Monday, February 16, 2015

Icelandic horses used by reindeer herders in Alaska

Based on Alys Culhanes' new, yet to be published book, I became aware that Icelandic horses are used to herd domestic reindeer in Alaska.  After some on-line research, I came across the fascinating study "Performance of Icelandic Horses in North-west Alaska" by W. Collins and J. Brooks published in December 1984 in Rangelands 6(6) pp. 253-256.

As early as 1929, A. Porsild recommended using Icelandic horses to help grow a reindeer industry due to their thrifty nature and cold weather tolerance.  "To a future reindeer industry, [Icelandic] ponies should prove a factor of great importance and would make herding much easier and more attractive." (p. 254)  Porsild claimed that the Icelandic horse would need no more care than reindeer and could eat the same thing.

It wasn't until 50 years later in 1982 that NANA (a native Alaskan corporation) purchased a mare and seven geldings to help with the summer herding of reindeer.  NANA is located in Kotzebue, Alaska, which is 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  Over the years, Alaskans had discovered that maintaining large horses over the winter was too cost prohibitive considering the feed and care that they needed so NANA decided to experiment with Icelandic horses.

Use of Icelandic horses was expected to enable the herders to keep up with the herd, cross streams impassible to ATVs or snowmobiles, and enable the rider to have a broader perspective from horseback.  "NANA's 8 horses exhibited amazing resiliency in their response to stress and work into which they were thrust immediately following their purchase..." (p. 254). The horses were calm and relatively unstressed by their long trip to Kotzebue involving both truck transportation and a flight and then 180-mile trek to the herding area.  During the trek, the horses lived off forage and a daily feeding of 7.5 lbs of barley.  Initially the horses were worked heavily on a daily basis but it was soon discovered that they could not maintain condition under this work load.

The native herders found that unlike larger breeds, the smaller Icelandics were able to navigate the boggy marshy tussocks.  More importantly, they were able to adapt to herders who for the most part had no riding experience.  The horses could even tolerate the barrage of mosquitoes usually with the help of repellent.  Observation showed that the Icelandics would eat a much wider range of tundra vegetation than other breed and their energy requirements were 20 % less than other breeds, a fact of which the researchers were initially skeptical.  In the summer, the horses needed additional zinc and copper provided through mineralized salt.  Other vitamins such as D, B12, and thiamine were believed to be sufficiently provided by year round grazing.

Moved to the Baldwin pennisula for the winter, the Icelandics were able to survive mostly on tundra grazing with some recommended protein supplements.  The horses were observed foraging in up to 20 inches of snow with wind levels averaging 10 to 20 miles an hour and temperatures from 0 to -30F.  When the ground next to the forage froze to the point where the Icelandics could no longer paw through, they were fed supplemental hay of about 9 lbs per day.  Pregnant mares would of course require more hay.

As Gunnar Bjarnason, an Icelandic expert about these horses commented:
 ""There are many incredible things about our unique horse which are difficult to understand and accept in the beginning.  Perhaps the most surprising characteristics of this horse are its ability to utilize tundra vegetation as its principal source of food year-round and to remain fit in the arctic environment with minimal energy and protein supplementation. It is a willing servant in terrain and conditions where most other breeds are reluctant to go or unable to perform. These characteristics, alone, command the attention
of individuals considering the acquisition of horses for use in tundra regions. Add to the above that the lcelandic horse can provide far more years of service than other breeds, and it becomes apparent that their purchase may be economically justified for many purposes." (p. 256)

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