DOLPHINS OF THE EARTH: ICELANDIC HORSES By Alicia M. Rock
As I launched myself off of the "bomb-proof" Appaloosa mare that I was test-riding, I knew two things: (1) I would be off of this crazed beast that was hurling me across the 15 acre pasture straight towards a fence and (2) the ground was going to be very hard. I felt like a stone skipping across the water as I slammed into the ground, not once, not twice, but THREE times. Later at the hospital with my ribs broken and a vicadin prescription that read, "Kicked off horse," I knew one more thing: I would NEVER ride a horse again.
Anyone that has been bitten by the "horse bug" will understand, despite insult and injury, you ride again. For me, NEVER turned out to be exactly two years and eight months.
The search for a comfortable and sane riding horse was on. My sister, Anna, suggested that we look at the gaited breeds. Tennessee Walkers, Paso Finos, Peruvian Pasos, and last but not least, Icelandic Horses, all made the list. Anna did the test riding, while I kept vigil at the sidelines. Then, I met Mura. A vision in white with clear blue eyes and a relaxed way about her every move. Suddenly, I was on her back! The clincher was when a dirt bike went racing by us on the railroad track. Gears shifting wildly, rocks flying not twenty feet away from us, Mura simply turned her head to watch it fly by. I looked at Anna and we both knew that we had found a horse breed to truly fall in love with: Icelandic Horses.
I decided to find out everything I could about the Icelandic Horse. The entire family would camp out in front of the computer as we scrolled through farm sites from across the world, ordering books, videos and informational pieces to learn more about the Icelandic Horse. If you were wondering where "HORSE COUNTRY" is, it's in ICELAND! We all came to appreciate that Icelandic Horses are not simply horses, they are a way of life that has been cherished by the Icelandic people for centuries.
On March 21, 1999, we enthusiastically joined that cherished way of life when we brought Mura from Hidden Lake and Princessa from Christmas Hill home to Rock Ranch. Mura, the white angel that I had been dreaming of since the first time I saw her, was the one for me! And, we just could not leave Princessa, a two-year old black mare, and Mura's constant companion. The more time we have spent with Mura and Princessa, the more we want to share about the wonderful attributes of the Icelandic Horse. Here is what I have come to learn about the horses known as the "Dolphins of the Earth."
In the ninth century, the Icelandic Horse was brought to Iceland by the Viking settlers. As a prophetic gift to the generations to come, Viking Chieftains put a ban on the importation of horses into Iceland over 1,000 years ago, which is still upheld! The Icelandic Government has expanded the ban to include saddles, bridles, bits, grooming equipment, and other tack. And, do not forget to completely disinfect your riding clothes, helmets and boots if you plan to go to Iceland, or you may be a bit cold getting off the plane!
Early on, Icelandic Horses were valued as strong, obedient workhorses and as sure footed riding horses. They could carry a man in full armor for long distances across the interior of Iceland. With this strength and durability, Icelandic Horses could go anywhere, even swim across rivers with their riders clamped to their backs. Their fierce loyalty coupled with an incredible ability to adapt to the harsh elements made the Icelandic Horse an icon in the Viking's pagan religion. A fine steed was the honor and scepter with which Viking Chieftains ruled. Simply touching a Chieftains horse was punishable by death. Rider and horse were considered one. So much so, that when the Chieftain died, his steed was killed and buried with him, so both could triumphantly enter Valhalla together.
Through out the centuries, the Icelandic Horse has been incredibly important to the Icelandic people. The country was literally built upon the back of the Icelandic Horse, as it was the only means of transportation Indeed, even today, many of Iceland's highlands are impassable to all but those on horseback. The Icelandic Horse is also known to have an excellent homing instinct. In years past, friends could borrow a horse and at the end of the journey, they simply took the tack off and sent the horseback home. . .alone! Homing Horses! Pigeons, eat your heart out!
As times changed, there was a shift in farming from using horses to using heavy machinery and tractor equipment. This left the Icelandic people in a quandary: What to do with the Icelandic Horse that had for so many centuries been vital to their way of life? When you take a good look at the Icelandic Horse, the question is elementary.
In 1904, the first breeding association was founded in order to preserve this phenomenal breed. The first riding club was founded in 1922, followed by numerous others. Icelanders continued to use Icelandic Horses for sheep herding, surveying and travelling through the rugged interior of Iceland as well as for vacation treks through out the countryside. The Renaissance of the Icelandic Horse was well on its way.
Closing the borders early on in the Icelandic Horse's evolution, and keeping them closed, has had a lot of interesting outcomes. No other horse breeds are found in Iceland. Being the one and only, has allowed the Icelandic Horse to develop naturally, thus creating a pure, confident and intelligent riding companion. The harsh elements have forced the horse to be hardy and adaptable to make it through the Icelandic winters out on the pastures. Another plus, when cared for properly, the breed is far less susceptible to ailments that plague horses from other parts of the world. There are also no natural predators in Iceland that lessens the fright/flight reaction to the point of simple curiosity. And, it also leads to a lot more laying about and sun bathing! Needless to say, Mura and Princessa are teaching our Palomino Paint the art of stretching out and enjoying the sun!
