Wanderer and storyteller, wise, half-blind, with a wonderful horse.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
The Gift of Kindness
Kindness is the name of my mare, Gaeska in Icelandic. In my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I wrote about going to Iceland and buying her and my gelding, Birkir, in 1997, but I didn't write about the surprise Gaeska brought home: a foal.
The day my two horses were to be released from quarantine, I got a phone call from Gaeska's breeder. It was early in the morning, and we spoke Icelandic, as she and I mostly had with each other. But now I was out of practice and found it a lot harder to understand. She was asking something about Gaeska. "Yes," I said, "she made it to New York. She gets out of quarantine today."
"You must have her checked. You should have them sprauta her at the quarantine center if you can."
"Oh yes, I'm sure they check her for everything." I didn't know what sprauta meant, so I ignored it.
"Well she can be fine and have a foal in her at the same time! We're very sorry about it. We'll pay what it costs to have it done, but you have to do it soon or it's bad for Gaeska. We were so surprised when the vet called and asked if we still needed that appointment. We'd completely forgotten Gaeska was one of those mares."
She rattled on and on. I was taking deep breaths and trying to calm down. I'd never owned a horse before and was still working out the details of barn design and hay delivery and vets and shoeing. Now I had to learn to raise a foal?
Photo by Gerald Lang and Jennifer Anne Tucker
A week before I came to Skagafjord, the breeder said, there'd been a big horse show a few miles away from the farm. The family had ridden to the show, one of them taking Gaeska. She'd been pastured with the other mares. One night, a stallion broke loose and jumped the fence. He spent the night with the mares. "It was all a terrible accident," the breeder said. The vet was checking all 20 mares that had been in the pasture and would sprauta any that were pregnant in order to abort the foals.
"Who was the stallion?" I asked. "Why do you need to abort the foals?" This was Skagafjord, after all. I began thinking about the famous stallions that could have been at that horse show.
"It was not a good stallion," she said, "not an evaluated stallion, just some farmer's riding horse." There was nothing wrong with the stallion. He was pretty, a chestnut, five-gaited, five years old. But horse breeding in Iceland is highly scientific. Breeding horses are evaluated on 10 points of conformation and 10 tests of ability under saddle. A stallion who scores less than a total of 8 out of 10 is gelded--he has no future as a stud in a land with hundreds of "first prize" stallions.
Not to mention that raising a foal is expensive. Icelandic horses aren't trained to ride until they are four or five years old--which means you pay to feed them for four years before you even know if you have a good riding horse. Gaeska's breeder sounded astonished that I would even consider raising what she called "a worthless foal" by an unrated stallion.
The vet where I boarded the mare when she came out of quarantine made the decision for me. "I don't do that," she said, with extreme distaste. She refused to even do a pregnancy test when she knew I was considering aborting the foal.
I conferred with Anne Elwell, a longtime breeder of Icelandic horses in New York, who assured me it was "not a problem." She doubted the pregnancy would take, the mare was under such stress--taken from her farm, put on an airplane, hustled through quarantine--all within three weeks of being bred. It's hard to bring foals over in utero when you want to, she said. And, in any case, Icelandics don't generally need any help foaling, so if she was pregnant I needn't worry. "Feed the mare well, she'll take care of the foal. You can ride her until she waddles."
Two months later, when I brought Gaeska closer to my home, I had my own vet check her. "She's about three months," she said. She looked surprised at the expression on my face. "You were expecting me to say that, weren't you?" She laughed as I told her the story. "Had a little fling, eh girl?" she said, petting the mare. "You were mad they were going to sell you, weren't you? You said, 'I'll show them. I'll take a little bit of Iceland with me!' "
Sometimes, even in horsebreeding, you get lucky. Gaeska foaled with no problem. Her colt, Elvar, was as we say "a pistol." The first thing he did was stick his head in the water bucket and shake all the water onto the floor. At a week old, he began to snort and whinny back to his mother. He also discovered the canter, and began rocketing around the paddock. When I scrubbed algae out of the water tub, he came over and stuck his nose in the bucket of soap suds. He did the same when I held a halter under his nose, and let me slip it on him with no effort.
I knew I couldn't keep him. Icelandics need to grow up in a herd. So when he was weaned, I found Elvar a foster-home in Canada. Soon after that, the herd was broken up; Elvar (with my approval) and several other horses were sold to someone who wanted to start an Icelandic horse farm of their own, and I lost touch with Gaeska's foal for several years. I often wondered how he was doing--if he was "worthless" after all.
Enter Facebook. Early in 2012, browsing among Icelandic horse friends and friends-of-friends, I saw a photo of a very shaggy, dark-bay Icelandic horse being ridden in the snow. It looked amazingly like Gaeska. The caption read, "Another beautiful day to ride! Me and Elvar, better known as 'the big comfy couch.'" The rider was Wendy Sheppard-Horas. I checked the transfer papers--yes, I had sold Elvar to Wendy Horas, now the proud owner of OnIce Horse Farm (Ontario Icelandic Horse Farm). I contacted her and was delighted to learn that Elvar was "the best horse in the world. You can ask him to do anything and he will! He is the most respectful horse I know. I wish I had a dozen of him… He is a very big part of our farm."
More photos of Elvar appear on the OnIce Horse Farm Facebook page: One shows Elvar lying down in the snow with a young girl sitting on him--no saddle, no bridle, she's not riding him, just sitting on him like he was a couch. A big comfy couch, indeed! The caption: "Sydney on Elvar. It really doesn't matter to him … he is so easy going."
It gets better. This week Sydney Horas is representing Canada as a youth rider in the Icelandic Horse World Championships in Berlin, Germany. I like to think that having a horse like Elvar to grow up riding had something to do with Sydney's success as an equestrienne. Please pardon me if I root for Canada when she is on the track.
You can follow the Icelandic Horse World Championships on Facebook at Islandpferde-WM 2013 or on the web at www.berlin2013.de or find results on the FEIF website.