I’d start by saying that that no, they don’t whisper to horses here in Iceland, not as a matter of course, that was just to get your attention. But whilst you’re here, you may as well sit down, grab a cup of tea and read the ramblings of three chaps who’ve just spent a most amazing week on a farm called Brimnes in Skagafjörður filming the outstandingly beautiful and charismatic Icelandic Horse.
Hosts for our week (as they were back in May when we visited at foaling time) were Hallador, his wife Maya, daughter Ragga and son in law to be Snorri. They are a wonderful farming family and typically Icelandic in their hospitality, warmth and generosity – Maya’s baking is superb! She rules the house with kindness and cakes! Their family has farmed this very spot for well over a hundred years now, and you can instantly tell the love and deep knowledge they hold for their land its wildlife and their livestock. It nestles down at the foot of the mountains by the sea in this stunningly beautiful Fjord.
This is a typical Icelandic farm with a mixture of sheep, horses and dairy cattle, the milk they produce is a mainstay of their income and jolly tasty it is too! Nothing beats the taste of fresh milk straight from the cow to my mnd.
Of course in order for the cows to give milk, they have to give birth, so there is a small herd of young calves being brought on for beef, freely roaming the fields that stretch down to the sea.
Halldor has won awards from the government for his work on this land, recovering many hectares of useless rocky rubble fields (leftovers of centuries old lava flows) to become prime grazing land by the simple and farsighted method of spreading old hay and muck over many years. A brilliantly simple method that just accelerates what mother nature would do on her own.
Snorri spends much of his time dealing with the cattle, (which incidentally are left with their horns intact because they like the look of them), getting up every morning to do the milking and tend to any problems the cows may have by hand, like any farm with livestock, there is always an animal that needs care.
It is apparent that Iceland has relatively little in the way of serious issues like TB, F&M etc. but then they don’t go in for very much in the way of intensive rearing, and of course they don’t have a badger problem either. This is no heavily mechanized animal husbandry here, just a deeply rooted personal care for their animals and the products and income that they bring.
Its not just medical care of course, as any farmer knows there are hundreds of jobs that need doing on a working farm. For the horses there is the shoeing. A horse needs its hooves maintained on a regular basis to cope with the rough surfaces of tracks and roads, so it has to be shod on a regular basis. Back home that would mean getting the farrier in normally, but not here. Snorri and Halldor do their own farrier work, and extremely sklilled they are at it too. Old shoe removed and new shoe fitted and on in just a few minutes.
They cold shoe by the way, recycling and refitting older shoes from a massive collection they keep – very little gets thrown away here, very effective recycling the old way!
The cattle and sheep are both distinctively Icelandic breeds, built for the harsh winters here. interestingly the sheep don’t provide as much income as you would think, they pay their way in wool and meat of course, but if you were thinking of getting rich on sheep farming in Iceland, think again. That’s not to say that sheep don’t figure highly on the farmland, they are hardy, with good wool and their meat is delicious, but even though they take care of themselves in the highlands for much of the year, there is an awful lot of work involved in rounding them up and of course at lambing time! Not a profitable exercise…
The same goes for the main attraction of our visit, The Icelandic Horse, no-one breeds them to make money, but to an Icelandic farmer, the thought of not having some of these unique animals on your land is simply unthinkable.
So a bit of background to this wonderful animal.
They weigh between 330 and 380 kilograms (a bit more than our lens then) and stand an average of 13 and 14 hands (132 to 142 cm) high, They are tough, sturdy looking animals with typically long manes and a wide variety of coat colourings, (its actually a double coat for extra insulation in the extreme climate here
The horses tend to not be easily spooked, probably the result of not having any natural predators, they tend to be friendly, docile and easy to handle and as a result of their isolation from other horses, disease in the breed is pretty much unknown. Any horse that leaves Iceland is not allowed to return, by law!. As a result, native horses have no acquired immunity to disease, so any outbreak would be devastating to the population.
The Icelandic is a “five-gaited” breed, as well as the typical gaits of walk, trot and canter or gallop, the breed is noted for its ability to perform two additional gaits.
The first is a gait known as the tölt. This is known for its explosive acceleration and speed; it is also comfortable and ground-covering and is a natural gait present from birth.
The breed also performs a gait called pace (skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace”) It is used in pacing races, and is fast and smooth with some horses able to reach up to 30 miles per hour. Not all Icelandic horses can perform this gait; animals that perform both the tölt and the flying pace in addition to the traditional gaits are considered the best of all. needless to say we all had a try out on the horses, and as we were total beginners to the game, as I have to say the horses were very kind to us funny englishmen and their camera things.
Developed from the horses (they are distinctly horses NOT ponies, even though relatively small,) taken to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries, and they are mentioned frequently in the rich literary of Icelandic history.
Horses were often considered the most prized possession of a medieval Icelander. War horses were sometimes buried alongside their fallen riders and bloody fights were arranged between chosen stallions, these were for entertainment and to pick the best animals for breeding. Frequently going to the death, stallion fights were an important part of Icelandic culture, and drunken brawls among the spectators were common.
In more recent times before motorized transport became common in Iceland, you were readily judged by your horse. It was a sign of your social standing, far more so even than the number of sheep or the size of you land. Of course, it also helped to have a fine horse if you had your eye on a pretty girl (ed note. For the single man (and some women) Iceland has a stupidly high proportion of very, very good looking girls, but that’s for another post). Icelandic horses still play a large part in Icelandic life, many races are still held throughout the country from April through June, as well as performance classes showcasing the breed’s unique gaits. Winter events are often held too, including races on frozen bodies of waterline Lake Myvatn in the North.
In the summer, those Horses not being used directly around the farm are turned out to high pasture up in the mountains. Mares and their foals are left to their own devices to feed on the fresh mountain grass.
It’s a time for the new foals to learn about being a real horse, experiencing the difficult terrain, the changeable and sometimes extreme summer weather up there.
I have to say that Im no horse expert, but the Icelandic Horse has a confidence and happiness about it that you don’t often see elsewhere, whether that’s down to it being able to live pretty much a wild existence for large chunks of its life I don’t know, but it pays off with these guys that’s for sure.
Anyway, as the summer turns to autumn, its time for the farmers to think about getting their livestock prepared for the harsh winter ahead. First to come down from the hills are the sheep. Its hard, hard work climbing endless mountains to bring them down and its no surprise to see stooped, exhausted farmers spending 18 hrs a day trying to get the last ones in.
Last to be rounded up from the high pastures come the horses, this is where the fun comes in, and what we mainly came to film, but that will have to wait until next time….