Horses are social animals, like us. This is so apparent in the photographs by Debra Garside, portraying the only completely unmanaged herd of wild horses in Canada (and, actually, the Americas).
Residing for the past hundred years on Sable Island—a very long (42 kilometers) and slender (1.5 kilometers wide), crescent shaped sandbar off the coast of Atlantic Canada—this four hundred-strong herd lives, breathes, mates, dies and is born wild. In an unbroken, generational cycle of natural equine life-style, the Sable Island horses express a reality that is seldom seen anywhere on the globe. Since the wild herds of North America proliferated in the wake of the conquistadors, or the original wild herds of Europe and the Asian Steppe ran unfettered by the demands of the so-called Neolithic ‘secondary products revolution,’ such a sight as that captured by Garside’s lens is truly rare. This is the case even with Canada’s lone, completely natural herd on Sable Island. Owing to the stringent restrictions in place that allow only very limited access to the wildlife preserve that Sable Island has become, few people will actually ever have first hand experience of witnessing these incredible creatures in their phenomenal, elemental setting. Debra Garside is one of those very privileged few, vouchsafed the opportunity to develop such a relationship with the island’s landscape and wildlife over the course of her many visits there.
As revealed by Garside’s lens, the equine species is naturally social, enterprising, incredibly adaptive, and uncannily wise with regard to survival. Fascinating to watch, their expressions, their gestures, and their individual interactions convey the kind of rarified intelligence that seems most evident in wild animals—a complete trust, and confident negotiation, of their world. In the photograph, ‘At the Salt Lick,’ Garside captures the delicate, gestural exchange whereby a quartet of horses touch noses, greet one another, and communicate worlds with eyes, ears, and nostrils. The two background horses lean down as one, side by side, to partake of the salty feast. Theirs is a unified, convivial choreography of motion. They probably meet there every day, ‘same time, same place.’ It seems as if they may go through the same practiced, comforting rituals of recognition and sharing-protocols, each time. These images portray an entire equine culture, with its unique and idiosyncratic traditions, courtesies, and conventions—not merely isolated interactions. Nor is it a simply a happy accident of photographic timing on Garside’s behalf. Her recording of this moment is the result of long years of studying wilderness environments and the feral animals that live in them.
Previous animal subjects have included bears in the Alaskan hinterlands, and the horses of Alberta’s managed, regularly culled (captured, or sold) wild herd. Like any good wildlife photographer (and she is acknowledged by wildlife experts and artists as one of the best), Garside spends long hours waiting and watching, acclimating her wild subjects to her presence in their territory and letting them know of her benign intent. After she has been among them for long enough, they cease to pay attention to her at all, accepting her as just another of the native residents of the island. They have no natural predators and they, therefore, exhibit little or no fear. It is now that Garside begins to work, recording the horses in their pure unconcern, going about the joys and pleasures, the business of their day. She documents the infinitesimal signs of their emotional responses, their delicate communiqués with each other. To all of these, she is acutely sensitive, having been a professional horsewoman, equestrienne, and equine trainer/handler in Alberta for over thirty years before turning back to her first, combined love—that of the wilderness and art. To the more overtly dramatic signs, signals and communications among herd members she is also alert. She is so attuned to these animals; she can see the more dramatic interactions brewing like storms over the Atlantic.
Sometimes these social interactions are more of the order of minor squalls kicking up the sand dunes. In ‘The Tempest,’ two young stallions engage in mock battle. The mares are well out of the frame, grazing and wandering unconcerned, with the young foals, older colts and fillies. This inevitable moment in the life of a stallion is focalized in Garside’s composition. The horses’ aggressive, playful dance turns in a small, tight circle in the centre of the frame. Their dynamic interaction fills the pictorial frame like a contained whirlwind, and one’s heart beats a little faster with the shared adrenaline of the briefly captured, keenly observed vignette.
