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Can a horse that evolved in the rugged volcanic terrain of Iceland live happily in the sunny Southwest?

Edgewood horsewoman Ulla Hudson is generally credited with bringing Iceland horses to New Mexico 20 years ago.

Text and Photos by
Sharon Niederman

You bet, say New Mexico’s Icelandic horse aficionados. And, after one thousand years of isolation on their native island, some say they are the purest breed of horse on Earth.

The diminutive Icelandic horse — closer to the size of a Shetland pony than a Quarter horse, standing between thirteen-one and fourteen-two hands and weighing between 800 and 900 pounds — is irresistible. And, riding one “doesn’t feel like riding a small horse because they have so much power. They can outpull a Quarter horse by 1.6 times,” says Paula Hodges, who runs a pet care business in Cedar Crest.

With an estimated 75 Icelandic horses in New Mexico, the some what exotic breed is growing in popularity. There are only about 6,000 living in the entire U.S. “They are a fairly expensive horse to buy, but they make a good investment,” says Hodges. “You get a lot of horse for your money, you save on vet bills and food, they are easy keepers and they have a great longevity, living to be between 35 and 50 years. The oldest Icelandic on record, who worked in England as a cart horse, died at 57,” she says. In addition, “They were bred for temperament and usability, as well as comfort in ride,” Hodges says. They are also distinguished by their long manes and tails, plus their extremely thick winter coats. “They’re fuzzier and cuddlier than your favorite teddy bear,” Hodges smiles.

The person credited with bringing Icelandic horses to New Mexico twenty years ago is Edgewood horsewoman Ulla Hudson. Although she claims her two passions are dressage and Warmbloods, she has made quite a place in her heart and home for the Icelandics, which she breeds and trains. With the good fortune of being born next door to a riding stable in Southern Germany, by the time she was five Hudson was given an Icelandic to ride. “He was not threatening at all,” she recalls. “He was cuddly, sweet and calm.”

Hudson knew the people who imported the first Icelandic horses, and through her connections and knowledge, eventually began importing them into the United States.

“They have maintained more of their natural instincts than other breeds,” she says. Icelandic horses are kept in large open spaces with their herds, where they have no natural predators, until they are four or five years old, when they are brought in for training. And, most dear to the hearts of Icelandic owners, they have kept five natural gaits, as opposed to the three gaits exhibited by most others. While most horses have three gaits — walk, trot and canter — Icelandics have two additional gaits that add to their legendary aura. The highly-prized “toelt” of the Icelandic is a four beat lateral gait visible in the high action and erect posture that results in an incredibly smooth ride. In the toelt, the horse’s feet move in the same order as the walk. The toelt can be ridden in any speed, from slow and stately to the equivalent of a fast gallop. As Lisa Obertuffer says, “It’s like having a horse with an extra gear.” And in Iceland the toelt is said to be a true gift from God.

In fact, a traditional Icelandic competition is known as the Beer Toelt, a contest where the riders race around the arena holding a full beer stein. The winner is the rider who loses the smallest amount of beer. Icelandics also compete in dressage, jumping and endurance races.

Their fabled fifth gait, the flying pace, is a two beat lateral gait used for racing. The horse actually looks as though it is flying because all four legs are off the ground simultaneously. Those who possess this fifth gait can move as fast as 35 miles an hour.

Placitas equestrienne Holly Mitchell says the hardiness, sturdiness, adaptability and sure-footedness of the Icelandics makes them “kinda like donkeys.” While they are about as healthy as any other breed, they are resistant to going lame in many difficult situations. “I like to say they’re ‘all about handy.’ You can take them trail riding, park them in tight situations, they don’t eat a lot and they can handle weather changes well. They’re kind of like high-powered dogs you can ride,” Mitchell says.

As a participant in a hunting club called Cazaladeron, in a simulation of a traditional foxhunt, Mitchell takes her Icelandics out with the hounds in winter to follow coyote scents. In what amounts to a very vigorous day, the “hunters” track coyotes, knowing a healthy coyote will not allow himself to be caught. While the Icelandic population may be growing in New Mexico, Mitchell sees that growth as limited by the expense of the breed. “Not many people in New Mexico are interested in $10,000 ponies,” she says. Prices can range from $3500 all the way up to $25,000.

A friendly and lovable animal, the Icelandic has been bred as much for temperament as for physical characteristics. These horses are said to have a good work ethic, that is a willingness that makes them excellent workers and responsive riding partners.

Hodges agrees. She loves the Icelandic’s naturally gentle disposition best. “They’re like 900 pound lapdogs,” she says.

The Purest Breed?

Icelandics are strong, sturdy and sure-footed.

The Icelandic horse evolved in a relatively short period of time, according to Paula Hodges of Cedar Crest. Their genealogy extends back to the native gaited horses of northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Their ancestors came from Norway to Iceland around 865 AD on Viking ships, along with some Celtic horses from Britain. (The Vikings were en route to their North Atlantic refuge.)

Because all livestock imports were banned from Iceland in 1100 AD to protect against disease, descendants of these original Viking horses developed particular traits to cope with the severe climate, sparse vegetation and rocky, glaciated, volcanic territory.

Their long isolation on their remote island home just below the Arctic Circle resulted in a horse with an intestinal tract one-third longer than other horses, so they can derive the maximum amount of nutrition from available food sources. Consequently, they are less susceptible to colic. The rocky land caused them to develop greater ankle rotation, making them more sure-footed on rough terrain. They even learned to breathe with a shallower breath, to protect them from cold inhalation. They learned to huddle together for protection during fierce winter storms, making them more sociable. And they have remained purebred for 1000 years, making them what many call the “purest” breed.

Back from the Brink

Icelandic horses were an integral part of Iceland’s economy for a thousand years, as well as the inspiration of legends. Still, by the 1940s they were on the way to extinction, having been replaced by the automobile and other machinery of the Industrial Revolution.

Those who loved them rescued them. In 1950, the Landsmot, a popular Icelandic breeding show and riding competition, helped. An international competition sponsored by the international organization of Icelandics (FEIF, pronounced “fife”) keeps interest alive.

Then, during the 1960s, a “Save the Icelandic Horse” campaign became popular in Europe, leading to the importation of the horses in Germany, Holland and other European countries. Thanks to these many efforts, the Icelandic horse survived.

This article was first published in the April of 2005 issue of
Enchantment Magazine

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