Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saddle Sores: my day on an Icelandic horse

In Odin’s Child (chapter one) Odd Tangle-Hair and his brother bring their black stallion to a horse fight—a popular entertainment among Viking-age Icelanders.

Ahead of us a crowd was gathered for the horse fights. We worked our way to the front until the clearing lay before us, a haze of dust hanging over the trampled grass. At the edge of it the mares were tethered, while in the center two farmers, stripped to the waist and backed by a knot of shouting friends, shoved and goaded their snorting stallions into battle. It was a good match and we watched, shouting with the rest, until the loser, foam-flecked and streaked with blood, charged into the crowd, scattering spectators to right and left. Winning horse and master both threw back their heads and cried victory.

In the days before the White Christ came to Iceland, the winning horse would have been sacrificed to Frey, whose horse's prick fertilizes the fields, and the meat cut up and sold to the folk to eat. Christian priests had soon put a stop to that, but they were too shrewd to make us give up our sport entirely.

But if, reading this, you visualized a pair of huge animals such as Medieval knights rode to battle on, you would be quite wrong. The Icelandic horse is a short-legged, sturdy animal that stands only about 13 hands—that is, fifty-two inches—high. Technically, it’s a pony, although no Icelander would dream of calling it that.

Icelanders love their horses and go to extraordinary lengths to protect them. No other breed of horse can be imported into the country and, if an Icelandic horse is exported, it can never come back, for fear of bringing disease with it. The Icelandic language, it is said, has over a hundred words for the varieties of color and pattern of their coats. The horse plays a part in Norse mythology. Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and the hero Sigurd rode one named Grani, after whom Odd names his horse.

When I visited Iceland, I convinced myself that if a writer is setting his story in a period where people traveled on horseback, then you have to do that in order to get a realistic feel for how long it takes, and how hard it is, to get anywhere. Riding in a car just gives you no sense of that at all. I hadn’t been on horse since I was probably twelve years old but I was sure it would all come back to me. There are a number of stables in the Reykjavik area that organize horseback treks; I signed up at Ishestar for the all-day trek—a morning and afternoon session, punctuated by a delicious lunch (price included) of all the roast lamb you could eat. By the time I was through with lunch I would have happily called it a day. But no, I was committed, so I mounted up again.

Riding one of these horses is a bit different from what I remembered from my boyhood. For one thing, you don’t neck-rein them, as I was taught to do. Also, an Icelandic horse uniquely has two extra gaits besides the usual three (sort of like having two extra gears on a car), although I’m not sure I really found them. And we did it all: we saddled and unsaddled the horses twice, rode uphill and down, crossed streams, galloped along winding tracks through the spectacular scenery of south-western Iceland. Did I fall off? No. Did I almost fall off? Yes, two or three times. Could I walk when it was over? Barely.

But did I experience the contours and texture of the land as one of those hard-bitten warriors of a thousand years ago would have? Absolutely. And it was worth it.

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