Garside’s are narrative images; they comprise photographic essays documenting the threshold experiences, coming of age rituals, and life passages of a little known, seldom seen animal community. Garside is one of the relatively few wildlife photographers permitted on to Sable Island, and is, according to Zoe Lucas, Sable Island’s resident naturalist and author, exceptional in that regard: “There have been thousands of Sable Island horse photos taken during the past five years. But yours, both those showing horses in their quiet moments, and those capturing the energy and wildness of the horses in motion, are unique, all expressing a kind of intimacy, and so much more interesting, compelling, and creative….” Lucas is not alone in recognizing Debra’s rare gift for photographing this equine wilderness, where these rare, uniquely Canadian animals – the fruit of several, ancient, European bloodlines – may live, and die, without human interference. Robert Amos noted in 2010, for the Victoria Times Colonist, “…in the ‘Wild Horses of Sable Island’ collection the photographer matches the subject with a profound sympathy, which has yielded pictures of unusual power.”
Not much in the daily lives of these horses of Sable Island escapes her artist’s eye these days; her mastery of her chosen medium of digital photography enables her to document the eloquent, ephemeral moments of their wild society with a distinct, artistic voice. Even the most routine, quotidian events seem epic when viewed through Garside’s lens, as where a mare protects her youngest foal in the arch of her neck while driving off its older sibling with a warning nip and bared teeth. ‘Not enough milk for you too,” she seems to say, and the youngster evidently ‘gets it’ loud and clear, shearing off at the last moment to escape the painful reminder aimed at his ear.
It is interesting to note that these creatures—that have in the past been exploited as a food source, or as the domestic ‘work horses’ of the Industrial Revolution—are now protected to live out their natural lives as, simply, themselves. One wishes it were the same in the case of humans. We, like them, might be seen as deserving of the benefices of the fundamental respect whereby our basic, species rights are acknowledged, honored, and upheld. These might include the right to clean water, the right to be spared toxic industrial pollution, the right to raise our young away from egregious social harm, exploitation, or violence. Much can be learned from studying Garside’s Sable Island images, not least of all about ourselves as a society. This includes an understanding of some of our (apparently) most keenly felt, collectively experienced, commonly held values pertaining to Beauty, Nature, Ecology, and other aesthetic and philosophical concerns. This is no small thing. In fact, it assumes the guise of a mini-revelation.
During her gallery show in Victoria last year, gallery attendants reported a high incidence of visitors being deeply and profoundly moved as they stood before the lustrous, large format, framed photographs. Was this in response to the beauty, the freedom and nobility of wild horses? Perhaps. But, really, it is something more subtle, and more elusive, that moves the viewers of Garside’s art. This is not merely a parochial perception of something stirring and profound within a specific or isolated frame of cultural reference. Some of the gallery visitors in Victoria for the summer tourist season were from distant lands and exotic places. Theirs was a response that transcended class, nationality, economic status, religion, or milieu. This would seem to indicate a collectively held, archetypical, aesthetic AND emotional value at work in the hearts and minds of Garside’s far-flung audience.
When viewing Garside’s wild, equine imagery, one can be precipitated into deep feelings and elevating sentiments that can only be described as Romantic. A longing might start up in the heart of the viewer, for something so integrated, so serene and whole as the lives these subjects lead. We might yearn, with the sense of remembering a lost ‘Golden Age,’ for an experience as sublime as what these horses share. Mighty, irrational, passionate, and purely inspired, a sense of heroic abandon might unreasonably compel us to think it a good idea to surrender ourselves to our own, wild natures. It could seem entirely justified to abscond into the wilderness and ‘live rough,’ suffering the elemental furies of a delicately balanced environment. We might think, for a moment, that it would be worth it to give up everything and live on the edge, souls intact, among a community of like-minded others, as Garside’s blithe photographic subjects so obviously do.
DEBRA GARSIDE TRUE NORTH FINE IMAGES