia, Canada