Sunday, November 16, 2014

Destriers vs Palfrey--Which is better to ride to Jerusalem

Tim Severin wrote Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem about his riding by horseback in the 1980s the 2,500 route of Duke Godfrey de Bouillon  during the first Crusade in the late 1000s.  He attempted to get horses and tack similar to what was used during the time period.  However, he had never ridden before so some of his choices were questionable.  He bought Carty, a 3/4 ton, 4 year old untrained Ardennes draft horse gelding as his riding horse.  His fellow traveler Sarah rode an Irish trekking horse and later they obtained some horses in Hungry and Turkey. 

The Ardennes horse breed is historically accurate but the modern day version is much heavier and bigger boned, more suited for pulling cannons and heavy farm equipment than carrying knights.  He could not understand why the horse kept breaking down and was so uncomfortable to ride.  As Severin complains in the early stages of his journey, "...Carty marched more slowly than I had expected and the discomfort of his gait had been a most painful surprise.  Yet nothing could be done.  I had opted to try riding a Heavy Horse and now knew why a medieval knight travelled on his palfrey."  In Barvaria, a friendly saddle store owner explained that in the Middle Ages "the Ardennes horses would have been selected and raised for long-distance work.  That type of breeding had been completely lost..."  Carty surprised everybody by making it as far as far as he did on the journey.  

Modern Ardennes horse in harness showing
typical roan color and heavy bone
Photo by Steffen Heinz-Wikipedia 
Carty the Ardennes is worth a book in and of himself.  Curious, friendly, stubborn, willful, enduring, pain tolerant, Carty was always getting himself in trouble--especially since no halter, leadlines, or fencing could hold him if he wanted to go exploring.  Tim and Sarah were constantly sneaking out of villages after Carty had demolished civic property in his investigations.  In Serbia, Tim and Sarah were asked for their papers by the local police.  The stop was greatly expedited when Carty walked himself over to the border patrol car, accidentally knocked off the antenna and twisted the car mirror so he could stuff his big head in the front window and pin the officer to the seat. "Short of pulling out his pistol and putting a shot through Carty's head, the man was helpless."  Pulled away from the car like a lapdog, Carty wistfully watched his new playmates drive away as quickly as they could.  

At the end of the first year of riding, Tim and Sarah had ridden as far as Turkey.  They determined that Carty would probably die if they rode him further south, as did most of the Crusaders' horses.  The modern day travelers replaced Carty with a local pack pony and Carty went to a farm in Austria.  Later he appeared to great success as "the horse that went on the Crusade" in the Vienna Horse Show.   

Interestingly, Severin and his companion Sarah spent the night at a farm in the Odenwald in Germany.  The Lufthansa pilot who owned the farm had Icelandic horses, a breed much more historically similar to a gaited palfrey of the Middle Ages--a comparison never realized by Severin.  In Antioch, Turkey, during the second year of the trek, Severin needed to buy another replacement horse for the last 500 miles of the trip to Jerusalem.  Aided by a local businessman, Severin found a rahwan horse, or ambling horse the travelers named Yabangi. This type of horse was frequently used by locals as a pack animal, not a cart horse, because it could keep a steady, smooth, and fast pace for hours. 

As Severin describes his first ride on a gaited or ambling horse, "It was the most unexpected sensation.  After riding a normal horse for two thousand miles with the usual walking and trotting action, I found myself being carried off as smoothly as if the mare was mounted on wheels.  There was none of the usual staccato action of the hooves.  Instead, the palomino paced out level, swerving her spine slightly from side to side but holding it completely flat and steady.  The only description that I could think of was that she glided along, though technically she was an ambling or pacing horse.  I was astounded and delighted." p. 280  Interestingly, the other two horses had to make changes to keep up with Yabangi.  Either she walked slowly or she ambled so fast the other horses struggled to keep up.  After she regained her health after ill treatment by her previous owner, "she could out-travel the other horses with little effort" especially on level ground.

Finishing their personal Crusade, Tim and Sarah ride into Jerusalem on their two surviving horses,  Yabangi and Zippy.  They entered the city via Herod's Gate just a few yards from where Duke Godfrey de Bouillon had stormed the city.  At the end of this amazing journey, Yabangi and Zippy retired to kibbutz to become pets of the children at the cooperative farm.

In my summary of the book, I have neglected Severin's excellent re-telling of the history of the First Crusade to highlight the destrier versus the palfrey contrast of the journey.  Severin made some poor choices in health care and provisions for the horses and I was often frustrated and angry at how the horses suffered for it. However, I appreciated how he wove the history of the Crusade through his encounters with modern day folks along the travel route--from Bulgarian border guards to Turkish shepherds to a Serbian "ogre."  The recounting certainly helps you imagine the logistical nightmare of coordinating the travels of tens of thousands pilgrms and crusaders.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Riding Icelandic Horses Through Paris

What fun!  In November of 2013 to help announce "Le Salon du Cheval," thirteen riders took their Icelandic horses through the center of Paris passing such sights as Place d'Opera and Tour Eiffel.  Setting the video to the music of "Dirty Paws" by the Icelandic group of Monsters and Men is brilliant.  All of the horses, regardless of breed, did really well in this procession.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Are We Breeding the Genetic Diversity Out of the Icelandic Horse?

