Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Dapple Gray

When I was in Iceland to buy horses in 1997, I fell in love with a dapple gray mare. My host, the breeder Elvar Einarsson, who was taking me around Skagafjord horse-shopping, lost his temper. “You’ll be sorry if you buy that horse,” he said.

For a moment I wondered. Were those stories about gray horses really true?

Gray (or white) horses make up an estimated 10 percent of the Icelandic horse population, yet they account for a disproportionate number of the magical horses in legends and folk tales. There’s a gray horse in the story of Fluga, the exceptionally fast mare that Thorir Dove-Nose raced against the sorceror Orn. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, "The Sorceror's Horse," Thorir won the race and Orn went up into the hills and disappeared. But when Thorir came back to fetch Fluga, he was surprised to find a gray black-maned stallion with the mare. Given that Kjolur, the highland route along which the men raced, is in the middle of Iceland, set between two of the largest glaciers, it’s unlikely this stallion wandered off from a nearby farm. Most probably, it’s the sorceror Orn himself.

Another story in the medieval Book of Settlements is that of Audun Stoti and the gray horse of Hjardarvatn. One day, a dapple gray horse came racing down out of the hills. It scattered Audun’s herd and bowled over his stallion. Audun was a big and powerful man, so he went out and caught the newcomer. He hitched him up to a sledge and spent the morning hauling in the hay from the homefield. The work went well until the afternoon. Then the gray horse started stamping. By evening, he stamped so hard his hooves sank into the ground up to his fetlocks. When the sun went down, he broke free of his harness, raced back to the hills, and disappeared into the lake, “and that was the last anyone ever saw of him.”

The horse that lives in a lake in Iceland is called a nykur or "nicker." They are always gray, and can usually be identified by their hooves: turned back to front. They should never be ridden. The Old Icelandic dictionary known as Cleasby-Vigfusson calls them a kind of “sea goblin,” and notes that they can take on other shapes than that of a horse. In this they are like the Scottish water horse, or kelpie, which can also appear as a gnome or an elf. A kelpie waits by the side of a river until he sees travelers approaching. Then he assumes his horse’s shape and drags to the riverbottom anyone foolish enough to mount him. In Iceland, at least the nicker waits for the magic words.

There once was a shepherd girl, one story goes, searching for some ewes that were lost. She was quite tired and a long way from home when suddenly she saw a gray horse standing by a lake. She caught it and tied on a piece of string for a bridle. Then suddenly she lost her nerve. “I don’t feel like riding this horse,” she said. At that the horse jumped into the water and disappeared.

Another time three children were playing on the bank of a river when they noticed a gray horse standing nearby. They went up to look at it, and one of them bravely clambered onto its back. When the horse didn’t spook, a second child climbed on. “Let’s go for a ride,” they called to their brother, but the oldest child refused. “I don’t feel like riding this horse,” he said. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than the horse leaped into the river and the two children drowned.

The most fearsome gray horse in Icelandic lore is not a water horse but a fire horse. Late in the classic Njal’s Saga, just before Flosi burns the house down around the ears of Wise Njal and his wife and sons, a boy living nearby wakes in the night to hear a tremendous crash. Both earth and sky seemed to quake. “He looked to the west, and thought he saw a ring of fire with a man on a gray horse inside the circle, riding furiously.” The man was as black as pitch, and held high a flaming firebrand. As he rode, he roared out a verse:

I ride a horse
With icy mane
Forelock dripping,
Evil bringing.
Fire at each end,
And poison in the middle…

He hurled his firebrand, “and a vast fire erupted, blotting the mountains from sight.” It was the “witch-ride,” the saga says, “a portent of disaster.” (A modern reader might be inclined to call it a volcanic eruption—still a disaster.)

Elvar Einarsson, when he tried to talk me out of taking home the lovely dapple gray mare I’d seen in Skagafjord, probably knew all of these old stories. But that wasn’t why he warned me against buying her. The problem with this gray horse was her gaits: She didn't tolt, she piggy-paced.

I learned the history and folklore of Icelandic horses to write my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, which I'm now delighted to say is back in print! You can purchase copies of the paperback (or ebook) from, or meet me at Iceland Affair in Winchester Center, CT on July 20 for an autographed copy. Autographed copies will also soon be available at my local independent bookstore, Green Mountain Books in Lyndonville, VT. Call Kim to order.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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