Thursday, August 29, 2013

Iceland Day 2: Icelandic Horses

No, these aren't the horses we rode, but part of a breeding herd near Thingvellir. Because foals.


There are about 70,000 horses on Iceland - and they are all of the same breed - the Icelandic Horse. Anecdotally, the importation of horses was banned by the Althingr to prevent a plague in the 11th century. The current ban on imports dates since 1882 - and remains in effect. Any horse that leaves Iceland can never return.

Because of this, the Icelandic breed is very pure...and unaltered. They are little, shaggy, powerful things, quite capable of carrying full grown adults despite an average height of only 13.2 (the very biggest Icelandics are 14.3, but that's unusual). They are also gaited. The Medieval riding horses were gaited - the English word "amble" refers to the gait the Icelandics call the "tolt," similar to the "running walk." Some Icelandics also do a flying pace, similar to what Americans call the "rack."

These horses are the only livestock on Iceland not brought into barns in the winter - they're literally tougher than the sheep. They do get supplemental hay, but most do not get grain and many are never shod.

So, of course, we had to ride them. Our stable of choice was Eldhestar, which has 350 head and is in a valley just outside Reykjavik that is essentially the Icelandic Kentucky - on our ride we saw one of the best stallions in Iceland. Eldhestar has so many horses they have numbers, not names! (I feel like a horse slut). I was given a silver dapple (I think, it's sometimes hard to tell between that and a very dark palomino) mare who was at the smaller end of the size range, only 12.2-ish. My husband got a taller grey - and off we went.

Here's the thing. If you ride these horses correctly, then you will have my experience. I got off after a five hour ride not even feeling like I'd been on a horse - and I'm not that riding fit. My poor western-trained husband had more issues - Icelandics are ridden on a contact and he's not used to that. Not that I didn't screw up - my first attempt at a tolt got me to laugh and say "Ack. SHE was tolting. I was doing a sitting trot!"

Oh, and they are not ridden English-style. Iceland has never adopted the forward seat, which does not work well on gaited horses. Instead, they still ride the way Medieval people rode, on a very similar saddle. It's closer to saddle seat than anything else. Don't be put off by the small size - they're stocky, so they don't feel as small as they are, and because there are no sixteen hand Thoroughbreds around they don't even look that small...the mind kind of scales down.

And.

How about another foal?