From Wikipedia
Some recent research has indicated that perhaps there may be too much emphasis on breeding to only well known Icelandic stallions at the risk of losing the genetic diversity within the breed.  

Hreiðarsdóttir et al published a study "Analysis of the history and population structure of the 
Icelandic horse using pedigree data and DNA analyses" this year.  The genetics of this study is way over my head.

Problem to examine: "Breeding programs and the use of reproductive technology can increase the use of relatively few 'superior' individuals, usually select stallions, which in turn lowers the effective population." 

Historic Background: Horses were brought to  Iceland by the Norse settlers and no known import of new genetic material has happened since.  There was a genetic bottleneck when the eruption of Laki in 1784 to 1785 reduced the horse population to 8000 to 9000 individuals.  Sixty years later the population was up to 40,000.

Results:  Researchers found that horses from certain districts in Iceland remained relatively isolated in a genetic sense, horses in other areas were such as Skagafjörður were bred to more frequently, etc.  One chart shows how different districts contributed to the breeding in other districts.

"Inbreeding decreases as the pedigree is traced back suggesting a time dependent increase in population-wide inbreeding." Another chart shows how much total genetic contribution certain well know breeding horses have in the current population.  For example, Hrafn fra Holtsmuli contributes .106 (I believe that means he shows up in over 10 % of modern Icelandic horse pedigrees) in Icelandic bred horses.  The mare Síða from Sauðárkrókur is second on the list at .066.  Other influential stallions are, in order,  Orri from Þúfa, Ófeigur from Flugumýri, Fengur from Eiríksstaðir, Þáttur from Kirkjubær , etc.

Researchers conclude that "Inbreeding is on the rise, although that might partly be explained by an increase in pedigree completeness and lack of pedigree information in the early part of the 19th century."  Compered to other breeds, "The Icelandic horse has lower levels of genetic diversity and theta values than many much 
smaller breeds such as the Irish Draught (est. population size of 1000 individuals), Lusitano (6000 individuals), and Kerry Bog Pony (200 individuals)" but more genetic diversity than the Norwegian breeds such as the Fjord, Nordlund, Dale.  

Conclusion:  "Genetic diversity is the necessary fuel for a successful and sustainable breeding of any population and one of the goals of population management is therefore to maintain genetic diversity at a 
high level and inbreeding at a low level (Fernandez et al. 2005, Frankham et al. 2010). Genetic 
diversity is the necessary fuel for a successful and sustainable breeding of any population and one of the goals of population management is therefore to maintain genetic diversity at a high level and inbreeding at a low level 
(Fernandez et al. 2005, Frankham et al. 2010)."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

If horses were people from the farriers point of view

I just had to share this video.   Blessi definitely tries to remove hats, snuffle ears, and untie belts.  He reserves the "fart in your general direction" for when I pick his hooves.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Easy Cue Riding Crops

A few years ago some friends and I were talking about how we needed to design a dressage whip with a built in arch or curve right where the waist or thigh is.  That way, especially for those of us with a lot of amplitude in this area, we could cue our horses without dramatically altering our hand position. We talked, we laughed, and then we forgot about it.

Guess what!  I saw one of these at the barn tonight.  They are called easy cue dressage whips.  The handle is oval in shape so it is easier to maintain the whip in a curve out position.  I am going to borrow the crop to see if it works as advertised.

Has anybody used one of these?

You can check out this crop at:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Blessi is smarter than I

What I felt like
Source: Wikipedia
Blessi had a farrier appointment last week. Interspersed with the shoeing, brushing, and arena work, I put him in two different pastures so he could get some grazing time.  The first time I retrieved him from grazing in the pasture, he walked right up to me through the deep mud and standing water to put his head in the halter as I held it out, which he almost always does.

The second time I retrieved him from a different pasture.  I didn't bother to open the gate but I leaned into the electric wire gate which I had just unplugged the electrical source and held out Blessi's halter.  He came up to within 3 feet of me, looked at me, and wouldn't come any closer.  I called, clucked, coaxed and he just stared at me like I was trying to trick him.  Several times he rocked weight onto his front feet like he was thinking of moving forward but no go.  I was getting a bit frustrated and confused.  Why was Blessi acting like this?

I touched the wire in preparation for  grabbing the handle.  ZAPPPPP!!!!  Somebody trying to be helpful had noticed the electricity to the fence was unplugged and plugged it back in.  The outlet is in the barn so he/she had no way to see me at the gate.

I am going to have to learn to trust Blessi--he was really trying to tell me something.  I had that tingly just zapped feeling for hours.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How to be a horse whisperer

Finnish commedian Rudi Rok visits his Mom's farm and practices talking to her horses Troia and Illusio in their own language.  I wonder if he is telling knock knock jokes and that is why the colt is so entertained.