Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Icelandic Horse

When I was younger my parents enrolled me and my sister in a riding school. I hated it, my sister loved it. Needless to say we instigated the whole business, me probably even more so than my sister, being the older of the two. This went on for two summers, me hating it even more the second time around, my sister making up for this by upping up the love to the same degree.

The Icelandic horse is a very sturdy breed, although small. It is sometimes referred to by foreigners as the Icelandic pony, something that makes Icelandic horsemen bristle with indignation. This is however not well founded anger as the only reason we do not call it a pony is because Icelandic does not have a word for pony. If you may recall from earlier posts our dictionary is about a half of the thickness of an English dictionary, English has 250 000 words, Icelandic according to the University of Iceland’s webpage has 610 000, which makes no sense and causes me to think the count was conducted by someone from the soft faculties. Or a banker. But anyway, we lack a word for pony and so a maximum we should have 249 999 words.

The Icelandic horse is not native to Iceland any more than other mammals inhabiting the country, aside from the fox that was here before man arrives with his select farm animals in tow. The horse has been here isolated since, the gene pool having received some additions for the first hundred or so years after which the country became passé for those travelling with horses as part of their entourage. So the breed has not had access to any fresh blood for about a thousand years. Legislation now prohibits the import of horses to keep the breed pure, but for some reason this ban also applies to our own horses. This means that if you take an Icelandic horse abroad for competition or simply sell it, it will never come back home. Which is a bit dramatic and sad. You are also not allowed to bring used riding equipment to Iceland. Both relate to the rather immature immune system isolation has fostered, as a result the Icelandic horse is susceptible to serious illness if it comes in contact with horse germs from abroad.

Óðinn (Odin) had an Icelandic horse called Sleipnir. Unlike most he had eight feet. He ran twice as fast as other horses as a result. Now, I don’t know if I should go into his conception in too much detail as it is a bit odd. However, keeping in mind that in Iceland we have a rule of “no telling half stories” I guess I have to; sometimes it would be a lot easier to be from Guernsey or Belgium. But Sleipnir is the love-foal of Loki and Svaðilfari a stallion belonging to a giant (or a hrímþurs) that Loki had tricked. Now Loki was not a mare, which makes the conception odd, but a god – a male one at that. He was always getting into trouble and to wiggle his way out of a horrible mess involving the giant, the stallion Svaðilfari, a bunch of very angry gods and even the sun and the moon, Loki had to lure the stallion away. Being pressed for time all he could come up with was to shape-shift into a mare in heat, which worked the trick but knocked him up as he could not outrun Svaðilfari. So he later gave birth to Sleipnir, the best horse in the world of gods and men.

If you ever meet an Icelandic horseman, you should know that if the topic strays to the Icelandic horse this person will mention that this breed is the only horse breed in the world that has five gaits. If he does not mention this then you are speaking to an imposter and should leave right away, you could be in danger. But the five gaits are a point of immense pride and not being a horseperson myself I am really not sure why. But one thing I can say is that to ride an Icelandic horse is a lot easier on the backside than the big horses you have in America and Europe and you don’t look like a bobbing cork in a storm at sea while sitting them. They somehow glide along, keeping their back at the same constant elevation. And they are not nervous or scaredy-cats, something that is accredited to them having had no enemies for all of these isolated years. The selection of farm animals that arrived with them, as well as the fox, pretty much leave them alone.

English does not have words for the 2 additional gaits. Icelandic does: tölt and skeið. This upsets my assumption that English has 250 000 words and Icelandic at maximum 249 999. I must thus recant this and the tally is now: English 250 000 and Icelandic at maximum 250 001.

But I have not done the Icelandic horse justice and must revisit the topic, something I must also do regarding Loki. For him I will need more than one post and more than two.

I handed in my book yesterday, all corrections done, everything. This evening it went to the printers. Because I am always so late I send my books to the editor chapter by chapter, as they become available. Therefore this system – hand in today, print tomorrow, in the shelves of the bookshops in about 10 days from now - works. My editor is great, he works really fast and probably has eight brains. This also helps. But I am quite surprised that I managed to put this piece together as I did not think I had any more words left in me. Believed that the word tank needed to be replenished before typing another letter.

So why did I hate the riding school? Because I was terrified I would fall off and break my neck is why. But like many worries of childhood, it was not well founded as had I fallen I would probably just have sprained it. The fall wasn’t all that high.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. I tried riding a horse a few times when I was a kid. Looking up at the horse suggests that there isn't that much distance between the animal's back and the ground. Once on the horse's back the distance seems like the other kind of eight feet - it seems that the fall will be from a very great height. Judging from the picture, it seems the horse's biggest problem is not tripping on his own feet.

    It seems that keeping the Iceland horse healthy is more complicated than keeping a human toddler out of the doctor's office.

    Loki's tale is more than I can figure out so I look forward to more on this character.

