Winter riding a speciality
at Waitsfield farm

January 11, 2001


WAITSFIELD -- If they were cars, they'd have the dependability of four-wheel drive but the ride of a luxury sedan.

Toss in five gears and a sub-zero temperature rating, and Icelandic horses are just the steeds for an afternoon skijor through the snow.

That's the Swedish sport of skiing behind a horse and rider with a special harness attached to the saddle.

In the past, the Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm on North Fayston Road in Waitsfield held skijoring races with obstacles during Sugarbush's Winter Carnival. These days, the owners of the 45-acre farm only partake of the pastime with friends.

But their immaculately kept stable is just about the only operation in the state that offers tourists outdoor horseback riding in wintertime.

In fact, it's one of just two places in Vermont that keeps the rare breed, according to owner Karen Winhold, who runs the operation with her mother and younger sister. The farm offers everything from one-hour winter excursions for $40 to five-day treks in summer that stop nightly at bed and breakfasts for $1,200.

Born in New Jersey, Winhold has lived in Vermont since she was a year old and ridden for most of her life. With a degree from the University of Vermont in psychology and art, she showed Morgans as a hobby, but never expected to go into the horse business, let alone with Icelandics.

When she purchased the Icelandic Horse Farm in 1993, six Icelandic horses lived there. Winhold says she fell in love with the ancient breed.

"When I got involved with the horses I found out how great they are and actually how challenging they are to ride really well," she says. "Each horse is very different. Their temperament and character is outstanding."

Modern Icelandics trace their bloodline to pilfered European horses that the Vikings brought with them in about 800 A.D. when they settled the Northern Atlantic island, Winhold explains. But rather than continuing to crossbreed their horses, they stopped importing outside animals a century later as a precaution against the plague, she says.

Allowed to evolve in isolation, Icelandic horses developed unique adaptations to their barren home of fire and ice. Their heart rate is 10 beats faster than other horses on average, allowing them to survive extremely cold weather, Winhold says, noting that many Icelandic horses live in Alaska.

The respective lengths of their large and small intestines is the opposite of what it is in regular horses, a selective response to their coarse diet. Icelandics don't require as many calories as other horses, and the range of foods they can eat is greater, says Winhold.

They also differ in appearance. For one thing, Icelandics have big hair, which helps the rain slide off in Iceland's moist climate. Another noticeable difference between Icelandics and other horses is their size. Standing just 13.2 to 14.2 hands high, they look like something that hobbits might have ridden in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth fantasyland.

Icelandic horses were never bred for size because they were not needed for military use on their isolated isle, Winhold says. Nor were they used as draft horses because the volcanic terrain was too rough for wheels, she says.

Instead, over hundreds of years, Icelandic horses have been bred for their amenable disposition and intelligence.

In this case, good things come in small packages. The all-weather creatures are sure-footed and their broad backs have been compared with sofas.

Unlike most horses, Icelandics have five natural gaits. Most people are familiar with walking, trotting and cantering or galloping. In addition, Icelandic horses can pace, alternately paralleling the front and back legs on each side at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.

The most unusual gait, called a tolt, is performed at an intermediate speed with the front legs prancing high. It is about as fast as a trot, but smoother. Incidentally, the trot is not so bouncy that riders need to post up and down. Like the English system of horsemanship, equestrians use a hornless saddle and direct rein. But the knees are less bent.

There are only about 3,000 Icelandic horses in the United States, and 50 of them reside on Winhold's farm. In warmer weather, they traverse trails through woods that open onto vistas of the Green Mountains or Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks of New York State.

On a recent winter ride, we had everyone in our group from a first-time rider and his girlfriend from Cambridge, Mass., who were giving their muscles a break from a snowboarding vacation to a former stable employee who is back in Vermont for National Guard Duty. A group of four young women from New Hampshire who had attended a summer riding camp together also were taking a day off from skiing at Sugarbush.

Well-matched to the riders' skill levels, our horses had Icelandic names like Glathor, the god of happiness, or Bylur, which means "wind gust."

I rode Hnota, which translates to "nut." But she was far from crazy. Her shaggy winter coat was gorgeous. She is a rare color-changer, Winhold said. Hnota turns a different hue with every change of season, ranging from a deep brown that is nearly black to her present frosted look that makes her markings resemble a Siamese or Himalayan cat's. Breeders in Iceland are trying to perpetuate the gene, Winhold said.

Wearing a helmet borrowed from the stable, I took advantage of a portable set of steps to mount. Winhold adjusted my stirrups, and told me to keep a short rein on Hnota, who was eager and responsive.

Gentle snow fell for two straight two hours as our string of 10 horses made its way along old logging tracks and back roads. We crossed a bridge over an ice-rimmed stream, pranced beneath bare apple branches with darkened fruit still clinging to the twigs, and passed a neighbor's horse, that nickered to its cousins.

Wearing snow pads and cleats, our mounts mostly kept to a lively walking pace, though we did plenty of tolting and trotting. I even had a chance to open her up once or twice to an exhilarating full-out run.

The experience was delightful. I didn't have to work as hard to keep my seat as I would have on a quarter horse. Even when Hnota stumbled, I felt secure.

My one misgiving was that I should have brought warmer socks. About halfway through the loop, my gloved fingers stung and I lost feeling in my toes.

As we neared the end of the ride, my perspiring horse shook herself vigorously like a Labrador retriever fresh out of the water.

When I dismounted, she tried to use me as a scratching post. So I obliged her, trying my best to squelch the itch with my knuckles. Finally, unsaddled and released into an outdoor enclosure, a couple of horses rolled in the snow with obvious relish.

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