Scandal! Did the Icelandic tölt come from England?

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William Blake’s take on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath rides an ambler,

Researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wild Animal Research (IZW) in Berlin have announced a fascinating discovery in the history of gaited horses. By studying the genomes of ninety horses that lived between the Copper Age and the eleventh century, they have traced the spread of the fifth equine gait or amble. This builds on the recent discovery (read about it here) that a mutation to gene DMRT3 causes horses to tölt or pace.

According to the scientists, ambling, tölting or pacing horses seem to have originated in England in the ninth century and were then taken to Iceland by the Vikings and on to the rest of Europe and Asia.

I’m curious about this as I’m pretty sure some Mongolian horses amble, and I didn’t know they were descended in any way, shape or form from Viking horses. Also, pre-horse hipparions were pacers.

Here’s the details of the paper: Wutke S, Andersson L, Benecke N, Sandoval-Castellanos E, Gonzalez J, Hallsson  JH, Lembi L,  Magnell O, Morales-Muniz A, Orlando L, Pálsdóttir AH, Reissmann M, Muñioz-Rodríguez MB, Ruttkay M, Trinks A, Hofreiter M, Ludwig A (2016): The Origin of Ambling Horses. CURR BIOL 26, 697-698. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.07.001.


We Are Horses, Horses Are Us

In Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men, the inhabitants of a remote Icelandic valley have emotions as tightly knitted as their jumpers – except when it comes to their swift-trotting, thick-maned horses.

In the opening scene we see the coat on a grey mare’s chest, caught in whorls and feathered by drizzle as her owner’s eye lovingly traces it. And then we see the owner himself, Kollbeinn, a middle-aged man in a tightly buttoned tweed jacket, reflected in the mare’s eye. “Darling,” he calls her, and “little lady.” When he smooths the coat on her back before hoicking her saddle on, it’s a caress. She will carry him across the valley to Solveig, the woman he’s in love with, at a spanking “tolt” that is watched covetously by the rest of the community through their binoculars and windows. “She’s no slouch, that mare,” Solveig greets him, before inviting him in for tea with her mother and son.

Left tied up outside, the grey mare acts on her own unihibited romantic inclinations, humiliating Kollbein – with grievous results for both herself and her lover, Solveig’s brown stallion.

There are six interlocking stories in this dark and comic Icelandic film, which won the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize and the Brussels’ Golden Iris. In each, horses look on as humans commit all manner of sins of pride and folly, sometimes with disastrous consequences for themselves, and more often with terrible consequences for the horses. The dysfunctional, emotionally repressed humans are direct only when they are in pursuit of alcohol, which they sink like English foxhunters (from hip flasks, on horseback, and often). They would rather watch their neighbours through those binoculars than bare their hearts.

While they love their horses, what they love more is what horses can do for them: make them look desirable or masterful, get them vodka, humiliate their sexual rivals or take them home. The horses generally oblige them – even standing pacifically on a platform suspended from the hull of a Russian trawler at sea – but they cannot save them from their own idiocy, and sometimes, just by being horses, they ruin the best laid plans of their owners. The film’s humour can be tarry black: This wimp found the story of poor Juan, the Spanish tourist whose only crime was to wear a woolly hat and want to ride a horse, a little hard to stomach.

The characters are eccentric, but not grotesques: Erlingsson’s actors can convey a repressed emotion into the minutest gesture of the hand or widening of an eye. A woman announces her intention to seduce a man by flicking her pony tail out of her cagoule. Solveig’s eyebrows perform a small, expressive dance as Kollbein stands next to her and sweet talks his mare as Solveig wants to hear him whisper to her. A homesick Mongolian sailor called Genghis embraces a horse’s head tenderly, his face shining.

Throughout the six stories runs the busy rhythm of the tolt, matched by Icelandic folk music, and the spare and beautiful landscape, where sloping green valleys give way to crags of shifting, slatey rocks. The sea is frigid turquoise. The sky changes from mackerel clouds to pelting rain or a deathly blizzard.

Towards the end there’s a shift, and a lightening. People come together, and, fortified by alcohol, dare to reach for one another across the gaps between their horses. Cries of love making blur into those of horse herding. The film’s Icelandic title is Hross í Oss, which translates as “Horses and Us” – the similarities between the words in both English and Icelandic has the sealed-in wit of a palindrome or pun. We are horses, horses are us. And when we give up our stupid human inhibitions and wrongheadedness, and act a little more like horses, we find happiness.

Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2013 feature, Of Horses and Men, will be on general release here in Germany from February 19th on, as Von Menschen und Pferde, and is available on DVD in the UK and US.

Icelandic Horses Gather at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

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The 2013 Icelandic Horse World Championships launched this morning at the Platz der 18 Mars, in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A parade of horses and riders from over twenty nations clopped up the Strasse des 17 Juni through the middle of the Tiergarten park in the centre of Berlin and stood in a circle as the president of Iceland spoke in tribute to the breed, which he said had held Iceland together for centuries, by carrying locals back and forth from one isolated farm or village to another.  The championships will take place this week at Karlshorst, a harness racing track in the south east of the city. I’m hoping to go along* and see not just the famous “tölt” gait live, but also the fifth gait, or “skei∂”, which looks to me like the origin of the myth of Sleipnir. This horse looks like it has at least eight legs on the go…


* Oooof. Having seen the steep prices for a day ticket, I don’t think this will happen.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links


  • Artist Mark Wallinger has made a 3D scan of a racehorse, produced it in marble dust and resin and set it outside the British Council building in London. Wallinger’s work frequently features horses, and he’s even a racehorse owner himself. The piece will tour internationally, and the artist hopes it will revive interest in his project to built a giant grey horse at Ebbsfleet, Kent, which appears to have stalled. (De Zeen)
  • A man declares himself the fiancé of a My Little Pony (AV Club, thanks to Anne Billson)
  • A poodle rides a pony (Komo News)
  • From a care home to a dressage team at Rio 2016? Here’s hoping. Sam Martin on his journey from London gangland to the dressage ring (Get Surrey)
  • Cedar Lane Stables in Queens has been shut down after concerns over the welfare of horses on livery on the property – six deaths were too many for local authorities. The Federation of Black Cowboys, who run the city-owned yard, have protested that the fault lies with individual owners, and that others will be unfairly punished by the closure. (New York Times)
  • Yosemite National Park is considering banning horses (as well as ice rinks, rafting, bikes and swimming pools) in its bid to return Yosemite Valley to its most “natural” state (Mercury News)
  • An Icelandic horse learns to count (HorseTalk)
  • Beautiful bird’s eye view by Brad Styron of the feral horses of Shackleford Banks (Tumblr, thanks to KK)

The Mares of Diomedes Gallop On

In Greek myth Heracles’ eighth task is to steal the flesh-eating mares of the giant Diomedes: Podagros, Lampon, Xanthos and Deinos. Heracles is victorious in the ensuing struggle with Diomedes, and feeds his body to the horses who chomp him up with much relish and gore, as in all the best Greek literature. In some versions the mares also breathe fire and you might have thought that as the horse is the herbivore incarnate, Podagros et al’s taste for flesh was as fanciful as their flaming nostrils.

Not so, it seems.

Several years ago featured a few articles on meat-eating horses which threw up some interesting curiosities. Did you know that Icelandic horses are fed dried fish as it contains nutrients not present in the grass on the island? Or that Tibetan horses were fed sheep blood and millet gruel? More gruesome still were the accounts that readers sent in of carnivorous horses they had known, that consumed whole ducklings or murdered pigeons in their fields. Now horse historian CuChullaine O’Reilly has written a book on the subject, called Deadly Equines. Horse Talk reports:

O’Reilly said he was stunned to discover that mankind had known about meat-eating horses for at least four thousand years; that they had been known to consume nearly two dozen different types of protein, including human flesh, and that these episodes had occurred on every continent, including Antarctica.

“This wasn’t an odd example or two. This amounted to a hidden history of horses.”

O’Reilly says tales of deadly and flesh-eating horses arise in mankind’s mythology, as well as history.

“For example, mythology states that Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus, was a notorious man-eater.

“Literature has Shakespeare, Steve McQueen and Sherlock Holmes all involved with man-killers or meat-eating horses. And we now know that meat-eating horses were used to explore both the Arctic Circle and Antarctica.

“The evidence is there for all to see – for those willing to do so.”

My copy has been ordered!