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Jewels of the North: a Carinthian State Champion´s perspective on the horses of Iceland

By: Karoline Wimmer

It is fair to say that most people have not seen ponies in the middle of a town. The same cannot be said for some inhabitants of Feldkirchen, a small town in Carinthia, Austria. Innocent passer-by´s have often gawked at a particular house, which hosts two Shetland ponies in a rather sizeable backyard. This house belongs to the Christof family, where the term: “the more, the merrier” is taken quite literally, as they own three horses, three ponies and two dogs. Out of this colourful menagerie, there is one shining star: the Icelandic horse, Flugthor (Flugþór in Icelandic) belonging to the eldest child of the Christof´s, Katharina, lovingly known as Tarina in the family.

“Two beings that harbour the desire to strap the other to a rocket and shoot them to the moon whilst actually loving one another” is how the twenty-two year old Tarina would describe some moments with her stubborn Flugthor. To be fair to the horse though Tarina is quite stubborn herself, as she proudly revealed to me one afternoon. “So, like mother, like son?” I provocatively asked to which she vigorously nodded. “Tell me something about Flugthor”, I asked Tarina, to which I got such an enthusiastic response, that I regretted not having started our conversation with that question in the first place. “Flugthor is the leader of the herd, and watches over them like a general. He is the first to act if there is a problem between the horses. He fulfils his role with an inspiring level of confidence, always doing what is necessary, but never overdoing anything”. When speaking of Flugthor, Tarina reminds me of a proud mother. Her usually shy demeanour fades and she speaks with ease. Before I had time to interrogate her with another question, she quickly interjects with: “I can always on rely on him, I live in the moment because he gives me safety and security. And when I am stressed, he knows how to calm me down. Also, he always has funny ideas that make me laugh”. After that sentence, Tarina giggles and I can tell that she is enjoying the memories that she and Flugthor have together. It is in that moment that I realize that the bond between them runs bone deep. They work together as a team, and by virtue of doing so, they have managed to accomplish much together.

Speaking of accomplishments, Tarina and Flugthor are state champions in the riding department.  Since Flugthor is a champion horse (in the literal sense of the word) I fully expected him to be an “easy” horse to ride during a championship, one that provided little trouble.  That is why when I asked Tarina about his behaviour during championships I genuinely expected a positive response. What I didn´t expect was for my question to be greeted with laughter, followed by: “In one or two championships he behaved very well. He enjoyed himself. But during other championships, he just wasn´t having it. He simply could not understand why he had to ride in front of a crowd of people. If he had a voice, I am sure he would have acted like a stroppy teenager and said: “Can we go now?””. At this point, Tarina and I both have to laugh, after which she proceeded to tell me: “After a while, I just stopped doing championships with him. My horse did not ask for me to ride him. The fact that he allows me is a privilege, so I will not do anything that is not fun for him. If he is not having fun, I cannot have fun, and neither of us wins in that kind of situation”. I pondered over her words for a moment and wondered how many riders actually take the feelings of their horses into consideration, particularly in the context of championships. “There are riders who deeply care about their horses and during a championship you can tell that rider and horse are in completely harmony with one another. It is a pleasure to watch because it is clear that the horse is having fun. But (at this point, Tarina sighs), there are many, many riders who view their horses as sport canons, whose sole purpose is to perform well during championships. Those kinds of riders do not normally care or treat their horse well in any regard. You see, in order to ride a horse, a horse needs to build on certain muscles. Now, the healthy way to achieve that takes time. As a result, many opt for the quicker way, which is ultimately detrimental to the horse´s welfare”. Tarina is visibly bothered by the maltreatment of horses and judging by her words, I can sense that in reality, many horses are being mistreated for the sake of fame.

In order to steer the conversation into lighter territory, I proceeded to ask Tarina more about Icelandic horses. It is important to note, that Tarina spent 1.5 years in Iceland and in that time period managed to become acquainted with Icelandic culture and language, speaking Icelandic fluently. “Icelandic horses may at first seem like boring ponies. However, the more you spend time with them, the more you realize that they are the very opposite of boring. Icelandic horses have strong personalities, and it is exhilarating to ride a horse that has such power. They have quite an interesting gait, something that is unique to them, and if you have the fortune of riding a motivated horse, then you can feel a thrilling flow to their movements. The horses are a cultural heritage in Iceland and you can tell that they are exceptionally important to the people there, especially in the country. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the horses are more important to the people of Iceland than cows are to the farmers in Austria. There is a law which states that a horse cannot be imported to Iceland. Once a horse leaves Iceland, they can never return. This has been passed in order to not mess with the blood line and also because one does not wish to transport illnesses across the border”. Before I had time to allow those words to sink, Tarina continued with “Icelandic horses have two gaits that are unique to them: the flying pace and the tölt”. According to the Riding Iceland blog, the flying pace is a fast gait “during which both legs on one side of the horse simultaneously touch the ground”, whereas with the tölt there is always at least one foot touching the ground. I confess that I had to ask Tarina to repeat the concept of the flying pace and the tölt several times in order to understand it. Tarina willingly obliged and even proceeded to do a demonstration of the gaits which looked rather amusing considering that you normally see horses, not people doing this. That being said, it allowed me to have a better understanding of concepts that I was previously completely unaware of. I was also surprised to learn of the important role that horses play in Iceland´s society.

As we neared the end of our conversation Tarina shared one last bit of information with me: “Due to my university studies, I do not have the time to care for Flugthor the way he deserves. My mother has taken it upon herself to look after him and she handles his quirks with patience and a good dose of humour. Both of them adore each other and I must admit that they are an adorable team”. I realize how relieved Tarina is that Flugthor is being looked after with such love and care, and once again it becomes clear to me that this horse truly means the world to her.

It is undeniable that Tarina shares a special bond with her horse. The undiluted passion and joy that Flugthor brings her (and that she brings him) is rare and precious. What is also undeniable is that Iceland shares an unbreakable bond with their horses. Outsiders often overlook them and thus never get to see their fiery personalities. But, for people like Tarina, who have invested time and energy into caring for these horses, it is clear that Icelandic horses are truly one of a kind, the hidden jewel of Iceland. What I learned from my conversation with Tarina is that if one dares to broadens one´s horizon, even just a little bit, we can open worlds that were previously invisible to us.

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