Supreme in Iceland
I am not
sure there is any place on earth where horsemanship is as embedded in a culture
there are horses everywhere. It seems
that everybody rides in Iceland. Daily, people of all walks of life in Iceland
are out working with, riding, training and conditioning horses. There are
stables and fields of horses everywhere.
There are bridle trials running along everywhere. Mountain trails everywhere criss-cross the
fjords and disappear up valleys to remote places that are beautiful beyond
description. These trails have been
there for a thousand years. . Nationally, as they build roadways they lay horse
riding trails alongside the roads and highways.
of horses tells the story. In Iceland
there is about one head of horse for every two or so people. There are more than a quarter of a million
Icelanders and nearly half that many horses on the Island.
summer of ‘98 I had an opportunity to live with the family of one of Iceland’s
top horsemen. I went riding there for a
month. While in Iceland
for that month, we travelled to Iceland’s
national biennial horse meet. This was a
riding competition where through an elaborate pre-qualification process the top
horses and riders of Iceland
came together in competition.
own culture the opportunity offered to me was the equivalent of being asked by
a great like Willie Shoemaker to join with him in his training and preparation
prior to the Kentucky Derby and then be in his company at the Derby. In the end, I was able to watch this horseman
win the top prize.
Known in Iceland
familiarly as Baddi, my host is a full time horseman. He and others of his class could be
considered world class by the standards of most any horseman from around the
world. Stabled in his care
were a number of several of the top Icelandic horses in the world; they
were superb riding horses on any terms.
still, Icelanders have a culture which yet values horsemanship and
horsemen. In Iceland
something that I was endlessly struck by as I met with horsemen is the esteem
that modern Icelandic culture still holds for horsemanship today.
Icelanders are a hard working people and they esteem good workmanship. They place a premium of high esteem on
workers of any class, trade or vocation who are known to do their work
As you meet
and are introduced to Icelanders, they describe what they may do in life, and
commonly they will also add, with evident pride, that also they are
horsemen. When someone, by others, is said to be good
at their work that is high praise. When
someone is also qualified as a horseman, then that is high praise indeed by
While I was
there, I met bankers, university professors, trades people, farmers, fishermen,
national reserve economists, software engineers, orchestral conductors,
statisticians, physicists, business consultants, industrial engineers, retirees
too. All of them would tell you directly
what they did and that they were also horsemen.
As you move
you end up meeting horsemen everywhere.
One evening my host took me down to the docks where we
watched a glorious brightly painted fishing trawler come in from the North
My host joined into a lively conversation with one of the deckhands who,
of course, was a horseman. The deckhand works the fisheries from late
spring through fall but he then comes ashore to start and train young horses in
the winter to have them ready to show and sell at the spring breeding
this is a common cycle for horsemen in Iceland. Looking for promising young
horses in the fall, starting them through the winter and then enjoying them as
riding horses the following year.
It is a cycle which has been and is still a defining part of status in Iceland
for horseman. These horseman
are an echelon of riders who do this as part of an annual cycle in their
horsemanship. Within their culture,
these riders are the real horsemen.
guy we ran into on the docks was a tank truck driver who, of course, is a
horseman. A sport horse judge as
well. Horseman are
relative scale of horsemanship is no small thing. As you ask after their horses the
conversation is not just about their one or two horses. Commonly Icelanders will tell you of their
10, 20, 30 or more horses that they are keeping, training and breeding.
seems to be crawling with horses and horsemen.
Living in Iceland,
I saw that something would happen most every afternoon. The landscape around the towns of Iceland
would start to move with people conditioning and training horses. These were the horseman of Iceland
attending to the prideful work of horses even after they had finished their
work day otherwise.
country, support for horsemanship runs deep.
Their municipalities typically have designated stable areas within their
towns where people can own or rent stable buildings with the usual city
The town of
15,000 where I lived had 3 zoned areas for stables, one with about 100 stable
buildings, a second area with about 40 stables and a third area that was more
informal with pastures, paddocks and horse sheds. The stable areas were connected by lovely
trails that also led out into their larger landscape.
areas have a nice neighborly feeling where people join together in their
horsemanship of keeping, riding and training horses. These areas bustle with a vibrant daily
activity. They function much like their own towns
within their larger communities.
there are many organized riding clubs. Clubs which function both as social and service associations. Within these clubs Icelanders come together
to support the various aspects of horsemanship in the same way that Americans
and Europeans support and build recreational baseball or soccer sport programs
for kid and adult activities,. The
result is that the activity of owning, riding and keeping horses has become its
own industry as well as past time recreation in Iceland.
. In Iceland
skilled riding tends to be centered around cultivating
clarity of movement in their horses. It
tends to be about setting collection and self-carriage in their horses. Skillfull riding is mostly about working
horses to move forward easily on the bit.
Their riding shows and sport competitions that their riding clubs
sponsor are formatted to tease out and display the nature of horse movement in
gait, horse gait distribution; the clarity of their horses in movement. For Icelanders, horses are much more about
how they go and not so much about look.
Pretty is as pretty does.
as a group are broadly able to pick apart gait clarity and gait distribution in horses. They seem to have a cultivated cultural eye
or cultural knack for appreciating movement in horses. Crowds at horse shows in Iceland
are lively, attentive and animated in this appreciation.
Icelandic horses in America. Occasionally an Icelander living in America
will come visit us to see our horses.
Not content with simply walking amongst the horses it seems that these
people have a cultural need to get them moving when they look at them. Once the horses move then you hear an excited
Icelander animated by that cultural eye for what they see in a horse that
with our own culture, I find Iceland
a uniquely enviable culture for its horsemanship. I am not sure there is any place quite like
it in the world. Horsemanship is yet
supreme In Iceland. I like that a lot. I could go back in a heartbeat to be in the
middle of its horsemanship again!