by Whit Gibbons

March 11, 2018

I 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 I’m 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 globe’s 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 from.

I wasn’t 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.

Icelandic 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 horse’s 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.

The original 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.

Horses 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.

I didn’t 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.

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