There are horses; and then there are Icelandic horses; and for most people it is either one or the other. Those riding large horses do not understand the fascination with the short horse with the messy mane. But for Icelandic horse enthusiasts, it is the closely related to Nordic cultural history.
Photography ANNA PRYTZ SCHLDEMOSE Text SIGNE LØNTOFT / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.1
It is about sustainability and back to basics: wilderness, volcanoes and windswept hair. The culture surrounding Icelandic horses corresponds with all of our dreams about the simple life, at one with nature. It has been this way ever since the Icelandic horse gained popularity in the 1960s. It was a horse that matched the spirit of the time – a doe-eyed, longhaired flower child popular in left-wing circles. It was also an indirect protest against the equestrian world of the time, which was dominated by wealthy daughters and riding masters who rode dressage in closed arenas with tight reins and stiff upper lips.
It only takes one look to understand that there is a world of difference between a normal riding horse and an Icelandic horse. Icelandic horses are smaller, typically 13 to 14 hands in height. They come in all colours – and colour variations are welcome. What’s more, the Icelandic horse is a true hippie compared with other horses, since horse, tail and hoof hair are free to grow wild. The thicker and more troll-like the hair growth, the better; and trimming the mane or tail is simply forbidden at competitions.
Devotees of the Icelandic horse are often converts who learned to ride on large warmbloods but had a revelation when they encountered the calm packhorses. One of them is the journalist and author, Pernille Stensgaard whose friend enticed her to join her on a trip five years ago. She slowly surrendered herself to the distinctive Icelandic horse, which has obtained a cult-like status in some circles and is mocked in others. A few years later, she was talked into investing in a white mare with long hair and black eyes, Fura from Búarhóli.
Today, her love has morphed into a kind of obsession, as often happens for Icelandic horse people. Her obsession has materialised into Pernille Stensgaard’s latest book, The History of the Icelandic horse in Denmark, in which her love radiates from the photographs of Fura and her fellow species. Here, Pernille Stensgaard attempts to put her fascination into words:
“As with so many people, I hadn’t ridden for a number of years while I had my children and focused on my career. During all of those years I would cast a sidelong glance at others who were riding. Just seeing a horse could make me feel all fuzzy inside. Just the smell … When I then made it to the riding school, it actually felt quite overwhelming to be around these collosal animals kicking up a fuss in their boxes. Being with Icelandic horses is completely different. You can walk into a large herd of horses standing in a field and not one of them will bite, kick or push. Not only did it feel safer, but it also felt more natural. ”
There is nothing sophisticated about Icelandic horses, although during the last 30 to 40 years they have been bred to be more long-legged, elegant and spirited compared to their somewhat stocky and lazy image. The kind of words more likely to be used to describe this breed are cooperative, friendly, stable, intelligent and, yes, even deep.
“It’s a question of not only breed and breeding, but also of culture. Icelandic horses are kept in herds regardless of where they are found. Icelandic horse people have carried this original aspect of Icelandic culture with them. The horses stay together and spend most of the year outdoors. It has a positive impact on them, and there is no doubt that many warm bloods would benefit equally from being in a herd. Being isolated in a stable all year round actually drives some horses crazy,” explains Pernille Stensgaard.
Icelandic horses are cold bloods, as are Shetland ponies, among others. They descend from horses brought over by the Vikings on their voyage to invade Iceland in 870. They have lived there for 1000 years and evolved into a distinctive horse breed, shaped by the brutal conditions on the island in the North Atlantic Ocean. All Nordic horses were once cold bloods like these, but in the hunt for quick and light riding horses with fire in their belly, most breeds have been mixed with Arabian purebreds. But not the Icelandic horse. Its purity is one of its most commonly emphasised attributes. Even today, Iceland takes such great care to preserve the horse’s origin that horses are, understandably, not permitted to come to the island from abroad. This means that the World Championship for Icelandic horses must be held abroad – and that any horses sent to the World Championship from Iceland are never allowed to return home due to the risk of carrying diseases. Every year, riders therefore turn down the opportunity to be selected for the World Championship as it would mean parting with a beloved horse.
Icelandic horses were first brought to Europe in the 1960s and have since gained a following, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, but also in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and The Netherlands. The Icelandic horse was a handy breed well suited to being kept on a no-frills smallholding. To begin with, riders wore Icelandic sweaters and wellington boots at shows and were very conscious of overtly distancing themselves from the snobbery associated with equestrian sports.
“You always end up resembling what you rebel against, and these days the horses are valuable and the riders wear long boots and jackets to championships,” reveals Pernille Stensgaard.
Icelandic horses belong to a unique culture which holds onto the idea of the pure and original. In Icelandic horse circles it is very important to do things ‘the way they do it on Iceland’. The horses are registered in closed stud books which must be traceable back to Iceland, and no new blood has entered the stock. The horses have Icelandic names and Icelandic characteristics are encouraged. This is the Nordic purebred, a horse brought up in rugged terrain, which has climbed up steep fell ridges, swum across bubbling rivers and galloped over jagged lava fields – a hardy horse which need not be nursed like a baby but withstands a little of everything.
“When you buy an Icelandic horse, you get a whole culture along with it. In a way, you also get all of Iceland,” explains Pernille Stensgaard. “Icelandic horse people are passionate about Iceland, even reading Icelandic novels or eating Icelandic liquorice. Many travel to Iceland regularly, to ride and to see the farm where their horse was born, or where their horse’s father or mother was born. With other horses, you wouldn’t visit the Arabian Peninsula or Spain or the Shetland Islands once a year just to see where your horse originates from.”
There are groups who are crazy about the Viking culture and travel around to the various medieval fairs with their horses during the summer. There are the alternative types who regard the horses as redeemers of certain mental disorders and use them for therapeutic purposes. There are those who participate in shows that are not about jumping or dressage but about showing their distinctive gaits, tölt and flying pace, among others.
And then there are the women who are returning to horse riding following a break and who have no desire to be thrown off an unruly horse during a weekly training session at the riding hall. As Pernille Stensgaard says:
“I ride at a yard near my summerhouse together only with adults. This may have something to do with Icelandic horses being quite expensive and therefore not typically used as riding school horses. But it also has something to do with having settled down with children and careers. We’re not riding to perform, but to clear our heads and get out into the forest or down to the beach.” •
Pernille Stensgaard, The history of the Icelandic horse in Denmark published by Gyldendal. All images are from the book and photographed by Anne Prytz Schaldemose.