Icelandic Horse World Championships 2013

Our first trip to the Icelandic Horse World Championships in the summer of 2013 won’t be our last.

We had booked the trip several months in advance, but as time progressed we were having second thoughts. Going to Berlin for the ‘WCs’ meant that we wouldn’t be going to Iceland again this year, and we had had such a fantastic time in October on the Round Up, that we wanted to go straight back!

But, we were already committed. Tickets, hotel and flight were all paid for well in advance. The arrangements had been made following an invitation on Facebook from another Icelandic horse owner, and despite only having met her once, and never having met any of the others in the group of ten, we signed up. At this point we did not really know that many ‘Icey’ people, had not been to any shows or clinics in the UK, and therefore didn’t know what we had let ourselves in for! Fortunately, we got to meet some more people at the British Championships, at a clinic run locally, and a Horse Agility Event for Icelandic’s, before heading off to Berlin.

Everyone was really friendly and welcoming, and in the final weeks we began to get more excited about the trip, and made a long shopping list of all the horsey things we wanted to buy while we were there!

We arrived on the Tuesday, a few days into the show. I won’t dwell on the location of the hotel which was, at best described as “edgy”. Suffice to say that once we had established where to buy supplies of water (or beer), snacks and salads for lunches, and which train to get for the fifteen minute journey to the show ground, we were happy.

Most of the “old hands” headed off to explore Berlin, or get some rest before the next day, but Roger and I couldn’t wait to get to the show even though it was late in the day. I am glad we did. It gave us an opportunity, while it was quiet to locate our seats, and explore the grounds. Basically meaning finding out where the best stands were in the shopping area, and seeing some horses. We were already having equine withdrawal symptoms since leaving our little herd the day before.

Early in the week there are not as many people about, so basically you can sit anywhere. We were able to sit near the front to watch the Mares Breeding Assessment, and enjoyed it more than we expected to. The young mares were graded for their confirmation, and the scores announced as they came in to show off their gaits. It was really helpful in helping us understand what was being looked for in each of the gaits, and we got so see a lot of horses, several of whom we would have liked to have brought home!

We also really enjoyed the Pace Test, and the Pace Racing, and it was great to be able to cheer for the British riders in these events. I think Fleygur from Siamber Wen should be worried, as Roger definitely has his eye on these events!

In the days that followed we watched the early rounds of each of the classes and very quickly became experts in which gaits were the best 😉  It was good to be able to sit with members of the British Team for some of this, as well as other supporters, and learn from their experience and expertise.

The last couple of days of the show were certainly exciting, with the finals in each of the classes, but actually we found some of the earlier events more impressive and memorable. The horses and riders compete individually in the earlier rounds allowing you, and the judges I imagine, to focus properly on the performance of each partnership, and they get to choose their own music. I know that many people felt that the Icelandic rider who rode to “First we take Manhattan then, we take Berlin…” was arrogant, but there was no doubting it was a powerful performance, and it is true, it would have seemed supremely arrogant if he hadn’t won, but he did! For me though, the most impressive performance was from Magnus Skulason, in the Five Gait, whose transitions were amazingly smooth, almost breathtaking.

But Icelandic Horses are not just about gait competitions. In fact, for me they are not even mainly about competition. It is the Icelandic horses’ nature and versatility that has won me over to the breed, so it was also great to take time out to see the performances in the small arena. “Youth in Motion” was an entertaining display from young German riders and their horses, including everything from bareback, bridle-less riding, to jumping, quadrille, dressage, tolt and pace demonstrations; and some dancing around with poles, which I think has something to do with working with bulls!

 Bull fighting

 

It was great fun. As was Connie who has somehow managed to teach her Icelandic to hula-hoop!

Hula hoop

The Icelandic Horse is hardy, and long lived, and it was moving to see so many twenty year old+ horses in the “old heroes” display, and although one or two looked as if they may have been better off staying in the paddock, most were impressively fit, and a great advert for the breed.

