Thursday, October 31, 2013

Best Icelandic Horse Tricks--Caeli and Soldis

In this video, Caeli and Soldis are showing off their repertoire of tricks.  This is a wonderful partership!  They are having so much fun.  It is amazing how much work Icelandics will do for a carrot (or peanut).  I wonder what Blessi would look like performing the Spanish Walk. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blessi Gets the Boot

At the SCA practice over the weekend, my friend Dawn stopped by to get her "horse fix."  She recently broke her leg and is currently non-weight bearing.  She wore an orthopedic boot and supported herself with crutches. 

Dawn re-introduced her self to old friends--both equine and knightly.  Blessi amazed us by being the only horse to notice that Dawn wore an orthopedic boot.  Blessi gently ran his nose up and down the boot and checked out each strap.  I am so glad that he did not decide to undo any velcro this time.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Medieval Games Practice

Tilting at the Quintain
Amy, who calls Blessi, the floofy, poofy pony, rode Bless to gain her Society for Creative Anachronism authorization for riding games.  I will let the pictures speak for themselves.  Blessi and Amy's favorite game was "behead the bandit" or, in this case, "behead the soda bottle."  The equestrian guild got a little creative in devising game equipment.
Pig Sticking--that's why the styrofoam is pink!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Happy Moments

Everthing is totally 100% perfect.
Peter Hoeg profoundly inspired me in the following passage from his recent novel  The Elephant Keepers' Children:

"Before I start, I'm going to ask you something.  I'm going to ask if you can recall a moment of your life at which you were happy.  Not just in a good mood.  Not just content.  But so happy that everything was totally one hundred percent perfect."

I challenged myself to think of three times in my life that I was happy.  I did not limit myself to the happiest events in my life since I did not want to get bogged down in a internal debate over degrees of happiness.  My goal was just to visualize three happy moments that immediately popped into my head.  Do you know what?  Two out  of three moments involved horses.  Blessi really brings that kind of joy into my life. 

As I was involved in this exercise, I was flooded with remembrances of small happy moments in life.  I keep challenging myself to string together those happy moments and not dwell on the small dissatisfactions in life.

When you think of happy moments in your life, what do you visualize?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Blessi Works for Peanuts--Literally

From time to time, Blessi and I retire to the arena and work on silly tricks like spin the pony, piaffe in place (which is currently really kick in place), toot a bicycle horn, bow, carrot stretches, play a child's piano, identify numbers (in progress), hold on to something (in progress), etc. 

Blessi will work really hard for any kind of treat but his favorite is peanuts.  While clicker training, I usually reward him with one--that's right just one--Spanish roasted peanut.  Blessi is very careful in taking the peanut off the palm of my hand.  Since peanuts are so small, sometimes it is like feeding a fish to a dolphin.  Blessi kind of opens hims mouth and  I throw one peanut onto the side of his tongue.

We were practicing tricks in the arena.  I brought the whole can of peanuts into the arena and occasionally refreshed the stash of peanuts in my pocket.   The peanut can was stored in the observational area--a little porch-like structure raised above the surface of one corner of the arena. 
Close up of lid showing where Blessi bit
through the plastic
As the session progressed, I noticed that Blessi was playing the "trick game" at two different levels.  One level is enthusiastically offering tricks for a peanut.  The other level is trying to get as close to the deck as possible and making a grab for the entire peanut can--thus earning the jackpot.  Trying to keep ahead of his strategized movements was mentally and physically taxing for me so I decided to store the can of peanuts outside the arena. 

After finishing the session, Blessi and I excited the arena and stopped to socialize with Amy and her horse.  Quick as a thought, Blessi grabbed the peanut can by the lid and popped the top strewing peanuts about the gravel.  How did he know how to remove a plastic lid?  It is not like he gets to practice this movement which usually requires opposable thumbs.

