The woman from Texas told the guide she knew how to ride horses. So the guide, Ragnar Tor Alfredsson, let the woman get aboard the horse, a pony-sized animal with a shaggy, blond-brown mane.
She was about to learn the first rule of Icelandic horse riding: These fellas look cuddly enough to star in a Disney movie, but they’re natural-born runners.
“She gave a little kick, and POOOOSH, off they went, fast,” said Alfredsson, a 29-year-old native Icelander making his first visit to the United States.
Alfredsson and fellow Icelander Hermann Tor Karlsson will try to make sure other riders at Schweitzer learn that lesson sooner. Both trainers will spend the summer giving lessons and leading riders aboard what they consider the smoothest-riding steed in creation.
Fans of other horse breeds might quibble, but riders around the world are lining up to enjoy what Icelanders have bragged about for centuries.
“The Icelandic horse is special,” the 29-year-old Karlsson said, looking at the group of 14 horses penned outdoors near Schweitzer’s Green Gables Lodge. The Icelandics are smaller than quarter horses. But because of climate and breeding, they’ve developed a reputation for amazing strength and uncommon gentleness.
While nearly all other horses have three gaits, walk, trot and gallop, the Icelandic horse has five - the three regular speeds, plus two others, tolt and flying pace.
This is the first year Schweitzer has offered public rides on Icelandic horses. The horses belong to Chapman Crest Acres of Greenacres, Wash.
That ranch, which breeds the animals and gives riding lessons, arranged for Alfredsson and Karlsson to offer their services this summer at Schweitzer.
Both have ridden horses most of their lives and are good at explaining, in English, how to lead the horse to tolt, the brisk trot that Icelandic horses have been perfecting for nearly 1,000 years.
When done right, the horse moves in a jaunty four-beat rhythm.
“It is very nice to watch,” added Skory Steingrimsson, another trainer working at Chapman Crest ranch. “That is because the horse only has one foot on the ground at a time, always changing very smoothly from foot to foot.”
That produces almost no side-to-side or front-to-back rocking. Karlsson and Alfredsson have demonstrated that smoothness on training videos, galloping aboard a horse, holding a stein of beer. And not sloshing a drop.
With flying pace, the Icelandic horse speeds up, shifting to two-beat strides with the front legs hitting at once, followed by both back legs.
“You can go 35 miles per hour. But very easy, too.”
Continued Karlsson: “You can say it’s like a motorcycle ride. But a motorcycle is the same always. With the horse, you never have two ride the same way.”
American riders, especially Schweitzer visitors, may never reach flying pace. But even so, they’re in for a good ride, the two men said.
“The important thing,” said Alfredsson, “is this horse is ideal for families and for new riders.”
If the two guides brag about their horses, it’s clear they’re only doing what comes naturally in their country. After first being brought to the island country by Viking settlers, the horses have become something like the Icelandic symbol of pride.
More than 5,000 Icelandic horses have been sold in Europe in recent years, while only 700 have arrived in the United States.
To protect its genetic qualities, Icelanders won’t even allow any other breed of horse in their country, said Alfredsson.
For every rider at Schweitzer, the guides give a quick summary of the important points of riding an Icelandic: keep the reins short, hold the animal’s head up, and don’t use your legs hard to spur the horse forward.
“These are very smart animals. They can learn how to go from tolt to another speed, just by talking and telling them,” said Karlsson.
Already, he added, he’s found the animals at Schweitzer have learned to respond to his version of “whoa.”
“When I want him to stop, I say ‘ho,’ and they stop,” he said.
Alfredsson and Karlsson will offer rides at Icelandic Horse Trekking Adventures through the end of August. They’ll offer one to three hour trips, with rental costing $18 per person per hour.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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