Another highlight for Roger and I, was meeting so many people we knew. We met up with people who had been on the Round Up with us in Iceland last year, and with a number of the staff from Ishester who had organised the trip; and a couple of the horse farmers/breeders whose horses we had ridden. Roger, who has a great memory for faces, also made sure we had a long talk with the guy from the movie “Kraftur” and talked saddles with Benni. For those who have been around a long time, and know “everyone” this is probably normal, but for us it was like meeting all our favourite celebrities at once!

Having said that I am not sure I will forgive Fannar, the MD of Ishestar for setting us up to be interviewed on Icelandic TV so that the whole of Iceland could laugh at our attempts at pronouncing Icelandic Horse names. It was slightly surreal to get a message on Little Viking Horses Facebook page the next day, from a fan in Iceland saying she had seen “My Mate Roger” on Icelandic TV!

I can’t say the closing ceremony was particularly impressive, and it did drag on a bit, but I am glad we stayed right to the end, and that I got to run down onto the track to grab a picture of most of the British Team. I think they had had a tough week (flash flood in the campsite, injuries and a disqualification!), but they were all smiling at the end.

British Team

A final thought. When we got home, Roger and I put on some DVDs we have of Icelandic competitions, some of which were over ten years old. We were struck by how much the riding has improved. In all competition, and equestrian sport is no different, there is a risk of using extreme measures to win. Sadly, for horses this can mean poor riding, or inhumane methods. I hope that we continue to see improvements in the training and riding of Icelandic horses, and that judges remember to reward the spirit and free flow of the Icelandic horse….and don’t just score highly the flamboyant or extravagant, at the expense of the function of the gait, or the welfare of the horse. 

The majority of what we saw in Berlin was good riding, beautiful horses, and friendly people, but with hindsight, and I little bit more knowledge, I now see that some of what looked impressed at the time would not meet the criteria I set out above, and arguably should not have been scored as highly as it was. This is an issue that needs more debate in the Icelandic Horse community, and in Equestrian sport in general.

At the end I was struck by what a small world it is, and how the Icelandic horse is uniting people in many countries. The next World Championships is in Denmark in 2015. We intend to be there.

 

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The Gentle Touch

I am passionate about horses, and spending time with my horses has helped me reflect on how I deal with people and on my leadership.

It is not a spiritual journey. I don’t believe that horses are a more superior beings trying to help develop us towards a greater purpose or a higher evolutionary level, or that they have insight into our thoughts, or that we can communicate with them telepathically. Though there are some people who believe all these things. This is a personal reflection on my own learning that I shared once with some colleagues on a leadership course.

I have been passionate about horses for as long as I can remember. The photo below is of me with my mother and brother. I am on the coloured pony. Wow. No hats, no bridles and our feet don’t reach the stirrups! How things change.

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I was 46 before I realised my dream and bought my own horse, a lovely Welsh Cob called Jackobean (known as Beanie). My partner and I now have three; the Cob and two Icelandic horses, including the famous Little Viking Horse whose blog I have appropriated to post this.

I have found that just like my forty-two toy horses when I was a child, real horses are collectible! I have promised my mother that we will stop at three ….. 😉

Three Ponies

My partner, Roger is fond of saying that “horses are a lesson in humility”. When things are going well this reminds me not to be complacent, or to forget that the unpredictable can catch me out. But it is also good to remember this when things aren’t going as I intended. Before getting cross and reacting in possibly counter productive ways, I try to ask myself “why did the horse do that?”

Horses are prey animals, essentially when they see something they don’t immediately recognise they ask themselves “will it eat me?”, and make ready to run away – or sometimes run away first then turn to look to decide “will it eat me?”

With the exception of the Tahki in Mongolia, there are no truly wild horses in the rest of the world. All other horse breeds are created by humans, but all horses have kept this highly developed flight instinct.

Mongolian Horse
Mongolian Wild Horse

Though it is also true that Icelandic horses, bred for 1000 years in a country with no natural predators, seem less inclined to ‘leg it’ than other breeds when faced with the unknown.

