“And this is the tölt,” said Hrönn as Chloe elegantly glided past us in the arena, with Hrönn and Snorri’s youngest daughter, Signý sitting comfortably in the saddle as Chloe and Signý demonstrated the smoothness of the tölt gait, one of two gaits unique to Icelandic horses.
|Signý riding Chloe|
During the 10th Century when the Norwegian Vikings first settled in Iceland they not only brought their families, cats and dogs but also their strongest horses. It was also round about this time that Iceland no longer imported any other horses thus isolating those that were already there for hundreds of years, resulting in a unique breed that is patient, adaptable and very good with people.
|Hrönn with two of their horses showing difference in size|
I received an invitation to Mánugrand stables in Keflavik, Iceland to learn more about the Icelandic horse from Snorri and Hrönn whose families have been breeding and riding horses in Iceland for over 100 years. My previous encounters with horses haven’t always been very successful; in fact, I’ve had more bites from horses than I have from when I’ve been fishing so I was hoping that the reports I’d heard about their amiability would be true.
As I entered the stable, a large corrugated iron building not too dissimilar externally from the average Icelandic house, I was greeted by Snorri, Hrönn and their daughter. On guard at the door was their spaniel that appeared to be barking out orders to the Border collie who was frantically rushing around trying to herd us stray humans. My encounter with the horses went by without any biting although a playful nudge on the back was common place when I was speaking to Snorri and taking notes.
|Taking notes with a critical eye watching over me|
The Icelandic horse is considered small, ranging in height from 132cm to 142cm, which is a good 20cm smaller than the average European horse, Snorri assured me however, that the Icelandic horse is not a pony. It is very strong and was the ideal transportation for many centuries in Iceland before any roads were built. If you have ever seen the landscape in Iceland you will appreciate why the tölt, a very even and comfortable gait for the rider, is ideal for travelling across a landscape which is very rugged and rocky with vast lava plains which are frequently covered with sandy black ash deposits from volcanic eruptions.
|Rugged landscape in Iceland|
The tölt gait is said to be so smooth that you should be able to hold a glass of champagne while riding and not spill a drop.
At any one time, there can be up to 500 horses at the stables in Mánagrund, fewer in the summer when they are back in their fields. Snorri lead us around the complex, showing us the paddocks and racetrack where competitors from all over Iceland come to race their horses at the annual Mána Championships, and compete against each other in tölt and skeið, the flying pace and the fifth gait of the Icelandic horse.
“This is our eldest son, he is a professional rider,” said Hrönn proudly showing us a picture of Ásmundur in competition.
However, due to the ban on importing horses, international championships cannot be held in Iceland and if Icelanders take their horses abroad to compete, they cannot bring them back. This has kept the Icelandic horse free from many of the diseases and parasites suffered by other horses.
|One of the horses at Snorri and Hrönn's Stables|
Snorri and Hrönn admit that it’s sad to sell their horses when they take them abroad and they try to keep in touch with the new owners. At the same time though, they take a very professional approach and accept it with an air of resignation and tell me “it’s just business.” For some though, the emotional business of selling their beloved horse is too much and they choose not to compete abroad.
The sale of Icelandic horses abroad has undoubtedly contributed to the growth in popularity of the breed across Europe where there are now as many Icelandic horses as there are in Iceland.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Mánagrund stables and am pleased to report that not one horse tried to bite me. Perhaps, one day we will see a resurgence of the tölt in Europe, a four-beat gait that was bred out of the horses in favour of the walk, trot, canter and gallop.
There’s a good video on youtube if you want to see an example of the different speeds of tölting Icelandic horses