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Wild and Free Sable Island Ponies
 By Winniefield Park   •   5th Sep 2019   •   737 views   •   0 comments


There’s a scientist out there that is delighted to find a dead horse. Not that she’s excited that the horse is dead. That is probably as emotionally difficult for her as any of us. But, this scientist, as part of a research team, is happy to find the remains of dead Sable Island ponies to analyze and explore how these animal lived and died. Sable Island, as you might recall is a small, remote island, not much more than a sandbar where birds nest and seals nap, off the southeast coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. On the island, now long abandoned by any human inhabitants, are the feral remnants of horses brought by European immigrants in the mid 1700s. With almost no vegetation and an incredibly harsh marine environment, it’s surprising the ponies have survived.

Sable Island ponies are now protected by the Canadian Government and Sable Island was made a National Park in 2003.

Researchers are doing necropsies on the bodies of horses they find. What they discover can help manage and protect the herd. It also opens a window on how the lives of wild horses differ from domestic. We may imagine the life of a wild horses somehow better, or freer than a domestic horse. But this may not be true. The necropsies reveal how hard the lives of these horses, really are. Domestic horses don’t (or shouldn’t) face many of the hardships wild (feral) horses do.

Parasites
In the Sable Island ponies, parasite load was “three times higher than what would be considered high for a domestic horse.” High parasite loads are associated with poor body conditions scores and this can make horses even more susceptible to death from starvation if food sources become scarce.

Predation
Some herds are threatened by predation. Cougars, wolves, coyotes, bears and humans can prey on wild horse herds. Most at risk are foals, old and injured horses and horses affected by starvation and dehydration. Strong healthy horses are less likely to be the victims of predation - unless humans are the predators. A 2011 study suggests that most of the foal deaths within wild horses herds on the central California — Nevada border were caused by predation from mountain lions (cougar).

Injury
A wild horse will die of infection, starvation or predation if it is badly injured. A broken bone may well spell the end of a life, or a career for a domestic horse but we look after most injuries successfully. There is no help for a wild horse if nature can’t heal it on its own.

Illness
Leptospirosis can cause foals to abort. Chincoteague ponies have been affected by “swamp cancer”, an infection caused when a horse goes in water carrying a fungus-like organism known as Pythium insidiosum. In the Sable island herd, sand colic isn’t unheard of. Many of the diseases that affect our horses also affect wild horses. And, they don’t benefit from vaccines and other drugs the way our horses do.

Dentition
It’s well-known that in a horse’s older years their teeth wear down and fall out, requiring more consideration about what they eat. Wild horses that live in sandy areas are especially affected by this, as the sand that they pick up while grazing grinds their teeth down. This can lead to poor nutrition and ultimately, starvation.

Foal Deaths
There is no doubt that the number of wild foals that die due to predation, starvation, illness or injury far exceeds the deaths of domestic foals. Although wild horses can live as long as domestic horses, the average length of life would be much lower if the high death rate of foals were taken into account.

Starvation
Wild horses work hard for their food. They sometimes travel over 20 miles (32.19 km) per day in search of food, and often find only rough grazing our domestic horses would refuse. While obesity might be a problem for our domestic horses, that problem is rarely seen in wild populations. Seasonal weather changes, extreme weather and competition with other grazers means horses are often at risk of becoming malnutritioned.

Dehydration
Drought is a serious problem. Last year Brumbies in Australia were dying of dehydration and starvation due to extreme weather. News stories last spring and summer out of Nevada and Arizona reported that herds were dying of lack of water. In Nevada, about 200 horses were found in a dried up stock pond. The horses walked into the muddy remains of the pond in search of water, and were too weak to get out. Even winter conditions can lead to starvation and dehydration. This spring, a herd of horses in Oregon was stranded due to high snow drifts and fallen trees.

1 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/sable-island-horses-necropsies-1.5054854

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