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Training an Icelandic Horse

From: Ejnar Kirk

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for taking the time to share with the rest of us horse lovers! This is going to be a bit long, but I have so many questions and no one to turn to where I am currently living. I am an American who grew up with Pinto ponies and QH and a couple of Shetland ponies. We rode western/pleasure style at home in Indiana (25 years ago). I am now living in Denmark and have discovered the wonderful world of Islandic horses.

I have an 8 year old mare who is about to foal in a week or so. I bought her a year ago. She is trained in all 5 gaits an Islander has, is a horse that you can ask to do just about anything and she will try. She has a rather stand-offish personality, but most people here find that desirable. She is also a bit nervous. (I thought it was me when I was trying her out, but, live and learn...) I am hoping she will become more friendly as time goes on. At about the same time I bought 'Black Stone', I also bought a little pinto pony, Daisy (3 years) for my 8 year old daughter.

Now we come to the first issue: Black Stone is so jealous of her when we are around that she runs her off any time we come around. We do not give 'treats' to either horse, so it isn't that that is causing the problem. I borrowed a 15 year old gelding 6 weeks ago so I could have a horse to ride. Black Stone had to show her domination over him the first couple of days, then she relaxed..sort of. She then proceeded to chase around after our Daisy and the gelding never allowing them to stand side by side. She did it the two and a half weeks I had him here. Is this a common occurance? Is there anything I can do to discourage this behavior?

I have just bought another Islandic mare (15 yrs) and am to bring her home in 2 days. I am not going to put them together because it is so close to the birthing, but I am wondering what to do afterward. How soon can I put all three mares and the new colt together? I am also more than a bit nervous about how possessive she will be of her colt. How soon can I begin to take Black Stone out riding again (not a hard program, but just to get her used to the idea she can leave the colt)? She and Daisy whinney to each other (more Daisy than Black Stone) when I take either of them out to ride or just to graze.

Daisy is frantic the entire time I am gone on Black Stone, gallops and trots until she is foaming with sweat. I have a hard time getting her to ride away from the farm when I take her out. She is a beautiful little pony (125 cm), and very much a pet, good with children, no biting no kicking, but is too much thunder and lightning for my daughter to handle. She is hard to get stopped. I use a two part bit that is pretty thick (I don't know the name of it). Someone said I should go to a western style bit like I am use to from back home, because I would get more (quicker) response from her (i.e. getting her to stop). The fellow I bought her from said she was trained for children and it was at a market place where there was no place to try her out. She has proved to be friendly, and used to a saddle, but not really to a rider asking anything of her.

I don't plan on training her in dressage, but if I can just get her to be more calm so my daughter can ride her. We ride her with an English saddle, because there are no good quality western saddles available here in Denmark. I am considering trying the western style bit (I have trouble asking a horse to ride 'to the bit' as they say here. It feels barbaric to me after all the years of western style). What do you suggest? Can you suggest a multi-facited book on horses and their training? Longeing? Well, that my "starter" letter.

Patti Kirk

Hi Patti! I would normally divide this letter into several separate questions, but since all of it concerns the training and riding of a particular breed of horse, I'll try to answer everything here.

Your mare WILL probably become more relaxed and friendly as time goes by. Icelandic Horses are very strong-minded and independent, so your mare will need to build up many good experiences with you before she trusts you completely. Don't worry if she seems to go backward in her training and trust while the foal is very young; she will have a strong instinct to protect the baby from everything and everyone, including humans!

Black Stone sounds like a dominant mare! Yes, her behaviour with Daisy and the gelding is quite normal; she was telling them that she is the Number One Horse and that they must give way to her. This behaviour will become less pronounced as the horses learn to know one another; she may never allow the others to share a pile of hay with her, for instance, but she WILL get to a point where a simple gesture with her head and neck will be enough to send the others away, and she won't feel compelled to chase after them to make her point clear.

Don't add any new horse to the herd until they've spent a week or so getting acquainted over the fence. And don't add any new horse to the herd when you have a new mother in the herd!!! At least you shouldn't have to worry about any other mare stealing Black Stone's baby, since she is so dominant, but if Black Stone decides to put the new mare in her place and the new mare happens to be a dominant type also, there could be a few battles. You do NOT want this sort of thing going on when there is a young foal at its mother's side; it's too easy for a baby to get injured.

You should be able to ride Black Stone a little when the foal is three months old -- by then, everyone in the field should be friends. Just take her away for a little while at first (and don't expect her, or the foal, to be calm about it!), and then, as they both learn to accept the idea of brief separations, you'll be able to take her away for longer and longer periods. The foal will become accustomed to the idea that Mummy will go away and then come back again. Later, this will also make weaning MUCH easier!

Daisy is far too young to be expected to teach a child to ride! In fact, she is too young to be ridden AT ALL -- Icelandics are late-maturing horses, and responsible trainers usually start them when they are four or five, and no earlier. Daisy is still a baby herself, which is one reason she screams and races around when you take Black Stone away. She will be ready to start under saddle in another year or two, and she still won't be physically mature until she is seven!

It's unlikely that Daisy has had much -- if any -- training at her age. People who want to sell horses will often exaggerate wildly when they think you are looking for a particular quality ("very gentle, very quiet!") or a particular type of training ("oh, yes, this horse is wonderful at jumping" -- or dressage, or trailriding, or polo, or teaching children to ride...). Daisy needs to be put into a field with other horses and allowed to grow up for a year or so before she is trained. Can you do this? Or perhaps it would be better to find a more suitable home for her, and buy something older, trained, and more sedate for your daughter. You certainly don't want your daughter to become afraid, and when a child has had very few riding experiences, even ONE big fright or out-of-control ride can leave her convinced that riding is NOT for her. It's better for a beginner to have a horse that needs to be encouraged forward, than one that is constantly wanting to go faster than the rider wants it to go. This quietness, though, is NOT typical of an Icelandic horse of any age -- which is why they are not generally recommended for children. Icelandics are known for their strength and endurance -- AND for their explosive energy! It would be nice if your daughter could learn to ride on something else, and then get an Icelandic horses when she is older and a competent rider.

A western bit -- something gentle, like a low-port sweetwater curb, or anything with backswept cheeks, would probably work quite well, especially if you use a curb strap instead of a chain, keep it very loose, and put a piece of sheepskin around it for padding. Don't expect to create the arched neck and vertical head carriage of a Western parade horse, though -- it would be impossible for most Icelandics to achieve that physical position and still breathe. Icelandics typically carry their necks and heads high, regardless of the type of saddle and bridle that are used. Some Icelandics go beautifully in snaffles, others wear curbs. You'll have to take your mare's individual comformation and preference into account.

Here are two addresses you may find useful:

Bunadarfelag Islander Baendahollinni v/Hagatorg PO Box 7080 IS - 127, Reykjavik, Iceland

U.S. Icelandic Horse Federation 38 Park Street Montclair, NJ 07042, USA

I'm sorry I don't know the address of the Icelandic Horse Club in Denmark, but I'm sure that you could get information from the Reykjavkik office. The American office may be useful to you if you want information about Western saddles and tack to fit Icelandics, or suggestions from other Americans who have fallen in love with this breed. You might even be able to purchase good-quality used tack and have it sent to you in Denmark -- you're better off there than you would be in Iceland, where NO used horse equipment is allowed into the country!

Books on training -- I'd be happy to suggest some, but why don't you send me this request as a separate horse-sense posting, and give me more information about your horses (age, training, experience), your own riding/training background, and the facilities available to you! I'll be able to make better suggestions when I know those things.


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