The Icelandic Horse's conformation, training and various uses through out the centuries have contributed to its enormous strength and endurance. The Icelandic Horse is usually between 13 and 15 hands at the withers and about 850 pounds. I know it sounds small. But, trust me, the minute you get on an Icelandic Horse you feel like you are on top of the world. The sheer strength of the Icelandic Horse is found not only in its excellent bone density, but also the size of the joints, both of which are far greater than the average horse. Icelandic Horses can carry almost 1/3 of their body weight on their backs while other horse breeds can only carry 1/7. This is a powerful and proud companion that will go the distance with you time and again!
To insure proper growth, both mentally and physically, the training of an Icelandic Horse does not start until its fourth year and do not reach full maturity until their sixth or seventh year. If you have a foal, that means a pretty long wait. But trust me it is well worth it! Though they are slower to mature than other breeds, Icelandic Horses can be worked well into their thirties. Such longevity makes up for all the waiting in the beginning! (The oldest known Icelandic mare is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. She was 57 years old when she died.) For the first four years, Icelandics are allowed to roam free in the pastures and learn how to be a horse in a herd. When they are brought in for training, Icelandic Horses start their journey towards becoming good riding horses (gaedingar). Icelandics are considered very intelligent, easy to train and quite adaptable. Many attribute this ease in training to the fact that Icelandic Horses are released to the wild pasturelands every fall, thus keeping the breed more alive and intelligent.
If you ever have the pleasure of seeing an Icelandic herd thundering across the countryside, the range of colors will surely capture your attention! The Icelandic Horse comes in 42 different colors, everything from palominos to pintos (skewbald). Red dun, yellow dun, blue dun, chestnut, buckskin, dapples with shocking white manes and tails, bay, black, white, gray, sorrel, and many more! If you have a favorite color, you can probably find it in the Icelandic breed.
The Icelandic Horse is most famous for its 5-gaits. In addition to the walk (fet), trot (brokk) and canter (stokk), the Icelandic Horse is naturally gifted with TOLT (running walk) and PACE (skeid).
By far the most fascinating gait that truly sets the Icelandic Horse apart from all other gaited breeds is TOLT. TOLT is a fast 4-beat gait with high leg action. In TOLT there is always one foot grounded so there is no period of suspension in the air that makes for a very smooth ride. In perfect TOLT, the horse's head is collected, neck is upright, and the hind legs are under the body thus lifting the front legs with a lot of action. TOLT is a powerful running walk that can be ridden at varying speeds. Horses with a strong TOLT can easily increase their speed from a slow TOLT to a fast TOLT of 20 mph. A fun competition is the Beer TOLT. Everyone rides around the track in TOLT holding a stein beer filled to the brim hardly spilling a drop, unless, of course, the rider sneezes! Now, that's what I call a smooth ride!
PACE is a 2 beat lateral gait where the horse moves the front leg and the hind leg on the same side at the same time in a parallel motion. Because of this strong, powerful lateral motion it is often referred to as the "FLYING PACE" with speeds topping out at around 35mph. PACE is for short distances and mainly used for performance at the PACE Races and other Competitions. A muscular mix of elegance and speed, PACE is an amazing sight to see, but should only be attempted by experienced PACE riders on straight tracks. PACE is a very demanding gait for both the horse and rider, but is truly the "gait of the Gods."
My favorite attribute of the Icelandic Horse is their calm temperament.
I have never known such a friendly and personable breed of horse. They have a tendency to become very attached to their "people." They follow you around as you go about your barn chores and call out for you to come into the pasture and play. This bond creates a riding companion that will do whatever you ask. They may step back to size up the situation but then hold on because you are going to be on your way! Mura constantly amazes me with her sure-footed ability to navigate everything from steep buttes to cobble creeks. She reminds me of a mountain goat, placing her dainty little feet in just the right place every time!
Currently, Rock Ranch is focusing on the creation of a learning center for all of those interested in the Icelandic Horse. We host open houses, clinics and offer group and private lessons to share educational information as well as provide people with the opportunity to ride the wonderful Icelandic Horse. Sales horses are always available. And check back for the exciting news on the World Champion and First Prize Stallion to be at stud at our facility. For more information about Icelandic Horses and Clinics in the Northstate contact Alicia and Anna Rock, Rock Ranch, 2826 Cory Creek Road, Butte Valley, CA, 95965, 530-894-7743. RockRanch@MariaRock.Com
Here's hoping that you, too, will find a friend in the Icelandic Horse!