Winter riding a speciality
at Waitsfield farm
January 11, 2001
By LAURIE LYNN FISCHER
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
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
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
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
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
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.