Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Historic Icelandic Horsekeeping Practices

Photographs of F. Howell, Cornell University Library.
In her investigation of historic Scandinavian horse keeping practices from 500 BC to 1060 AD, A. Sunkvist discusses the practice common in many parts of Scandinavia, including Iceland, of maintaining free-roaming horse herds in which the majority of horses, when not under use, are allowed to roam free and fend for themselves.  Such practices lead to what she calls “the survival of the fittest.”  
As Sunkvist mentions, the Icelandic Saga of Hravnkel Freysgodi and The Saga of Gunlaugs Ormstungu discuss how the mares are grouped with select superior select stallions in different valleys—a way of controlling breeding. She states that “The first law ever regulating horse-breeding in Iceland dates as late as 1891 and bans sexually mature colts to run loose, which can be interpreted as a way to control the breeding.”  Certainly these methods of letting the horses fend entirely for themselves were in use in Iceland until fairly recently and when combined with the great change in Icelandic climate would have had a devastating impact on the native horse populations during any year of severe weather conditions. 

Survival of any stock over winter in Iceland was dependent on how much hay could be harvested in the summer.  Some of the better riding horses would have received additional care and forage.  Haystacks were often roofed with sod to better preserve them.


Sunkvist, A.  (2002 ).  Herding horses: a model of prehistoric horsemanship in Scandinavia – and elsewhere,  PECUS. Man and animal in antiquity. Proceedings of the conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, September 9-12, 2002.

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