"What is it that’s so compelling about the wild horses of Sable Island? Maybe it’s that they turn up where horses have no right to be—grazing on a sand dune, or standing on a broad beach beside the speckled form of a gray seal, or galloping through the window of a gallery in Manhattan, where I was once stopped short, in passing, by an image of the tangled mane and salt-flecked coat of a stocky Sable Island horse.
When I entered and told the person at the desk that I lived in Nova Scotia, the part of Canada closest to the largely uninhabited island, he was nonplussed. For most people, after all, the horses’ association with any human community is not the point. In the popular narrative of the horses of Sable Island, they exist independent of any human intervention and are well adapted to their particular environment: an ever-shifting sickle of sand in the Atlantic Ocean, 161 kilometers from the nearest landmass.
Sable Island—a 40-kilometer sandbar that exists at the intersection of ocean currents and is so narrow that standing on one side offers a vantage straight across to the ocean on the other—is a very particular environment indeed. Its long-recorded history, which dates back to a ninth-century Icelandic saga and its mapping by Portuguese sailors in the 1500s, is littered with accounts of deadly shipwrecks on the island’s treacherous shoals. Since the 20th century, nothing has done more to bolster Sable Island’s mythic status than its population of roughly 500 free-roaming horses, which have inhabited its dunes since they were abandoned there in the 1700s. Their images pop up everywhere from coffee table books to decorative scarves. There are at least two documentary films about the horses, and as many children’s books. Public interest in them hasn’t been restricted to the arts; in 2017, a group of Nova Scotian junior high school students attended an international science competition in Washington, DC, with a device that proposed using high-frequency sound and motion sensors to deter the horses from interfering with structures and, in turn, protect them from human influence. All of these—the books, the movies, the science experiments—rest on an understanding of the horses as a symbol of wildness, in tune with their ecosystem."