By Janet Mulder
Owning, riding, and training horses is a challenging and rewarding pastime, and living in Anchorage, Alaska, requires creative solutions to withstand mother nature. Icelandic Horses have proven to be the best horse for my goals and needs. These tough and rugged equines are known for their ability to naturally perform five gaits – walk, trot, tölt, canter/gallop and flying pace. Icelandic Horses are smaller and sturdier, and by foraging on a volcanic island for over a thousand years, they developed a thick double winter coat, long manes, smaller nostrils, hard concave hooves, calm demeanors, and a love to run like the the wind. Anchorage sits across the globe from Reykjavik, Iceland, at nearly the same latitude; the climates are similar year round, plenty of wind, rain, ice and snow. For these reasons, choosing an Icelandic Horse in Anchorage is a smart choice.
Anchorage’s population is less than 300,000 and our horse community is relatively small, however, once you start looking for horses in Anchorage you will find them. Barns are hidden behind the zoo, in neighborhoods, and near the top of a mountain. I like to call my property a “hobby farm” located on a residential lot that is zoned for horses a half mile from a multi use trail system, a happy compromise between city life and horse heaven. A short commute to my day job and I get to live with my horses and ride from the house. The support of local organizations including Alaska Dressage Association (ADA), a Region 6 Group Member Organization (GMO) of USDF and Alaska Icelandic Horse Association (AIHA), a regional club of the United States Icelandic Horse Congress, makes horse life full and exciting in our community. ADA holds clinics, as well as four shows each year, flying up judges from the contiguous states. AIHA holds at least two shows each year and many clinics with educators flown in from around the world. 2020 has been the exception to these events as international and interstate travel restrictions continue at the time of this writing.
Riding an Icelandic Horse at a dressage show or working with a dressage trainer helps to develop the natural five gaits of the horse, but these gaits can bring extra challenges. When the bell rings to start your test, you might be holding your breath, crossing your fingers, and hoping that when you ask for trot, your horse trots! You may be offered a nice tölt instead. Tölt is a beautiful, comfortable, rhythmic four beat gait that you can ride in your test as long as you don’t trot. Most judges understand trot better and often you receive more helpful comments when you choose to ride your test in trot. Training a horse with “extra” gaits is like driving a car with more gears. Dressage provides riders with a clear set of goals for each of the training levels with expectations of how the horse should carry itself and perform. These guidelines are just as valuable for an Icelandic Horse as they are for other breeds. When I train my horses, I teach them to work bending and lateral movements in both intermediate gaits (trot and tölt), as well as walk and canter. When it comes to exercises and transitions, the intermediate gaits are interchangeable. Just as when riding trot, you have a working trot, medium trot, and extended trot; tölt has all these tempos as well.
Icelandic Horses are self sufficient, providing their riders with a brave confident partner. I ride the nearby multi-use trails for most of my training. We have creeks to ford, bridges to cross, and gates to maneuver. Our trails are shared with mountain bikers, runners, families with dogs, nordic skiers, and wildlife. Anchorage is home to more than 1,000 moose, over 300 black bears, about 50 grizzly bears, and also lynx, porcupines, and rabbits. When encountering wildlife on the trail, we give the animals space, speak loudly and choose an alternate route if the trail is blocked. In spring, when the bears first come out of hibernation, before the fish and berries are available, the bears are hungrier and more aggressive, so I ride with another horse on the trails. If no one else is available to ride along, I will pony a horse while I am riding. Partway through the ride, I will switch horses so they each get a bit of training. Riding with another horse in hand, “ponying”, is a common way Icelandic riders work more than one horse at a time.
Summertime in Alaska is tourist season. Daylight lasts 20 hours in Anchorage, the temperature averages 65 degrees, providing 90 days of nearly perfect riding conditions. The horse community fills these months with events. Each week is spent preparing and training for the following weekend. Weekends are full of camps, clinics, shows, and holidays. With few weekends available, deciding which event is most important to attend this year can be the most challenging part.
Trail conditions change with the seasons. When spring snows melt or fall rain creates slick mud, we do not use the trails. Instead, we work in a small arena with pea gravel footing. The gravel provides good drainage and stays put during extreme winds. Wind and rain are nearly constant in Iceland, the home country of my horses. It is common to attend an event in Iceland where the horses and riders are performing on an outdoor track while the judges and spectators are watching from the comfort of their vehicles parked around the edge. The weather makes it impossible to write or keep a score sheet dry. When judges booths are used, they have plexiglass sides and sometimes a heater. Icelanders are innovative in their riding clothing; soft-shell jodhpurs are a regular in their wardrobe and a pair of neoprene chaps will provide additional protection to your legs when the wind and rain are relentless. I competed at a dressage show in Anchorage one August, when an early fall storm hit. The wind was blowing the rain sideways, jump standards were falling down, spectators were nowhere to be found, and trainers were trying to read as loudly as possible so riders could hear. A strong gust caused the plastic arena fence to fall over during a test. The rider performing her test got a redo since her horse spooked from the interruption. The fence also fell down in the warm up arena from the same gust, while I was preparing for my test. My Icelandic Horse wasn’t phased, he kept his focus and carried on. I took a deep breath, sat tall, and reminded myself, “This is a great day in Iceland, we’re doing fine.” Many competitors scratched that day, but we completed both our tests and our goals for the season.
Wintertime riding takes extra preparation. Fewer trails are multi-use, the days are shorter, and footing is less predictable. The average high temperature in Anchorage is 25 degrees Fahrenheit, in the winter months. Thirty miles north, where part of my herd lives while not in training, the winter temps can be -30 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks, with only a roof shelter and extra hay to stay warm. By equipping my horses with a set of studded hoof boots or ice shoes, and slipping into my Winter Riding Suit, most days we are set to go. The horses don’t mind working in the cold; their smaller nostrils protect their lungs from cold air. When a horse sweats, it gets wet from the inside out, and when it snows or rains, it is wet from the outside in. It is rare that the snow or rain will reach the skin of an Icelandic Horse in full winter coat. However, a sweaty wet horse put out in the below freezing cold can be dangerous for their health. A good fleece cooler used for a couple of hours helps to dry them off after a sweaty ride. Trace clipping the horses in heavier winter training helps them to dry faster.
To stay warm, I wear wool top to bottom under my HGG Coldy Winteroverall riding suit that I purchased in Iceland a few years ago. For my feet, I wear smart wool socks inside a pair of Icebugs, studded winter boots. Our property is on a hill and I don’t want to slip and fall underneath my horse. I also wear a thin nordic ski hat under my riding helmet and a wool Buff or neck gaiter. My hands stay warm in a pair of SSG 10 Below winter gloves. Riding an Icelandic Horse bareback, with its three inch fur coat, while snow is lightly piling on their mane and hindquarters, and white holiday lights adorning the arena fence is magical.
These experiences feed my passion of Icelandic Horses and drive me to continue pursuing the goal of riding up the levels on my smaller, fuzzier, gaited equine partners. After all, I tell my students and friends – more gaits, more grins!