Training the Icelandic Horses..... An observation... by Peter De Cosemo

January 5, 2017

For me Icelandic horses are one of the most easy breeds to work with and develop. I have been travelling to Iceland regularly for approximately five years and in that time frame have worked with dozens of the native horses. Curiously, when I first came, and to a certain degree still now, some Icelandic riders and trainers felt the need to tell me that the Icelandic horse was ´different´ to all other breeds and many techniques used with other breeds would not work with Icelandics.

In the beginning I was waiting and observing to see how this breed was ´different´. How some training methods would not work because they were ´different´. I am happy to say that after 45 years of working with horses all around the world, from Europe to  Australia. From the U.S.A. to the Greek Islands I find the Icelandic horse perfectly normal and no real differences from their Equine brothers and sisters across the planet. Understanably they have DNA which gives  them some additional gaits but I find them to be pretty much normal horses.

  These horses have very sharp minds, a great willingness and great sensitivity which if you are careful are great attributes to work with. If you are careless with the training these assets will work against you. This manifests in tense. anxious horses creating much physical stiffness and stress. I have found that initially you have to take the time to get these horses to be confident  and to teach them how to dominate their own flight reflexes when something is new or they feel under pressure.

Iceland has a great history of both social and now competitive riding and I am often asked about how to improve marks in competition riding. To answer these questions I needed to find out what the basic requirements were for competition and what were the judges looking for when they wanted expression or brilliance. One phrase that came up often was ´leg lift´.

This is an expression I have not heard used in any other discipline so I had to find out what exactly this was. It appears that it about how high the horse can lift the fore legs in the gaits. Then another thing I hear is that they have to be ´round´and up through through the  back. Now this is familiar territory for me because through the whole training and developing process for dressage horses we always want them to be lifting and using the back at all times. This is where I see some conflict in the requirements for competition here. Dressage  is basically equine gymnastics. Like human gymnastics it takes years to slowly train the mind and body to a high degree of ability. Because of this much research is done in how the horse uses his body naturally. In dressage one of the things we look for is the ´reach of the leg´ or the reach of the stride. This is done much more efficiently when the horse is shown how to lift his back and push out and forward through the neck. This connects his top line, lifting the trunk and allows the hindlegs to swing more easily and forward under the body for propulsion and later becoming impulsion.

Conversly for front ´leg lift´he has to use the shoulders and forelegs in more of a pulling up and backward motion. To get the greatest leg lift the horse must also pull the head neck up and backwards . But when the head and neck are pulled up and backwards this causes the back to drop out and hallow and the trunk to lower. Now the hind legs can not swing easliy under the body so they end up trailng out behind.

What to do?

The judges want to see horses working up through the back and in round outlines, but also reward the horse with the greater leg lift.  It appears to me that riders in this situtation are damned if they do and damned if they dont! I personally find it very difficult to produce these two requirements at the same time. You can have one or the other but not both.

Trainers and riders are in all disciplins are guided by the judges. They see what type of work is winning in competition and try to reproduce that as they would like to be winners too.  Of course money comes into it in a big way. Winnning stallions and mares will command great prices for sales and breeding. Owners who like to win will pay higher prices to ge that trophy. At the moment what I see winning is the hollow horse with the ´leg lift´.  Horses moving very fast also appear to do well when speed is often mistaken for energy and impulsion. I don´t think this will change unless some changes are made to the ´requirements´.

I did not start to write this article with the intention of being negative. It is observational. I have indicated what I think may be a flaw in the system, therefore I feel obliged to at least offer a suggestion of a soloution.  To make a big difference I suggest all that needs to be done is to change one tiny word. This in effect will totally influence the training and way of going for many horses.

My suggestion is this. Change ´leg lift´to leg reach´.

Instead of looking to see how high a horse can pull up his knees, why not develop a programm which encourages the horse to push out and forward with his energy? Of course as already mentioned greater reach of stride and ground cover are all better when the top line is totally lifted and ´round´. Over time as the horse learns to balance and push from the hing leg they develop greater strength, balance and confidence. A change such as this to the 'requirements' would remove the conflict that riders, trainers and judges currently have by trying to do two things simultaneaously that are in complete conflict with each other.

I have met a lot of wise and intelligent people who are passionate about the Icelandic horse. My observation is that there needs to be clarity from the top for guidelines on how training should progress and to remove elements of conflict. I believe life for horses and riders will be much less complicated if some small changes were made.

Just an observation....

You can find Peter´s Equestrian FB site here.

Training the Icelandic Horses.....   An observation...  by Peter De Cosemo