    Now, to the question - how long will it be before the book makes its way to the US? Those are the characters I am eager to meet.

  2. Hi Beth - Life in Midgard and Valhöll would have been heaven for the gods if not for Loki. He kept things interesting so say the least. I intend to tell you about him next week.

    bye Yrsa

  3. Yrsa, this post is delightful. Here's a question for the next horse post: does an Icelandic team compete in the Olympic horse events? If so, how to they handle the horse disease problem?

  4. Let's see if I have this right. You live in a land where transgender conception leads to an eight-legged horse and five-gaited horses are in search of their identity in word 250,002.

    But what amazes me most is "hand in today, print tomorrow, in the shelves ... in about 10 days."

    Forget about e-book publishing, Yrsa, I want in on some of that I-book action! Sorry little horses, seems you'll have to settle for word 250,003.

  5. Hi Beth - sorry I forgot to answer the question regarding the US publication. That is years away, this is the sixth Thora book that I was referring to and the third (Ashes to Dust) is due to be published in the US late March 2012.

    Hi Annamaria - the Icelandic horse cannot jump over anything, even if the pole were lying on the ground it would be a close call. So they have never had a reason to go to the Olympics, unfortunately or fortunately depending. But they are exported and are quite popular in certain cirlces because of the ease of riding. They seem to survive there without getting sick all the time which implies that perhaps this protecting business is a bit exaggerated. But this being said there was a case a few years ago when someone smuggled a used saddle into the country and this resulted in a horse flu pandemic so there is some merit to the whole business.

    Hi Jeffery - the speed is a bit odd when you think of how long it takes in bigger countries to pubish and distribute, but it has a lot to do with my 8 brained editor-slash-publisher. Leading the word count to new heights - 250,004.

    1. Icelandic horses CAN jump. Not as well as other horses (because they are so small) but they can jump. I have jumped 110 cm with an icelandic horse, and I bet it could jump even higher.

  6. The Icelandic horse has to be one of the world's best trekking horses. I had the opportunity to ride one over the lava fields several years ago, through terrain where I would hardly dare walk a different horse, and the Icelanders - and me, perforce - just went cracking through it at a canter or tölting.

    But to address the language confusion ;-)
    There are actually a few other horse breeds that are four- or five-gaited:

    Tölt, being a four-beat kind of running walk, would probably be called ambling in English. Skeid (sorry, I don't have the thorn character on my keyboard) is simply pacing, that is, a gait where the front and hind leg on the same side moves forward simultaneously, producing a rocking, camel-like effect (camels are naturals pacers). In other words - Icelandic horses know how to make like a camel ;-)

    Personally, I think the ruggedness of the land contributes to the development of the five gaits. The horses couldn't stick to a completely regular, diagonal gait, they just had to drop a hoof wherever and whenever they could without breaking a leg, and so became naturally "ambidextrous".

    As you will probably have guessed, I was more like Yrsa's sister than like Yrsa when I was young, and I still have the horse bug in my system.

    Lovely pictures ...

  7. Hi Lene - the internet with all of its wealth of infomation has knocked the inflated Icelandic national ego down a few notches. I am therefore not very surprised that the five-gaited myth, i.e. that no other breed can do this, does not come as a huge spurprise. Maybe it is the only horse small engough to qualify as a pony, yet called a horse, that has five gaits?

    But regarding these animals, I love them as animals but am too afraid to love their purpose, i.e. riding. But having a sister who has remained a fan of this since childhood I do understand in a way the charm, just too much of a scardey-cat to be able to join the ranks.

    bye yrsa

  8. It sounds like these horses are Tennessee Walkers.

  9. On the other hand, I would NOT recommend riding a Tennessee Walking Horse at speed over the lava fields, ambling or otherwise - so to me, at least, the fact that there are other five-gaited breeds in the world does not detract from the uniqueness of the Iceland horse. :-)

    And they have great character. Someone once told me that this is because people on Iceland couldn't be bothered with the mean-tempered ones, so they simply ate them ...

  10. Trekking in Nepal is still the most favorite adventure holiday activity in the country. The two classic trekking routes either to Everest base camp or the Annapurna circuit are not easy and the challenge you'll face on either route will have a lasting effect. The Manaslu route trek around the world's eighth largest mountain is more remote but no less beautiful passing through stunning bamboo forests, villages filled with prayer flags and culminating with spectacular views from Larkya La. Mustang is an easier cultural trek, suitable for those with good general fitness but not necessarily any previous trekking experience. The language, culture and tradition of the Mustang region are still mostly Tibetan making this one of the most culturally interesting treks. There are shorter treks up the Langtang Valley and Helambu which are still hard work but also deeply rewarding. They generally begin in Kathmandu, leading through large grazing areas covered in flowers, dotted with stone huts used for butter making, Sherpa, Tamang villages and the homes of yak herders, right up to the Tibetan border.