The Love/Hate Relationships of Icelandic Steeds and Stockfish: Equitation

Ponies for export, Reykjavík. Collodion print by Frederick W. W. Howell. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson; Cornell University Library Rare & Manuscript Collections.

Before jumping into the expeditions of William Watts into the Vatna Jökull (which, by the way, is pronounced /’jœ:kytl/ or “yokutl” as opposed to the “yokull” that most of us might expect), I thought I’d share some of the interesting and amusing impressions of British and French travelers regarding their encounters with the famous ponies and dried fish over and over again around the island.

This post will cover the horses and the next will examine the stockfish.  There are a large number of images in the archival collections I am exploring this summer, and it would interesting enough just to share those and let them speak for themselves.  But my task is to harvest history, so for now I will resist images and focus on ideas (sharing more images as the ideas take shape).

James Jackson, in the Saturday Review of December 14th, 1872, wrote that buying horses is a long, trying, and expensive process, but a necessary one since one can’t get anywhere around the island by foot while still transporting all the essential objects for travel in a wild country. Jackson and many others recommended 5-6 horses per traveller in a party, in order to carry the baggage and shift between tired and fresh steeds.

In the French Bulletin de la Société de Géographie (Geographical Society Bulletin) in 1894, Charles Rabot described the “fameux poneys” as singular (extraordinary), small beasts, and felt ten of the horses were necessary for two voyagers and one guide. The Belgian Jules-Joseph LeClercq assigned six horses per traveller, and claimed that renting the horses was better since after traveling the interior of Iceland the horses would be spent and not fetch anywhere near the bought price, especially since buyers would know tourists had to leave the country and were eager to be free of the beasts. LeClercq described Icelanders as “veritable centaurs,” such was their skill and reliance on their ponies to travel around, and he compared them to the Bedouins and Gauchos, as they all practically rode horses since birth. LeClercq considered Icelanders to be “perhaps the most able riders in the world, but certainly not the most graceful, given their practice of constantly slapping their steeds’ flanks with their legs.”

Svínaskarð. – Ponies waiting. Collodion print by Frederick W. W. Howell. Bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske; compilation by Halldór Hermannsson; Cornell University Library Rare & Manuscript Collections.

The Belgian’s travel book Terre de Glace (Land of Ice) is full of episodes where his reliable but stubborn horses incredibly finding paths through dangerous bogs, somehow avoiding quicksand while fording rivers, and treading confidently over the “horrible deserts” of “miserable lava” that so frequently had to be traversed. But the horses also wander overnight to find forage and have to be chased back, and LeClercq quickly learns to mount the short steeds in a quick leap, since trying to use the usual stirrup method would leave him with one foot attached to the horse and the rest of his body dragging across the rugged Icelandic terrain. Towards the end of his account he points out that the horses, having such little natural fodder on the island, often resort to fish, bones and all, and also dried seaweed.

All authors I’ve seen extoll both the amazing virtues and unfortunate vices of Icelandic ponies, and in their concluding remarks often recommend that the Icelandic horse industry import new breeds for improved husbandry, though as far as I know no such thing ever happened and Icelanders continued to export many hundreds of their ponies to Europe through Scotland for many years. I have also heard that the Icelandic horses are still famous today, so it seems the islanders did the right thing!

7 thoughts on “The Love/Hate Relationships of Icelandic Steeds and Stockfish: Equitation

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