As a follow up, he passed a fellow boarder's tack box and noticed she had a can of leather cleaner.  As an optimist, Blessi made a grab for the can again--going right for the lid.  Thank goodness I was able to intercept that movement.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Whirls and Swirls--Icelandic Lore

Blessi has a Straumfjađrir, I think,
and he loves water crossings
Photo by Carol Townsend

Bjőrnsson and Sveinsson(2006, p. 73)  in The Icelandic Horse, a comprehensive reference book about the breed, present some Icelandic lore about the meaning of whirls.  The Icelandic horse can have various whirls on its body:
  • Flugfjađrir (flying feathers) are whirls in a row along the mane. Three such whirls are believed to indicate a horse with more stamina.
  • Pétursstingir (strings of St. Peter) are whirls along the mane on both sides of the neck.   Some believe that it is “healthy” to touch these fingerprint of St. Peter.
  • Pétursfar (touch of St. Peter) is a whirl under the mane.
  • Straumfjőđur (stream feather) is a whirl on the lower part of the neck.  Folklore says a rider will never drown riding a horse with both a touch of St. Peter and a stream feather on both sides of the neck.
  • Straumfjađrir (stream edges) are whirls on the chest and such horses are regarded as being great water horses.
  • A whirl “at the front of the eyebrow” indicates a very lively horse.

Bjőrnsson, G., & Sveinsson, H.  (2006).  The Icelandic Horse, Edda Publishing, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Horse Festival in Reykjavik

Each year, the city of Reykjavik sponsors a horse festival.  I love the scenes in this video of Icelandic horses and their riders tolting through the city streets.  One of these years I will visit Iceland to see this in person.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Certifying Icelandic Horses for Leisure Riding

Haraldur Þórarinsson, president of the Horse Clubs Association in Iceland, reported in Eidfaxi about a presentation given by Silvie Rizo from France that he listened to at the 2013 FEIF annual meeting in Strasbourg.  Rizo discussed the formal certification process available in her country to grade all breeds of horses by gait and temperament for leisure riding.

Dannelle adjusts her headband before replacing
her helmet and continuing her trail ride on Blessi.

Approximately 80% of the riders in France are leisure riders and most are middle aged women who ride as a hobby.  These riders are especially interested in purchasing safe, dependable horses that they can be sure are not dangerous.  Horse owners in France pay for this certification since it adds resale value to their horses.  

As Þórarinsson cautions, "We should not forget that Gunnar Bjarnason marketed the Icelandic horse first and foremost as an affordable and a dependable family horse and this is how the horse became as wide spread as it is. We have perhaps forgotten ourselves a bit by concentrating on the competition- and show horse, which is good and valid by itself. But the prerequisite for new persons practicing horse riding to some extent is that ordinary people can find manageable horses and affordable facilities."

Do you think that other countries could benefit from setting up a similar certification program for horses?  How do you think Icelandics would compare with other breeds?  Do you think this would help show the value of the Icelandic horse?

You can read the entire article at:

Friday, October 18, 2013

Velcro Blessi

Sometimes animals are called "velcro pets" because they are clingy and want to be close constantly to their owners.  Blessi brings new meaning to phrase "velcro" horse. 

Amy was petting Blessi today when he spied the velcro on her glove and proceeded to zip and unzip the velcro.  He has never had an opportunity to practice with velcro but he definitely knew how the procedure went.  Blessi constantly astonishes us with what he notices about the world and how it works. 

By the time I got my camera, he was a bit bored with the whole process and never repeated the behavior as precisely as he did the first time.   The video below shows what he was attempting--why I don't know.

