Horsemanship Esteemed,


Horsemanship Reins Supreme in Iceland


by Doug Hamilton


I am not sure there is any place on earth where horsemanship is as embedded in a culture as Iceland today.

In Iceland, 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.

The numbers 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.

During the summer of 98 I had an opportunity to live with the family of one of Icelands top horsemen. I went riding there for a month. While in Iceland for that month, we travelled to Icelands 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.

Within our 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.


Today 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.

By culture, 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 well.

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 Icelandic standards.

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 about Iceland, 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 sea. 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 shows.

Age old, 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.

The next 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 everywhere!

To Icelanders, the 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.

The place 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.

As a 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 services supplied

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.

The stable 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.

Around Iceland 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.

Icelanders 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.

I keep 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 moves.

By contrast 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!


-Doug Hamilton

Fairfield, Iowa