Sea(side) Horses

These breeds owe their unique features to their coastal lifestyles.

Published July 18, 2016

In the 5,000 years since we first domesticated horses, humans have brought them to the Earth’s farthest corners as partners in work, war, and sport. Some of those equines ended up on islands and coasts where limited flora and remote, rugged habitats transformed their histories and their bodies. In some places, hardship created tough, compact steeds, while elsewhere isolation allowed breeders to enhance valuable traits, but each shore left its unique mark.

Here are five coastal horses with one hoof in the sea.

Camargue Horse

Camargue horses have splashed in the breakers and grazed the salty wetlands of southeastern France’s Rhône River delta since prehistoric times. They developed wide hooves to help them navigate the boggy ground, and long ago learned to love seaside dining. In warm months, they supplement fresh grasses with tender reeds, but, come winter, Camargue horses rely on goosefoot, a tough plant that thrives in the salt marsh. Although their precise origins are murky, these horses have been part of the local culture for centuries. Today, most live semiwild under the care of French cowhands, who rely on the horses’ sure-footedness during seasonal roundups of the region’s iconic black bulls.

Sable Island Horse

Several hundred feral horses and the researchers who study them constitute the bulk of terrestrial residents on Sable Island, a slim crescent of shifting sand in the Atlantic Ocean, 160 kilometers off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. The current herd descends from horses confiscated from settlers ejected from Acadia, a French colony near present-day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, in the 1750s. A merchant tasked with transporting the Acadians to Louisiana and other American colonies, left the horses on Sable Island, where they remained untouched until Nova Scotia established a life-saving station in 1801. The new residents introduced purebred stock—including hefty Clydesdales, sturdy Morgans, and fleet-footed thoroughbreds—to improve the herd. That was the extent of human interference, however, and the Sable Island horses have since evolved into a distinct breed. They subsist on the island’s sparse vegetation—grasses and low shrubs—and grow long, dense winter coats to guard against the icy Atlantic wind. On some areas of Sable Island where fresh water is scarce, the horses take turns drinking from “wells” they dig in the sand.

Pangaré Brumby

Australia is home to more than 400,000 wild horses, known as brumbies. The breed got its start in the Second World War when lost or abandoned military horses bred with farm horses turned out on the land during droughts. While some of the country’s brumbies wreak havoc on the landscape by overgrazing, one herd that roves the rocky west coast has reached a tenuous balance with its environment. These coastal steeds—which carry a rare Pangaré gene that results in “mealy” (pale) muzzles and undersides—subsist on coastal roughage, such as saltbush. Over time, the Pangaré brumbies’ relationship to humans has also improved. According to the now-defunct Outback Horse Heritage Association of Western Australia, local fishermen once kept the wild horse population in check by shooting foals and cutting them up for bait. The controversial practice has declined in the last decade, and brumbies are left to graze the rocky shorelines.

Icelandic Horse

When the Vikings settled Iceland more than 1,000 years ago, they brought robust horses that could work rugged land in extreme weather. Over the years, the protective isolation of a small island shaped the sturdy, modern Icelandic horse, while precise breeding preserved its innate gait, the tölt. Horses were Iceland’s only form of transport until the 1900s and their distinctive tölt made for smooth rides over the island’s rough terrain. And with horses able to reach speeds of 32 kilometers per hour, rides were efficient, too. Iceland protects the iconic breed’s purity and health by prohibiting the import of new horses and used riding equipment, both of which could carry germs.

Assateague Pony

Feral horses have occupied the dunes, beaches, pine forests, and salt marshes of Assateague Island, which straddles the Maryland-Virginia border, for hundreds of years. Locals claim the ponies’ ancestors swam ashore from an 18th-century shipwreck, although no one’s really sure. The ponies have adapted to a briny buffet of salt marsh cordgrass, American beach grass, and seaweed. The salty diet makes them drink more water than other breeds and results in a plump, bloated appearance. Despite the less-than-ideal horse habitat, the ponies flourish and their population balloons when left unmanaged. The National Park Service and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company protect Assateague Island’s fragile dunes from overgrazing by limiting the size of the herd using strategies that include an annual foal auction and dart-administered contraceptives.