I still dispute the scientific studies that say a horse cannot learn by observation--they have never tested Blessi. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What is an Honors Stallion--Orri frá Þúfu

In 1978, FEIF established the rules for awarding honors status to stallions and mares:  Honor stallion status: Minimum BLUP of 118, 50 or more evaluated offspring.  An honors horse not only has great confirmation and outstanding performance but they are so genetically stable that they pass on these traits to a large number of their offspring. Very few horses achieve honors status.  Breeding has often been described as a crapshoot but selecting the right stallion can certainly help you weight the dice.  If you look at the breeding results of some of the honors stallions, the results are astounding. 
At the time this blog was written Orri frá Þúfu had 1170 registered offspring of which 48 were 4 years old or younger.  If you subtract the number of young horses from the total and calculate the number of assessed offspring, (544/1122) an astounding 48% of Orri’s offspring were assessed with over 40% making first or second prize.  Note that the author hand counted some of this information so the percentages may not be accurate. 

Here is a link to a video of Orri from 1993 with an interview (in Icelandic) with his owner and rider.

Below is a video of Orri from Landsmót in 1994.

Orri frá Þúfu’s quality was recognized very early.  In their book The Icelandic Horse, Bjőrnsson and Sveinsson describe Orri as a friendly, easy to handle, black stallion with four great gaits (Orri sires few pacers) with high leg action and wide movements.  The reason that Orri is so famous is not only for the quality of his gaits but for how many of these abilities he passes along to his offspring.  As Bjőrnsson and Sveinsson proclaim, “There is no doubt that Orri has been the strongest stallion in Iceland for years.  His influence will be seen for a long time, and many superb sons and daughters will still show up” (p. 235). Orri has been awarded “honors stallion” status in Iceland. 

Source: Bjőrnsson, G., & Sveinsson, H.  (2006).  The Icelandic Horse, Edda Publishing, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

List of Honors Stallions

Blessi's pedigree Part 1

In Iceland, only 26 stallions have attained Honors status from the awarding of the first honor in 1978 to 2008.  Mares can also attain honors status.  One of the fun things you can do is look up the pedigree of your horse in World Fengur, the international breeding registry of the Icelandic horse.  Or you can have a friend look it up if you don't have access.  You will almost certainly find one or more of these honors stallions in your horse's pedigree.


Honors Stallions:  

Blessi's Pedigree--Part 2

1978 Sőrli frá Sauđárkróki
1982 Hrafn frá Holtsmúla
          Páttur frá Kirkjubae
1986 Ófeiger frá Hvanneyri
          Náttfari frá Ytra-Dalsgerđi

1990 Hervar frá Sauđárkróki 
          Gáski frá Hofsstőđum
          Ófeiger frá Flugumýri
1994 Þokki frá Garđi
          Kjarval frá Sauđárkróki
          Stigur frá Kjartansstőđum
1996 Angi frá Laugarvatni
1998 Stigandi frá Sauđárkróki
        Kolfinnur frá Kjarnholtum
          Gustur frá Hóli
          Oddur frá Selfossi
2004 Kraflar frá Miđsitju
          Óđur frá Brún
          Andvari frá Ey I
          Galsi frá Sauđárkróki
2006 Hugi frá Hafsteinsstőđum
         Keilir frá Miđsitju
2008  Hródur frá Refsstőđun
           Saer frá Bakkakoti
Source:  Gates, M.  (2010).  The art of horse breeding.  In The Icelandic StudBook, Icelandic Stallions of North America, ed. T. Kristjánsdóttir, Cranial Solutions, Chatham, NY.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Horse Project--Portland OR

Photo by Maureen Lunn
Flckr Creative Commons
If you have ever watched Portlandia, the TV show, you know that residents of Portland OR have their own unique perspective on life.  Many of Portland's sidewalks have horse rings that were originally used to tie up horses.  Scott Wayne Indiana is credited with originating The Horse Project in which whimsical, tiny horse models (or other creatures) are tied to these rings. 

The following link provides more information.

Photo by vj_pdx Flckr Creative Commons 
The project has really captured the imagination of residents and visitors as you can see by the pictures.  Some of these photos are breathtaking in their artistic staging--others are cute snapshots.  Either way, I adore these petite ponies prancing around Portland. 

Contributors to this project have even posted poems about their favorite equines. 

