A Horse of a Different Culture
Sure, this diminutive breed is mighty cute. But Dan Slott has big plans
for the Icelandic horses he raises on his Ancramdale farm
by Ann J. Loftin â€¢ photographs by Dion Ogust
They say dog owners become just like their dogs. So maybe if you spend enough time around horses, you become like a horse. Certainly that’s how Dan Slott, owner of a remarkable horse farm in Ancramdale, Columbia County, strikes the first-time visitor.
He’s friendly enough, but in no way effusive. Pride, strength and determination are implicit, not for show. You feel you’d have to earn his confidence over time — that trust would come as a measure of your horsemanship, and not because you brought a lump of sugar.
“Part of my childhood was spent on a horse farm,” says Slott. “My father got interested in horses and bought a farm in New Jersey. He learned to ride in his 30s.” Slott began riding as a boy, and the love of horses never left him. “I wanted to have a farm life,” he says simply.
In 1985, Slott went to Iceland on a hiking trip, discovered the Icelandic breed of horse, and ended up riding instead. He made a return trip the following year and came home with six horses. So began the “side” business, Icelandic Sports, that always threatens to engulf his other occupation, that of making money in the bond market. He and his wife, Molly Schaefer (she runs her own horse business in Pine Plains), live in a restored mill on an ever-expanding property aptly named Millfarm. About 65 Icelandic horses reside here at any time, frisking about in the lush, split-rail-fenced pastures, or waiting in one of three handsome 18th-century barns for their turn to roam the trails and fields.
Here are a few things Dan Slott can tell you about Icelandic horses: They come in all colors, including pintos, but not in all sizes. Smaller than English horses, they’re the direct descendants of horses the Vikings took to Iceland in the late 9th century. “This is the size of the first horse,” Slott says. “Icelanders didn’t breed to make the horse bigger.”
Icelandics have thick manes (“we created short manes through breeding,” Slott notes) and grow long beards in winter, giving them a comically bard-like appearance. The breed has remained pure for more than a thousand years, and Iceland carefully preserves that purity with one simple, inflexible rule: Horses may leave the country but they may never return. Icelanders who compete in international horse shows must leave their lovingly trained horses behind.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of good mounts in
Icelandic horses routinely live 25 to 30 years, often longer. In Iceland, they’re low maintenance, as their isolation has spared them the infectious diseases more worldly horses encounter. In this country they’re susceptible to the usual problems (at the moment, two of Slott’s are sick with Lyme disease), but an inbred hardiness keeps them mostly healthy.
Slott works with a full-time trainer and business associate, Kristjan Kristjansson, a native Icelander who sold Slott two of his first six horses. Kristjansson, whose family still owns a 2,500-acre horse farm on the outskirts of Reykjavik, agreed to come to Millfarm for a year during a slow period in Iceland. That was back in 1989. A strong-minded man with a dry sense of humor, Kristjansson lives in a comfortably renovated farmhouse on the property with his wife, Johanna, their son, Fridrik, and daughter, Thorunn. Lean and fair like Norse gods, the whole family works with the horses.
On this summer day, Slott and Kristjansson are getting their horses ready for the big annual event in Icelandic breeding known simply as “the breeding evaluation,” which will take place in October. Slott is playing host for the first time, and there’s discussion of what activities might appeal. The conversation makes the evaluation sound more like a folk festival than a horse show: Owners and breeders come together not only to have their horses judged but also to learn new things, go riding in groups, and have fun.
Slott leads a visitor from stall to stall, standing quietly next to the stallions and mares to reassure them. They’re beautiful animals, with heads held high, wide smooth backs and shaggy manes and tails. Their legs are shorter than those of a Thoroughbred, sturdy and powerful-looking. Other than one pair of ears tipped back, there’s no sign of annoyance at this intrusion. It’s said that you can walk behind an Icelandic without any fear of being kicked, but this reporter didn’t conduct that experiment.
Next we visit the tack room. Icelandic saddles are thinner and more supple than English saddles. “We want to be as close as possible to the horse,” explained Slott. “We don’t want any resistance.” Stirrups are long so that the rider’s legs are relaxed.
Nobody would breed Icelandics to make a quick buck — it’s a time- and money-gobbling enterprise. Still, a good riding horse will fetch anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000, and a high-end breeding horse might bring as much as $2 million. “Normally, we’d have about 40 horses for sale, but at the moment we’ve isolated six for the breeding evaluation, and are training another 10 to put on the market for riding,” Slott says.
Slott is training two of them himself, a task he clearly relishes. He speaks of the close relationship that develops between horse and rider. “The connection, mentally and physically, is the big thing,” he says.
Icelandics are prized for their smooth gaits, two of which — the “tolt” and the “pace” — don’t exist in business-as-usual horses. In the tolt, the rear legs support much of the horse’s weight, leaving the forelegs free to rise in an arc. The tolt doesn’t thrust a rider up from the saddle, but keeps him cradled in his seat and is said to be the most magical part of riding an Icelandic, “a centaur-like experience,” in Slott’s words. In Iceland, riders often demonstrate the smoothness of the tolt by holding a full glass of water in one hand and not spilling a drop.
The pace is a two-beat all-out run, in which the legs on each side move in unison. Pacing horses can reach a speed of 35 miles per hour, but both the tolt and the pace feel more like floating, or flying, than like riding, according to Slott. Even a first-time rider can experience the sophisticated gaits of an Icelandic horse in comfort.
Another difference between Icelandics and English show ponies: No pre-K. Icelandic horses aren’t herded into school before they’re ready to learn. In fact, Icelanders consider it essential to let their horses roam free until age four, when mind and body are considered mature enough to handle the training process. American breeders follow suit.
Nor do Icelandic breeders put up with “special needs” in their protÃ©gÃ©s. According to Slott’s brochure, “Icelanders say that character, mind and disposition are the key to good breeding, because if these elements aren’t sufficient, your horse will never work with you and for you.”
Breeders select for “intelligence, even temperament, a balanced mind, a warm and giving personality and a quiet manner on the ground,” regardless of “whether temperament is calm or the spirit is high.”
A handful of owners showed up at the farm for a casual exchange of horses, and while they were at it, had a chat, a nice long ride, and lunch. If you spend even a few hours with Icelandic horse people, you realize that it’s a culture as sophisticated as that of English dressage, say, but more friendly. There are competitions, and some people even take up dressage, of which an Icelandic horse is perfectly capable, but there’s a tradition of riding Icelandics for pleasure, of wandering in the hinterlands for that glorying-in-the-natural-world experience. Icelanders ride side by side, chatting, close enough to throw a friendly arm around another rider’s shoulder. And somehow, that tradition survived the trip to this
It’s an exclusive club, but one that would gladly have you as a member. In fact, Slott sees a club, or something very like it, in his future, as a way for his horse farm to become self-supporting. He talks somewhat ruefully about needing “to operate more as a full-service business, where people can come for lessons and clinics. Where they can board their horses, or bring green horses to be trained.”
Doesn’t the prospect of hordes descending on the pastoral precincts of Columbia County horrify him a little? “I want to see the horse culture change,” Slott replies. “I want to see the exploitation of horses end” — and by this he means our cruel delight in rodeos or Thoroughbred racing. “If we can change the attitude of people toward horses, then maybe we can change the attitude of people toward people.”
It’s a positively 1960s sentiment, coming from a self-made man who can hold sway amid the cutthroat ways of Wall Street. But you get the sense that if Dan Slott opens a full-service, one-stop-shopping Icelandic horse business, he won’t be horsing around.
For more information on Dan Slott’s company, Icelandic Sports, Ltd. visit www.icesport.com.