Horses are also social animals and are very adept at reading body language and facial expression.

Relaxed Beanie
Beanie and I relaxing in the field

So my first lesson on being successful with my horses is that I have to be acutely aware of myself and the messages I am giving. If you get on a horse and tense up, breathing quickly, the horse will pick this up and, believing there is something to be scared of (will it eat me?), it is likely to run. It’s a bit like nuts and bolts really – if the rider is nuts the horse bolts!

The second thing I noticed is how important my focus is. I was riding up a country lane one Sunday and enjoying the view across the fields, my mind off in a world of my own. So having spent the last ten minutes staring off to my left I should not have been surprised when, on reaching an open gateway, Beanie promptly turned left into the field! How was he to know that I wanted him to continue straight up the road if my focus and attention was somewhere else? He just went where I was looking.

Gydja enjoying the view

 
Horses move away from pressure and are extremely sensitive. A horse can feel a fly on its back and twitch a muscle to dislodge it. In other words you don’t need a megaphone to communicate with a horse. If you apply a small amount of pressure, and keep it there until the moment horse makes the slightest effort in the right direction the next time less pressure is required. This is how an accomplished rider can move anyone one of his horses feet in any direction – and you will barely be able to see the rider move.

However the consistent use of excessive pressure, such as the ‘kick, kick, kick’ of an inexperienced or poor rider has the effect of “deadening” the horse to the cue. The communication gradually becomes less effective. Equally excessive and unjust pressure can be counter productive in other ways. Like the rider I observed at the Horse of the Year Show once trying to bully his horse around the course by hitting him with a whip at every jump. At the fourth jump the horse said “sod this for a game of soldiers” and slammed on the brakes sending the rider over the jump on his own – much to my satisfaction. (Editors note: he wasn’t hurt).

I try to understand the horse from the perspective of the horse, and it is perfectly understandable that Beanie, being a prey animal is reluctant to walk into our horse box. It’s a dark enclosed space from which he can not escape.

trailer

Believe me if a half ton horse does not want to go into the trailer you can not achieve it by force. Using the principles I have outlined has enabled me to go from taking two hours to load my horse, to five minutes. Though, remembering that horses are a lesson in humility, I probably should not have told you that until after I have loaded him on the trailer for our next holiday!

Roger also says that every horse should have a job. To have success with a horse it is important to keep in mind what you want to achieve and work towards it. It could be as simple as riding out on your own. After all one definition of riding is “going in the direction you want, at the speed you want and keeping the horse between you and the ground”! Even this can be a challenge for some horse owners.

People are not prey animals so how does this translate into how we might to relate to people? I think what I have learned since having my own horses and spending so much time with them, is the importance of being aware of how what I do impacts on others.

Gentle approaches can more powerful than some people imagine.

My horse related lessons for leadership are:-
1. Be self aware and stay calm.
2. Be focused if you want others to follow – if you stop paying attention don’t be
surprised if you get unpredictable results.
3. Use the gentlest touch and reward the slightest try – if people are going in the right
direction quit nagging and don’t shout.
4. Reward people who are trying to do what you want – or they will stop trying.
5. Understand what motivates people and work with this not against it
6. Have a clear vision and build steps towards it

When I started this blog about my passion for horses – some of you may have made assumptions – so for the record – I don’t want to win any horse races, show jumping or dressage competitions – and I don’t hunt.

Gydja is my Icelandic mare.

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We are still getting to know each other – but if you want to know my vision for us take a look at this… We are a long way from this yet, but making small steps

Very clever horses have stripes

It’s common knowledge that zebras are in fact very clever horses who, observing their equine counterparts being hunted by humans for meat, arranged to have stripes painted all over their bodies in order to fool their less well endowed (intellectually speaking) foe into thinking they were some sort of tiger…and to be avoided.

The zebras were almost unbearably smug when the hunting progressed to include riding, and deciding they were not destined to be the servant of humans, had the stripes tattooed on all new born zebra foals.

No horses here, nothing to see…..move along…..