"There is a horse on 11th avenue
who is roped to a hitching post
as if in Tombstone, not Portland.
He's built straight like a bridge; at times,
topples, yet always finds his feet,
never throws his sense of humor."

The rest of the poem can be found here:

I love this project--except for the horse "rustlers" who steal an occassional pony from time to time.

Monday, October 14, 2013

(Ground) Driving Mr. Blessi

Shannon, my dressage instructor is going to teach me how to drive.  Of course, she first needs to teach Blessi how to drive.  The above video was taken about five minutes into the lesson.  

Blessi was probaby started under saddle in Iceland via long lines.  I have often longed Blessi in ovals and serpentines and variations other than circles which helped.  Also the TTouch exercises helped with his understanding.  However, this was the first time to my knowledge that he was driven from behind with actual long lines.

However, Blessi also had to throw in his own unique approach to driving.  Dropping the longe whip--no reaction.  Tangling of reins--no problem. 

Bored--let's turn around and face the driver.  Really bored--let's just stop and ignore the longe whip--nobody is really going to hurt me with that thing.

And we really need to work on changing directions in a seamless way--but all in all a great start. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Blessi and the Plume

Blessi is one of the most observant horses that I know.  The resident farm rooster usually roosts in the beams of the stable at night.   Yesterday, Blessi was loose in the arena and he walked right up to a fallen tail feather to investigate it.  He has done this to an owl feather, a sale tag from T J Maxx, an empty water bottle, etc.

I always thought Blessi would look quite dashing as a carriage horse with a plume.  I guess a rooster tail feather may be the closest we will ever get.

It is also hard to take a picture of Blessi
when he is loose--either he comes too close
or he eats grass--as can be seen by some of
these failed pictures.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Shoeing Icelandic Horses for Competition

In this video, Taylor Keenan, a farrier from New York, explains some of the intricacies of shoeing Icelandic horses for evaluation and/or competition per FEIF regulations.  As he explains the intent of the regulations is to "By prohiting exagerated shoeing methods, the governing organization FEIF is trying to achieve two goals: protecting the horse's soundness and welfare and preserving breed quality by not using artificial means to enhance its movement."

NOTE:  Please refer to the FEIF web page for the most recent update to shoeing requirements since some of the information in this video may be out of date.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Benedikt Líndal -- Training Icelandic horses

Benedikt Líndal is a master trainer of Icelandic horses.  He has created a series of videos on Youtube introducing his training--a combination of classical dressage, natural horsemanship, and traditional Icelandic methods.  You will also note some techniques relatively unique to Iceland--training in and around a round pen placed within an arena and training "in the nature."  One of the treats of this video is the quality of the horses and the range of color of the Icelandics shown.

The video is not narrated until the vary end when Lindal concludes "Finally let's remember one thing.  When the horse was born, he knew how to walk, trot, and dance around in tolt, and to pace.  He also knew how to back up and turn around in all directions.  We are not teaching him anything.  He knows it all.  What we are doing is to ask him to do those things with us.  And that is called harmony. "

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Chevy Chase and his Icelandic Horses

Some of us are fans of the work of Chevy Chase from the early years of Saturday Night Live. 
Gerald Ford, former President of the US, sharing a moment with
Chevy Chase who was know for his imitation of President Ford
on SNL.  Photo from Wikipedia.
Others watched him in  the National Lampoon Vacation movies.  And recently, Chevy is experiencing great success in the TV series Community.  But who know that Chevy is a fan of the Icelandic horse?

Chevy Chase and his family own two Icelandic hores.  "Chase says, 'We have two Icelandic horses whose names are not pronounceable, so we call them Bob and Candy. A close friend’s cousin, who is Icelandic, had them brought in from Iceland especially for us. Bob and Candy are a bit smaller than non-­Icelandic horses. I look very funny sitting on them; I’m just under 6’4″, so my feet hang down to their knees. While riding him bareback, Bob has thrown me a few times, ­but since I’m long and he’s short, it’s more like just rolling over in the grass.'"

