On a tiny island made entirely of sand in a desolate pocket of the ocean lives a herd of wild horses unlike any other.
Their home, Sable Island, lies close to 200 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. Twenty-six miles long, the island is barely a mile across at its widest point; from above it is a crooked slice of new moon. Known to mariners as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Sable Island, often encased in a pall of thick fog and surrounded by powerful currents, has been the site of hundreds of shipwrecks—one vessel went aground as recently as 1999—and boasts a scant number of full-time inhabitants. Inhospitable and unpredictable, Sable Island is where the untamed horses who bear its name have thrived for centuries.
Those horses were what attracted me to the island. Captivated by the herd’s singular appearance—wild, windy manes and thick, salty coats—and the origin myths surrounding their presence, I undertook the demanding task of getting to them. Due to the island’s delicate ecological nature, visits to Sable are highly regulated. Permission must be granted from the Canadian government, and, if received, visitors must then determine how to make their way there and back.
Arrival by boat, while an option, is not advised (see: shipwrecks), so I chartered a flight with the sole company licensed to land on the island’s ad hoc runway. Bunks and shared housing are available on shore, but visitors must pack in all their supplies, carry in all their own food, and return with all of their trash. In a given year the island may see as few as 50 tourists, a still significant increase for a place whose population consists of a handful of researchers at the island’s climatological record-keeping station.
The island’s equine subjects allowed me the opportunity to explore the horses as uncommon subjects, with their dynamic spirit—playful, unruly, tenacious, and vulnerable—and the social elements at work amongst the bachelors, stallions, and strings of ponies that roam the island’s vast dunes. Sable’s harsh and volatile landscape is a crucial part of the herd’s story, and I sought images which reflect the push and pull between island and horse, horse and island.
Living in familial clans closely guarded by ruling stallions, the horses, I observed, acted much as humans do, playing and toying with each other, rolling legs-up in crashing surf, grooming one another, and exhibiting a range of familiar emotions. With no natural predators the horses are virtually fearless; they roam the island freely and I was, at times, the subject of their curiosity: inquisitive foals and ponies nibbled on my shoulder and nuzzled my camera equipment with their velvety noses.
Sable is heavy with rain and fog, and I experienced the island’s extreme weather conditions firsthand, often walking for hours without coming across a single horse. While the fog did limit the scope of what I could photograph, I embraced it, using the blank backdrop to create isolated body studies. Covered only in low-lying marram grass, Sable’s sloping dunes and unobstructed beaches also provided me with a natural canvas.