Riding the horses that the Vikings rode

At the the end of the summer, my teenage daughter and I went to a farm and rode horses. But it wasn't just any farm, and these were not just any horses. The farm was in Iceland, an island-nation in the North Atlantic. The horses were Icelandic horses, a unique breed descended from animals brought here by the Vikings 1,000 years ago.

Almost everywhere you go in Iceland, you see horses running in great herds through the barren dramatic landscape. When the Vikings (also called Norsemen) sailed west and settled here in the 800s, some of their sturdy little horses made the rough sea crossing with them from Scandinavia.

By the 11th century, Iceland's Parliament had banned the importation of any other horses. They were worried about the Icelandic horses getting sick from imported stock. So from then on, Iceland's horses have developed into their own particular breed.

Over the centuries, these small horses have perfectly adapted to their harsh environment. Their shaggy manes and tails and fuzzy coats protect them from the snow and cold of Iceland's long winter. The way they move - their gait - has also evolved. Now many Icelandic horses possess two gaits unique to them. Besides the usual walk, trot, and canter, Icelandic horses have the faster "tolt" and the even faster "pace."

Bred for stamina, speed, and comfort, these little horses can carry a 300-pound man over uneven terrain. They come in many colors and patterns, from shades of brown and black to grays and two-colored horses (what we might call pintos). My teenage daughter, Railey, rode a black-and-white horse that reminded me of a Holstein cow.

There are about 80,000 horses in Iceland - all Icelandic - and only 270,000 people. At least 80,000 horses have been exported. Once they leave the country, though, they can never return. They have become foreigners.

The United States Icelandic Horse Congress was formed in 1987. It maintains a registry of Icelandic horses in the US. Some 1,500 are registered here now. Many more are not registered. What does the registry do?

The registry guarantees that registered horses are pure Icelandic and have at least four gaits: walk, trot, canter, and tolt. The breeding standards also say that the highest priority must be given to the horse's "rideability" and its "flawless disposition."

Why do people like Icelandic horses so much? First, the horses are friendly, cooperative, and good-natured. And once you've ridden an Icelandic horse, you're hooked: The ride is so smooth, you won't want to ride anything else.

Railey and I were concerned before we got to Iceland. We'd both ridden a lot in the past, but neither of us had ridden recently. So before we left on our trip, we took some riding lessons. We rode English style, which meant our stirrups were fairly short and we had to "post" (move up and down to the horse's rhythm) when trotting. We had to remember to sit very straight and tall in the saddle.

But nothing was the same in Iceland. Icelandic saddles are similar to English saddles, but the stirrups are really long. Your legs stretch out to the front. For the entire first day of riding, it felt as though my feet were going to come out of the stirrups - particularly when the horse moved fast!

Then our Icelandic guides told us to relax. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, they said. Do not post, they said. It will just confuse the horse. So we did. We sat back in our saddles and encouraged the horses to go forward.

Icelandic horses are long-lived (25 to 30 years is not unusual) and slow to mature. So they aren't trained until they are about 5 years old. Steppi Kristjansson is the owner of Polar Hestar (Arctic Horses), the horse-touring company he runs from his farm, Grytubakki (GRIT-too-bock-kee). The farm is 12 miles from Akureyri, Iceland's second-largest city (pop. 15,000).

After a horse is born, Mr. Kristjansson leaves it in the field with its mother and the rest of the herd for four years.

When a horse is 4, he brings it to the stable and begins the long process of training it. Icelandic horses are trained patiently and slowly. This apparently helps to make them very responsive to commands. The horses are also trained to let riders get on and off (mount and dismount) from either side. (If you've ever ridden, you know that most horses won't let you do that. You must mount and dismount from the left only.)

Mr. Kristjansson's horses spend a lot of time running in a herd and following the many sheep trails that crisscross the mountains behind the farm. That way, they become sure-footed on the rocky terrain. Icelandic horses are very herd-oriented and like being with other Icelandic horses. Often, a horse tour in Iceland will take a free-running herd with them so that riders can change horses often as the horses tire.

What did I think of the tolt, which has been described as feeling like you're "floating over the landscape"? The tolt is like a really, really fast walk.

My horse Pittla (PEET-la) had a bumpy little tolt that felt as though I were on a vibrating machine. I tried another horse for a few minutes, and her tolt was ... well, like floating. Later I learned that Pittla's name means "one who walks with tiny steps."

A few farms around the US have Icelandic horses that you can ride, including Icelandic Horse Acres in Washington State and the Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm. Icelandic horses are good for children because they are small and, unlike Shetland ponies, you can continue to ride them as you grow older. But be advised: Icelandic horses like to be in herds, so you may need more than one!

Another unique island breed

Shetland ponies are also named after their original island home. These little ponies are only 38 inches tall at the top of the shoulder, on average. Ponies were found on the Shetland Islands, 200 miles north of Scotland, as early as the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago.

Like Icelandic horses, Shetland ponies developed thick, shaggy coats and long manes and tails to cope with the harsh, wind-swept landscape of the Shetlands.

Horses brought to the island by Viking invaders much later, in the 700s, probably bred with the native stock. The result was the Shetland pony we know today. Islanders domesticated and trained the ponies to haul peat from the bogs for fuel and seaweed from the shore to use as fertilizer.

Shetland ponies were also used throughout Britain in the 1800s to pull cartloads of coal out of the mines. Many were sent to America to work in coal mines there, too.

Today, Shetland ponies are mostly children's pets. They make a good first riding horse for young children. Because of their history of hauling, they also are well-suited to pulling carts.

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