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Icelandic Best

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Christopher Gardner

The horses at Icelandic Crest are a breed apart

By Traci Hukill

From the looks of things, boarding at Icelandic Crest Horse Ranch is the equine equivalent of taking up residence at a bed and breakfast. The scenery at the sunny Summit Road property is gorgeous, the accommodations are quaint and the other guests are polite and relaxed. Then again, they're all Icelandic horses, possibly the easiest breed in the world to get along with.

Heather Thordarson, Icelandic Crest's owner and breeder, brags shamelessly about her pony-sized darlings. "In Iceland they don't start riding them until [the horses are] 4 or 5 years old," she says, "so they have a really strong sense of self. They're more mature, easier to train. I trained Trissa up," she says, referring to a dainty chestnut mare whose new filly totters at her side, "and a couple weeks later, my 8-year-old was riding her on the trail."

They are indeed perfect mounts for kids, which is why Icelandic Crest is offering summer programs through the Los Gatos and Cupertino recreation departments. Icelandic horse fans, who are notable for their fervor, like to point out that the calm and reliable breed has had 1,000 predator-free years in Iceland in which to mellow out and get control of that twitchy, crazy-making flight reflex. One thousand years in Iceland has done something else for Icelandic horses, too; at the Althing in 1100 the Icelanders, fearing plagues, banned the importation of any other horses. The ban still stands, and once a horse leaves Iceland, it can't return. The result is a pure, hardy breed known for its surefootedness, strength and longevity (one mare lived an unheard of 57 years). And they're exceptionally trainable.

"You can make these horses dance for you as long as you understand their language," Thordarson says, and resident trainer Rena Petrescu nods knowingly. Petrescu has studied for nine years with Buck Brannaman, the horseman who coached Robert Redford for his role in The Horse Whisperer. Petrescu knows that the horse-whispering fad, which gained popularity when Monty Roberts' bestselling book, The Man Who Talks to Horses, came out last year, will probably recede from public awareness with time, but she's grateful for its arrival anyway.

"With The Horse Whisperer coming out, it's a great revolution," she says. "I hate to use that word. But we used to beat horses into submission." Natural horsemanship, as she demonstrates, involves asking horses to do things rather than telling them, understanding their instincts and rewarding them for good behavior. It's a little like New Age parenting in that regard: Sensitivity is key.

"That doesn't mean they can say no," she explains, "but they know what's expected, and they're given the opportunity to cooperate."

After a brief lesson in horsemanship comes the fun part--the ride. The Hukills are not great horsepeople. We admire horses and can usually tell which end to offer the carrot to, but it's no surprise when Flotti, the dark brown gelding who calls the shots in the herd, veers off the path with cool disregard for my emphatically stated wishes, drops his head and starts grazing.

Eventually, however, Flotti and I reach an agreement, and I get to experience the tolt, one of two gaits unique to Icelandic horses. When Flotti switches from a trot into the famously smooth four-beat gait, it's like going from washboard dirt-and-gravel road to silky highway: lots more comfortable and a little faster. The tolt is so smooth, in fact, that Icelandic horse shows feature a beer tolt event in which contestants ride their tolting steeds around the ring holding aloft--and trying not to spill--mugs of ale.

The other special Icelandic gait, the flying pace, is another smooth, fast ride that can approach 30 mph and is described by adoring fans as similar to "floating on air." (For reference, Real Quiet ran the Kentucky Derby this year at an average speed of 31 mph.) Flotti isn't a pacer, but he's been a most cooperative tolter, and I decide that if I had a bit of pickled herring or a baloney sandwich, I'd offer him a tasty little treat.

That's right. Iceland isn't known for its produce, so its horses are raised thinking of pickled fish as cookies, and Thordarson once boarded a horse who was fond of lunchmeat.

Which oddity may only go to show why the quirky little horses are gaining popularity with the likes of heavyweight champ George Foreman, who owns four, and Oracle heavyweight Larry Ellison, who bought one for his child. They're a little eccentric, and everyone likes an individualist.

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From the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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