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April 10, 2012

The Chronicle In Iceland

Photo by Christine Fagerbakke.

There are a lot of perks to my job—front row seats at some of the world’s top equestrian competitions, getting to know the best and brightest in the sport, sharing an office with a group of other horse-crazy females—but my recent trip to Iceland for the Icelandic Horse Festival undoubtedly holds the No. 1 spot.

Four other journalists from Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom and Denmark were also part of the trip. Combined with my hunter/jumper and foxhunting participation, we had active dressage riders, an eventer and a single pony driver. It was an interesting mix of disciplines, and throughout our time together, those differences, as well as our cultures proved enjoyable, informative and thought provoking.

Our first meeting happened at Iceland’s infamous Blue Lagoon. I’ve never visited a geothermal spring before, and the atmosphere was utterly surreal. It was also an interesting meet-and-greet technique: meeting your professional colleagues in a bathing suit!

The obvious reason for the trip was to promote the Icelandic Horse, about which—before this trip, I knew hardly anything. But what fantastic (and adorable) little horses I found them to be! The morning following our hot springs visit, my fellow journalists and I were lucky enough to experience exactly what makes the Icelandic Horse unique—the tölt.

In my first year of riding, I explored a few different disciplines and breeds, as the farm where I took lessons offered hunt seat and saddle seat. There were Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Saddlebreds, Rocky Mountain Horses and a general mix. That said, when my horse starting tölting, I found it very similar to the gait that we call a rack. Very smooth, easy to sit to, comfortable.

The other journalists, however, had never experienced such a thing and were amazed. Soraya, from the British publication Horse & Rider, didn’t wipe the goofy grin off her face during the entire hour we were out in the Icelandic countryside.

We learned that the measure of a great tölt (or rider) is that you can carry a glass of beer and tölt away without losing any beer. Naturally, I wanted to try it and challenged my colleagues to a tölt-off, with water instead of beer. None of us of won.

Our guide Sóla drove us around southern Iceland and through the Golden Circle—which includes some of Iceland’s most popular attractions—Thingvellir, the site of the world’s oldest national parliament and the North Atlantic Rift; Gullfoss, a huge waterfall; and the Geysir area, complete with a large geyser called Strokkur.

A photographer herself, Sóla amiably met all of our needs (lots and lots of shots of horses), and eventually we didn’t even have to ask her to pull over on the side of the road when we saw a group of horses. She’d choose places herself where the lighting and backdrop were ideal.

Once, she saw a rider and horse tölting on one of the many kilometers of paths offered in the country, and she skidded our mini tour bus to a tire burning halt so we could jump out for an action shot.

Horses Bring Us Together

Meals proved to be my favorite memories of the trip (and no, not only because I like to eat) because of the conversations we had. I learned so much in those talks—how our countries’ viewpoints differed on issues—and not just on equine topics. In the course of less than 10 meals (and bus trips), I discovered that each of these women’s magazines put a lot of emphasis on horse behavior. The Chronicle differed from these publications in that we are weekly and mostly cover horse sports with added content.

I also found my colleagues speaking often as advocates for their country. “In Denmark, we believe…” whereas I found myself at a loss to fully represent the United States, as there are always so many opinions, so many disciplines, so many breeds, so much to speak for.

In Denmark, as the conversation went, they believe now that cribbing is not a behavior that can be learned, but instead the result of stomach problems, such as ulcers. I have a horse that cribs and was told that as a young horse, he was turned out with a maniac cribber and thus picked up the habit himself. But it got me wondering—would some Ulcergard cure my horse’s wind sucking problem?

I also learned that once an Icelandic Horse leaves the country, it can never return, to prevent disease from arriving on the island. Horses leaving Iceland to compete in the World Championships (every two years) must be sold afterwards. You can’t import a horse into Iceland either.

One night, returning from a late dinner, the four of us 20-something journalists got to talking about the future of our country in horse sports. I found it so interesting to hear them voice the same concerns we have: Who will be the next wave of Olympians? Does the younger generation have what it takes to win medals?

We also each spoke about the issue of losing horses to other countries in light of the Olympic Games. We passed around our iPhones, sharing photos of our own horses and ponies. And of course, we all gushed about how Totilas is the greatest horse on the planet.

The final night, we attended an Istölt (a tölt competition held in an ice skating rink). It brought together about 30 horse-and-rider combinations for a show in which the style of tölt was judged, and an eventual winner was crowned. Judges look for the height of their front legs, minimal movement of a horse’s head and quality of gait. You have to see it to believe it (even in my video, there’s no way to really get a feel for how incredible and fast these horses can tölt). In a bout of obvious beginner’s luck, I ended up choosing the winner of the competition, an adorable bay mare with undeniable style.

Watch the video from Iceland.

Looking back at those couple of days, it’s hard to say what was the most valuable experience that I brought back to my office here in Middleburg. Was it the chance to travel to a formerly unknown place, discover a new breed of horse, meet new friends, take gorgeous photos, discuss equestrian issues with international journalists, eat Icelandic food and learn a few words of the language?

It was all of it really. The Icelandic Horse and the culture behind it charmed me. I have sung their praises to friends and family and have fellow horse lovers interested in finding out exactly what a tölt is. I actually watched my horse in the paddock wondering if I could get that smooth gait out of him. All in all, I believe I’m fulfilling my role as the United States’ newest Icelandic Horse ambassador.

Though I haven’t explored the presence of the cute little beasts in Middleburg or surrounding areas, my next Icelandic adventure is mere weeks away, when I visit my home state of Kentucky for a horse show—and link up with Gudmar Petursson, who has brought Icelandic Horses to the Bluegrass State.

Iceland(ic Horse) adventure part 2? Stay tuned!

Meghan@chronofhorse.com.

See more photos from the Iceland adventure in the June edition of The Chronicle Connection.