Last summer, Welsh cobs. Now Icelandic horses (don’t ever call them ponies, small though they may be!). Perhaps I should make it a life ambition to ride every surviving Medieval breed…
Icelandic horses came with the earliest settlers; although they are not large, the idea of loading one into a longboat is daunting. They must have chosen not only the sturdiest but also the calmest animals to make the crossing. For the past thousand years, the descendants of those brave, sea-faring horses have been bred for strength and good sense, but never size. Still, small though he may be, the Icelandic horse can carry a 200 lb, 6′ tall man (although his feet will all but drag on the ground). It looks absurd to Modern eyes, accustomed to tall thoroughbreds, but you get used to it. In Iceland, if you’re a horse, it’s good to have short sturdy legs, because the terrain varies from lava fields to rocky scree to ice sheets. And it’s good to be shaggy when the winter winds come down across the treeless heaths. It’s also very good to have a smooth and steady pace to eat up the miles, and they do: from birth, Icelandic horses walk, trot, canter and tölt. This last is smoother than either trot or canter. Some rare and particularly gifted Icelandic horses have a fifth gait, the “flying gait”, in which all four feet leave the ground at once.
Our guide, Begga, who owns Islenski Hesturinn (The Icelandic Horse), told us the following story, about an exhibition of different breeds of horse in Germany. Big German horses doing elaborate dressage routines, elegant Arabs beautifully groomed with flowing manes, showing their speed. And then in come the Icelandic horses, short and shaggy, with their manes in their eyes or sticking straight up, their riders’ feet nearly brushing the ground. A ripple of laughter, politely suppressed, goes around the audience. What are these funny looking ponies going to do? The head of the Icelandic delegation pops a champagne cork, pours each of his companions a glass, and off they go at full speed tölt, three times around the ring, before stopping in front of the judges to drink a toast without having spilled a drop. The crowd goes wild.
Begga also has a theory about a link between Icelandic horses and the Icelandic language. She points out that Iceland has very difficult terrain and no dialects, just the same Icelandic everywhere, pretty much unchanged from Old Norse, while Denmark, with less difficult terrain, has several different dialects. She thinks Icelandic horses kept the language moving freely around the island, so that no little pockets of people developed their own way of saying things. It’s a lovely notion, though I suspect that Danish dialectical variants are probably influenced more by linguistic contacts Iceland simply didn’t have, with the other Scandinavian languages, with Dutch, with German.
I rode Isabella. I don’t normally much care for mares, but she was brilliant (although I needed to keep her at the back because she kicks). She loved to run, picking up the tölt easily from a fast walk. No need to trot if you can do this! I’m a convert. I entirely understand why those great tall Norsemen loved their little shaggy horses and still do. I’m already planning a return to Iceland, with a longer ride, maybe several days.