Chevy admits that his wife and daughters do most of the riding while he functions as "valet, chauffeur and stable hand." 

You can  see a picture of Chavy handgrazing one of his horses at this source:

Quote source:
People We Know, Horses They Love. [Emmaus, Pennsylvania]: Rodale, 2004.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Blessi has a bad hair day

Photo by Sherry Wallmark
Blessi and I attended a clinic at Rose-el Stables, Port Orchard, WA to learn the different styles of braids used on a horse's mane and tail. The braiding clinic was interesting.  Eight horses and braiders attended the session. One of the attendees was a 5-year old girl who had brought a small ladder to work on her 15 hand horse.

Evie the instructor takes one look at Blessi and says she has never seen a horse who had so much hair. She walks away because she said she needs to think about how to handle that much mane. In the mean time, I am suppose to use the Sticky Goopy Paste (hereafter referred to as SGP) to move the partial left mane to the right side with the rest of Blessi's mane.

The first problem is the SGP comes in a light green, round tin and Blessi is convinced that this is a Granny Smith apple just for him. He tries so many methods to get to the plastic bag with the braiding supplies that we have stuff--crochet hooks, yarn, ribbons, shears--scattered across the arena. It does not help that the SGP has a pleasant, apple scent to it.

The second problem is the SGP just isn't going to do the job. Nothing short of industrial strength glue is going to get the left mane to stay on the right. SGP holds the mane over for about the time of an Apollo countdown--10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1, Reykjavik, we have lift off--as you watch the left hand mane separate from the right side and move back across Blessi's neck. The SGP does get the short 4-inch stray mane hair to stand straight up in the air.

Evie returns in about 10 minutes and I have made no progress. Blessi still has a full right and partial left mane. So Evie decides to do a long French braid across the bottom of Blessi's mane. We can pull in the left mane as we braid.

The third problem is that Blessi has shagged his mane. He has three levels of mane--about 16 inches, 8 inches, and 4 inches--each level has more hair than a normal horse. So we decide to do 2 rows of French braid. Evie shows me how and it looks easy so Evie lets me on my own.

The fourth problem is that Blessi has now discovered that there are real carrots in the supply bag and he redoubles his efforts to claim them. At one point, he gets the bag and we play tug of war with the carrot bag until it bursts. All this time, the little girl's horse is standing perfectly still like an equine angel as the little girl works from her ladder.

The 2-hour clinic is almost over and I have two rows of French braids down Blessi's mane. The other participants are starting to lead their horses around with beautiful braided manes and tails in short French braids, button braids, galloping braids, etc. One young woman has created galloping braids on her bay horse--picture wide braids done every six inches down the mane and then pulled over into overlapping arches. Entwined among the braids are ribbons in shades of purple. The black tail is braided with matching purple ribbons--just a beautiful picture.

Back to Blessi--he looks like Courtney Love on a bad hair day since that 4-inch hair at the top is sticking straight up out at the crest of the mane. Evie has no advice on this so I decide to take a gold and white ribbon and sew down the top of the mane using a back stitch. This works and actually provides a touch of elegance. Blessi now looks like Courtney Love on a really good day--ready for the red carpet or the judge's booth.

Evie and I discuss what to do about the forelock which is almost a 4-inch thick cylinder of hair. Evie suggests that when I have another hour or so I do a single braid and somehow glue the ends in a ball under the braid. There is no time to do anything with Blessi's tail.

The event organizer snaps a picture of Blessi. As I lead Blessi back to the refreshment table for people, all the braids start to come loose and we are back to the Courtney Love bad hair day look. Oh, and that little girl and her horse are adorable as she leads him around in his short French braid with green ribbons.

Note: Blessi has an average or less than average mane for an Icelandic. I think Evie might have had a breakdown if she had tried to work with an Icelandic with a "good" mane for the first time.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Do Icelandics Have More SEEK Than Other Breeds?

