Published August 21, 2013
Since 1991 there have been world championships of the Icelandic horse. In case that sentence makes absolutely no sense, I should explain that there is a breed of horse that originated in Iceland. And that there is a worldwide association, called FEIF that, among other things, keeps track of breeding standards, does outreach and organises competitions, including a biannual world championship. And 1991 was a year in the last century so long ago that U2 was still relevant.
Hey, lay off U2, Bono’s such a good man that it’s in his name, and The Edge will cut you.
Coincidentally or not, in 1991, U2 recorded ‘Achtung Baby’ in Berlin, and this year the Icelandic Horse World Championships are also in Berlin. That location makes a certain amount of sense. This breed has a certain hipster cachet. It has five gaits, one more than most horses, including an ambling one called tölt, which is found only in a few other breeds, such as northern Norwegian breeds and Mongolian horses. It also grows a hipster-y beard, and has released a split seven-inch vinyl single with The Knife.
Oh pish, the hippest horse is a horse you’ve never heard of.
FEIF has been doing its best to make people aware of the Icelandic horse and its world championship. The opening ceremony involved four hundred horses being ridden to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, with one of the riders being Dorrit Moussaieff, the first lady of Iceland. The association has done its best to drum up interest in the week-long event, which has the slogan “One World, Five Gaits.”
We get to carry each other, carry each other…
That is not even in the right place in the song! Also, please refrain from getting U2 songs stuck in my head. The Icelandic Equestrian Association sent a team of horses and riders to compete, and by all accounts they have done very well, coming first in many events, both in riding competitions and breeding contests.
So do the horses return in triumph to Iceland?
No. Once an Icelandic horse leaves the country it is never allowed to return. Due to Iceland’s geographic isolation on the far northern edge of the North Atlantic, the country’s equine population has not been exposed to many common diseases, such as horse influenza, equine herpes and strangles. And because you would not wish a disease with the horrifying name of strangles on your worst enemy, you definitely do not want your beloved horse to contract it, let alone an island full of them. So once a horse leaves the country, it cannot return.
In my mind’s eye I see Icelandic horses standing on a hill, staring back home to Iceland, with sadness in their eyes, love in their heart, eating a carrot.
As far as anyone can tell, horses generally have no opinion in which country they exist. They want food, shelter and companionship from other horses, and the opportunity to run about. Icelandic horses do not even seem to mind if the other equines in the vicinity are abnormally large.
I wasn’t going to bring this up but, uh… aren’t Icelandic horses really ponies?
No. I mean, technically yes, but emotionally no. Though most Icelandic horses are smaller than the height usually thought to connote a pony, traditionally they have been referred to as horses. This goes for other breeds as well. Mongolian horses are about the same size as Icelandic ones, but you would not call Genghis Khan’s horse a pretty pony. Not twice, anyway. So the proper way to refer to an Icelandic horse, for instance if you would like to alert your travelling companions to its presence, is to point with an out-stretched hand and shout: “Majestic horse!” Try it out, it feels pretty good.
MAJESTIC HORSE! You’re right, that does feel good.
Icelandic horses are one of the draws for tourists in Iceland. For a while now the Icelandic horse population outside of the country, around a hundred thousand, half being in Germany, exceeds the total horse population of Iceland, which is around eighty thousand. So there are a lot of people out there in the world who like Icelandic horses. Many of them travel to this isolated island on the far northern edge of the North Atlantic, point at visible equines and alert their companions with a hearty: “Majestic horse!” They are hip enough to not say pony.