Saturday, February 13, 2021

Thank You, Yrsa, and Your Icelandic Horses




All of us loyal MIE fans (including those of us who actually write the blogs) owe a debt of thanks to the six stalwart souls (seven if you count Michael Stanley as two) who had the great foresight to create the blog. Lest we forget their contributions (and to serve as my easy way out for not tendering material of my own creation this week), I'm reposting a blog originally put up by Yrsa Sigurdardottir in November 2011.  I believe this little gem remains as one of our most viewed posts.

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. 

 --Jeff  (actually Yrsa)


  1. As a horse enthusiast, I'd love to meet these delightful little guys!

    1. A sincere apology for missing your comment until now, Kwei! I know how you feel about the Iceland horses. A few years back my then five-year-old granddaughter accompanied us to Iceland Noir, and she fell in love with them. To this day she sleeps with a stuffed animal modeled after the real one...but slightly smaller. :)

  2. Late to the party, as always. On one of my visits to Iceland for Iceland Noir, I did have the opportunity to ride one of those 'Viking horses' as I was told they were called. And the tölt feels somewhat like a disunited canter...