HORSES ARE A BREED ALL THEIR OWN
nudged the horse into the bitterly cold gale-force wind, turning my
head to keep the blowing snow out of my eyes. A wind greater than 39
mph qualifies as a gale, and this wind clearly made the cut. I had no
way to know about the wind chill factor so popular these days with weather
announcers, but Im certain it was way below freezing. On the upside,
I was riding an Icelandic horse, a breed that has become one of the
most stalwart equines on Earth in the land of fire and ice, one of the
globes coldest islands. I soon realized I did not know what I
was doing, but fortunately the horse did. My main concern was that I
might fall off and not make it back to the barn we had ventured out
planning to travel by horse from the capital, Reykjavik, in the southwest
to the northeast corner of Iceland 200 miles away, crossing ice cold
rivers, lava fields and snow banks. I was visiting a horse farm where
tourists can ride a horse for a few miles. The excursion had been canceled
that day because of high winds, but I asked if I could venture out for
the experience if I came right back. Making the decision to return within
a few minutes was an easy one.
horses are the same species as thoroughbred racehorses, Clydesdales
and Trigger. But since the Vikings brought a mix of European and Mongolian
horses to Iceland centuries ago, the descendants have become a breed
of their own. They are a superb example of how survival of the fittest
operates through natural selection. Colts that could not take the cold
died and left no offspring. Thus those unable to survive the harsh winter
conditions had no descendants to pass along their genes. Over countless
generations, the survivors gradually developed distinctive traits, such
as a long mane that protects the face and a unique gait not found in
other horses that allows them to move quickly on an icy surface. Most
horses have four natural gaits walk, trot, canter and gallop.
The Icelandic horses additional gait is believed by some scientists
to be a genetic trait. This ability to go as fast as possible over an
icy, windy terrain is undoubtedly popular with riders who want to get
back to the barn as quickly as possible on an upright horse. It certainly
was with me.
purpose of Icelandic horses was not merely to offer visitors a horseback
ride. The horses are used as farm animals for herding sheep, providing
essential transportation and carrying heavy loads over rough terrain.
One guideline governing Icelandic horses is that they can be taken from
the island but with the provision that they never return. In fact, no
horses of any kind can be brought in to the country, so if you see a
horse in Iceland, its ancestors came there centuries ago. Foal was on
the menu in several restaurants, as is true of many countries outside
of the United States. For some reason we have been brought up to believe
that eating a baby horse is not acceptable.
were native to North America during the Pleistocene epoch but became
extinct about 10,000 years ago. Wild mustangs that still roam in some
of the western states are descendants of horses brought to the continent
from Spain in the 1500s. Because they are descendants of domestic horses
that escaped from settlers and Native Americans, they are really just
feral horses. As durable and athletic as American mustangs are, they
would likely not survive an Icelandic winter.
go very far on an Icelandic horse, but it was a ride I will never forget.
And I went a lot farther than the Lone Ranger would have been able to
go on Silver in the land of fire and ice.
you have an environmental question or comment, email