A little piece of our hearts belongs to Iceland. After all, these horses are special. You could say Iceland is where we had our first date. And in Iceland, Hallkelsstaðahlíð is our home away from home. Virginia spent a week there with a goal of learning about starting youngsters. But she learned so much more.
What did I learn in Iceland? I'm not even sure where to start. I learned about starting young horses; I learned about breeding strategies; I learned about riding the flying pace; I learned about various Icelandic bits; I learned (once again) that there is no substitute for ground work. I learned that Iceland in January can feel like Antarctica! And I learned about cooperation, charity and community. As I reflect upon the past week, I believe I learned the most, about horses and about people, at the community Þorrablót (pronounced “Thorrablot”) celebration.
Þorrablót, in honor of the winter weather spirit Þorri (Frost), is celebrated across the country during the fourth month of the pagan Icelandic calendar; from mid-January to mid-February. Neighbors gather to eat traditional foods, sing traditional songs and dance the night away. I cannot say I was a fan of the food; dishes such as Hákarl (fermented shark), Súrsaðir Hrútspungar (sour ram’s testicles), Svið (boiled sheep’s head), and Blóðmör (blood sausage) – though they certainly are a hit with the locals! The atmosphere was truly special though. So much so that I am tempted to go back every year.
After the pagan “feast” was savored, an apparently hilarious stand-up comedian poked fun at everyone in attendance. The Icelanders have a light hearted spirit and the ability to laugh at their own foibles. Then the tables were moved aside and the crowd gathered to sing and dance. TOGETHER. Absolutely everyone took part. The sense of love, acceptance and community washed over me in the warm and cozy atmosphere. I felt that I too was part of their community. Mummi had told me that his neighbors all came to help build his new riding arena. I saw clearly how helping each other was not only often a necessity, but also a great joy. This is something the Icelanders do right.
It occurred to me at Þorrablót that to be successful in working with horses, one must become part of their community. Horses are herd animals; naturally social and curious. They want to learn about you. They want to please you. They want to be led. In fact, they can only feel safe and relaxed when the rider is a calm and confident leader.
Mummi and I worked a great deal together with young horses in the round pen. I was astounded by how quickly they would “join up” with me and follow me wherever I went. The older horses were incredibly sensitive to every cue I gave – I learned to move their hind legs with just a small gesture from my hand at a great distance. Horses are so much more sensitive and observant than most humans. Imagine the success we all could have if we could tune our own perceptions to the language they are speaking. Then we truly would be in “harmony.”
In Iceland, horses are not trained until the age of four. They grow up in the mountains, as part of a herd. They learn to struggle. They learn that their own survival is dependent upon the health of the herd. They become part of a community. Americans have largely lost the art of “struggle.” We are a wealthy country with all of the modern conveniences. It is perhaps strange to advocate for hardship – after all, who would want to struggle? Still, I believe the experiences I have had “struggling” have taught me far more than the times of ease; not only about my resilience through difficulty, but about the possibilities that lay ahead. I think that we often shield our young horses from “struggle,” and consequently deprive them of the invaluable life lessons that can only be learned through hardship. Without allowing ourselves and our animals to learn about “struggling,” we risk creating demanding and stubborn temperaments. This is not what nature intended.
So, what did I learn in Iceland? I learned that there is no shame in struggling. I learned that it is a joy to be part of a community and have the opportunity to help my neighbors. I learned that to truly be in harmony with my horses, I must invite them into my community and attentively listen to the myriad spectrum of communications that they constantly offer.
I christened my stable “Harmony Icelandics” long before my first Þorrablót and connection to an Icelandic community. And I'm so glad I did. I cannot think of a more appropriate name. A few days ago, Mummi’s mother Sigrun gave me a book about horsemanship to read by the revered Icelandic horseman Benni Lindal. The title? Harmony.