Nova Scotia·Point of View

Sable Island: A day in the life of a horse researcher

There is only one permanent resident of Sable Island, but the number of visitors swells in the summer as scientists and tourists descend on the island. What's it like to live there?
Sarah Medill is a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan who is part of a research group on Sable Island focusing on the feral horse population. (Kathrine Stewart)

There is only one permanent resident of Sable Island, but the number of visitors swells in the summer as scientists and tourists descend on the island.

So what is it like to live there?

Sarah Medill is a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan who is part of a research group on Sable Island focusing on the feral horse population. This is her third consecutive summer living on Sable and we asked her to give us a taste of life on the island:

Q: What do you do on the island?

I am part of a research group led by Phil McLoughlin of the University of Saskatchewan and this year, I am leading our team of researchers and students carrying out the summer survey of horse locations.

Every day, we travel to one of seven areas on the island and walk 15 kilometres searching for the horses and recording their locations. The surveys also involve taking detailed photographs of each horse focusing on any visible markings — or when obvious markings aren't present, using close-up photos of the muzzle area to match wrinkle or whisker patterns, or using the shape of the chestnuts on the legs.

This allows us to identify all 550 or so horses as unique individuals.

After collecting fecal samples from each horse, the students prepare them for parasite egg counts, larval hatching, storage and transport. (Bronwen Hennigar)

It takes about one week to cover the entire island. We repeat the whole island survey seven to eight times so we can get enough location data per individual to have a clear idea of their summer home range and social organization.

We are also collecting fecal samples from each horse to be used for research on genetics, gut microbes, parasites and testing for the presence of antibiotic resistant E. coli. We do parasite egg counts in our lab here on Sable Island and prepare other samples to be brought back to labs on the mainland.

Q: Where do you live? Can you describe your living arrangements?

Medill and the other researchers are staying at the main station this year, where there is running water, electricity and laundry machines accessible 24 hours a day. (Sarah Medill/University of Saskatchewan)

This year we are at the Sable Island Hilton! Or it feels like it. This is the first year since I have been participating in the research that we have had running water, electricity and even laundry machines accessible 24 hours a day.

In previous years, we had to haul water to our house two kilometres away, or periodically run a generator to operate the plumbing and electricity. Laundry was done by hand on days when there was any chance that it might dry despite the high humidity.

Q: What kind of access do you have to technology?

This year, access is pretty good. We can check email and access some websites. It is enough to get the work done. But since all of the main station shares the same bandwidth, it can be a little slow compared to typical mainland standards.

We have access to a landline phone — which is really voice-over-internet protocol — but there is no cellular service. The phone line is also shared for all main station residents so calls are limited to 15 minutes, after which you are cut off. Still, it's much better than using a satellite phone.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Work! That is to say, the work itself is pretty enjoyable. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time than hiking and watching horses.

We start our days around 7:30 a.m. and sometimes aren’t finished until 11:00 p.m. When we actually do have free time, we sometimes go out and take photos of horses or seals, beaches, lighthouses and shipwrecks.

Q: How close do you get to the animals? Have you made friends with them?

Three young male horses greet each other on Sable Island. (Sarah Medill/University of Saskatchewan)

We do most of our sampling from 20 metres or farther using zoom lenses. For some of our sample collection — such as collecting fecal samples or taking laser measure photos of horses — we approach to five metres.

Prior to Parks Canada taking over the management of the island, the only guideline was to not harass the horses. During these years, we were frequently approached by curious horses so it was hard not to make friends with a few. However, now we try to keep our distance.

The stallions have occasionally charged at people and we are so isolated from medical assistance that even fairly minor injuries could become quite a problem.

Researchers give the seals a wide berth because their skulls and teeth are similar to bears and they won't hesitate to bite humans. (Sarah Medill/University of Saskatchewan)

We give the seals a pretty wide berth too. Their skulls and teeth are eerily similar to bears and they will not hesitate to bite if you get too close. On land they are easily avoided and we don't go in the ocean where the seals would have the advantage on us. Also, we see far too many seals with bite wounds from sharks to be tempted to go into the water.

Q: What's the toughest thing about living on the island?

Generally, missing family and loved ones is the biggest complaint from people who spend a lot of time here. I would say that I also miss being able to go out for dinner or eat some of my favourite snacks — but then I also love being on Sable Island for those same reasons. It forces me to break bad habits and hiking 15 kilometres in sand tones the body pretty well too!

Other than that, sand. Sand in everything.

Q: How do you feel about getting to do your research in an place like Sable?

I feel extremely privileged. The horse population is a fascinating system in itself but in this setting it is captivating.

A band stallion and bachelor meet on the beach of Sable Island. (Sarah Medill/University of Saskatchewan)

I have worked with feral horses in Nevada and it is interesting to make comparisons between the two populations. Unlike Nevada — and most other feral horse populations — the Sable horses are not managed, lack competing species and are on a predator-free island. This makes it much easier to focus on the internal causes of fluctuations in population size.

Working here presents several new and interesting challenges, too. There is an extra degree of preparedness for research on Sable Island. We typically have only one or two flights on which to bring all personnel, research equipment and food needed for the season.

This demands MacGyver-like skills to use what is available to fix unexpected problems and a lot of learn-as-you-go lessons in things such as camera repair, microscope maintenance and plumbing.

The experiences I have had in managing the field surveys over the past two years have also been very important for developing leadership skills. It is rewarding to bring a highly successful field season to a close with all team members intact, in good spirits and — of course — with tons of data.