Blessi and Dannelle Haugen winning the grand
championship in the Kitsap Saddle Club Extreme
Trail Competition
In the post "Activating SEEK and turning off FEAR in Horses," we talked about  Dr. Panksepp, a neuroscientist, who discovered that localized electrode stimulation of the brain caused  the same well-organized behavior for certain core emotions, which he calls “blue ribbon emotions.”  These emotions are rage, fear, panic, seek, lust, care, and play. (pp. 7-8)  Seeking is defined as “the positive emotions of wanting, looking forward to, or being curious about something…..SEEKING feels good” (Grandin, 2009, p. 7)

And in the post "Shaped By the Land of Fire and Ice," we speculated that that the Icelandic horses who were more likely to survive the extremes of the Icelandic environment were more likely to think rather than react.  “Horses learned that standing motionless, while the worst of the storm passed, made them burn fewer calories and protected them” (Bjőrnsson & Sveinsson, 2006, p. 38).

So my theory is that Icelandic horses as shaped by their traditional environment have a higher SEEK factor than most other breeds.  In many open trail obstacle courses, you will often find the Icelandic horses dominating the field.  What do you think?

Grandin, T. (2009). Animals Make Us Human, First Mariner Book, NY.
Bjőrnsson, G., & Sveinsson, H.  (2006).  The Icelandic Horse, Edda Publishing, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Activating SEEK and Turning Off FEAR in Horses

In her book Animals Make Us Human, Dr. Temple Grandin discusses the emotions that many species of animals can have.  Animals and people have the same core emotions in the brain.   Dr. Panksepp, a neuroscientist, discovered that localized electrode stimulation of the brain caused  the same well-organized behavior for certain core emotions, which he calls “blue ribbon emotions.”  These emotions are rage, fear, panic, seek, lust, care, and play. (pp. 7-8)  Seeking is defined as “the positive emotions of wanting, looking forward to, or being curious about something…..SEEKING feels good” (p. 7)

In the chapter on horses, Dr. Grandin discusses the research on how horses react in relation to these emotions.  With horses, she posits that you can use positive reinforcement to activate the Seek emotion while turning off FEAR.  Fear and seek are the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.   And with horses, fear can be easily converted to anger or rage.  For this reason, she highly recommends positive reinforcement to shape behavior whenever possible (although positive and negative reinforcement can be used together).  (p. 123) 
One week afterthe equine social intelligence test,
Blessi overturned and did "seeking" for carrots under
the racing barrels--even though I have never put
carrots under racing barrels
As Grandin states, “…when your horse becomes really accustomed to clicker training or other positive reinforcement to keep the SEEKING system turned on, you inhibit the FEAR system overall because the SEEKING system and the FEAR system are opposed inside the brain.  If you’re in the middle of a clicker-training session and a piece of plastic blows into your horse’s face, he’s going to be less likely to panic than he would be if his FEAR system were already mildly ‘turned on’ through negative reinforcement.
It’s easier for a horse to be brave
                                                              when he’s feeling happy than when
he’s feeling nervous or
                                                              afraid” (p.130). 

In many ways, using positive reinforcement is teaching the horse to train us—they learn how to learn.  “With positive reinforcement, the animal suddenly ‘gets it’ –realizes that it can do something to make a good thing happen.  That’s called learning to learn.  When the animal learns to learn, it starts to offer behavior.  That’s what behaviorists call it.  It’ll intentionally run through all kinds of different behaviors looking for one that will work” (Grandin, 2009, p. 131).
Blessi "volunteering" a smile to see if he can
earn a reward

Blessi and I do some training with treats.  I have found that Blessi often “volunteers” behavior such as bowing or smiling.  He is more likely to explore a novel item in his environment than panic over it.  People ask if Blessi is just a calm natured horse or if he has been trained to be accepting of new stimuli.  I have to say that it is probably a combination of both.

Grandin, T. (2009). Animals Make Us Human, First Mariner Book, NY.