Brett Arnason remembers the first time he saw an Icelandic horse. This was no horse, he thought. This was a pony.
But his father Frank, in the mid-1980s, who was raising thoroughbreds near here thought otherwise. The elder Arnason had grown increasingly interested in the capabilities of the Icelandic horse, and had started to talk about bringing a few over from Iceland for the 1989 centennial of the Islendingadagurinn festival at Gimli.
At the time, there were none in Manitoba, although horse owners elsewhere in Western Canada had some.
The younger Arnason, busy with the family construction business at the time, dismissed the whole idea. “It was interesting from a heritage point of view. But I couldn’t seen any value in a horse that small.”
Then in August of 1987 his father died.
His dream would not.
A year later, Brett would be in Iceland with Joe Sigurdson, another Manitoba businessman, looking for horses to carry out his father’s wishes. By then the two had embraced the idea, and had created a syndicate with other business associates to gather donations of about $50,000 to buy horses in Iceland. The initial plan was that each donor would eventually be offered a foal, although many didn’t actually take one in the end, says Arnason.
They’d put up their money because they shared the dream.
It was the spring of 1988 that Arnason and Sigurdson were dispatched to spend a couple of weeks in Iceland finding horses. There were lots to choose from. There are an estimated 100,000 in the country.
“We just asked questions of relatives and friends and drove around the countryside,” he said. Then one afternoon they spotted a note posted at a public swimming pool.
“It said, in English, ‘Would you like to ride an Icelandic horse? Call Hugga,’” Arnason recalls.
Hugga was Hugrun Ivarsdottir, planning a weekend camping trek up a mountain with a group of friends and about 60 Icelandic horses.
They joined the ride, and it would be the last time Arnason would use the word “pony” in the same sentence as Icelandic horse.
Small but powerful
He was offered a tiny red and white pinto named Skjona to ride. At 13 hands, she was indeed, small. Arnason still had doubts. (Most Icelandic horses are between 13-1/2 to 14-1/2 hands high.)
“I told them that I thought they should maybe get me a bigger one,” he said. His remarks drew chuckles from the others saddling up.
“They just said, ‘try her because she thought she was big.’”
She was. Arnason was about to go for the ride of his life.
“She was just an amazing, powerful little horse,” he said. They set out, about nine riders and 60 horses in all, crossing rocky, uneven terrain and heading uphill. It felt more like flying, he said. The ride was incredibly smooth. He knew the Icelandic had a unique gait, called the tölt, a very fast-paced, four-beat gait and nothing like a trot, but this was the first time experiencing it on the terrain these horses were bred to cross.
And what she lacked in stature she more than made up in strength, speed and stamina.
“This horse was just a powerful, willing horse. And she was fast,” he said. “We climbed 3,000 feet. I think we travelled 18 km and we swam two rushing rivers. She just plunged into the river and within a few steps was swimming. It was almost 100 metres downstream before we came ashore. She was very brave and bold.”
When they finally stopped for a break, he remembers being handed a bottle of brennivin and Hugga asking him: “So do you still think your horse is too small?”
“Skol!” he replied, and toasted his hosts.
Skjona, along with Dreki, Stormur, Drottning, Ogn were among a total of 14 Icelandic horses that eventually boarded a plane for a flight to their new home in Manitoba. The animals were flown to Montreal, then trucked to Winnipeg, and arrived in March 1989. Hugga and her friend Hoskoldur Jonson came too, to help Manitobans learn about the care and training of the horses.
More to come
And so the dream of Frank Arnason was realized. Initially kept on a property near St. Norbert, the sturdy little horses began to appear in parades, then made their debut later that year, just as planned, at the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Islendingadagurinn.
The Icelandic horse has töltered its way into the hearts of Manitobans, and far beyond, ever since.
More would eventually be brought over, to be sold to prospective owners across North America. A breed evaluation in the early 2000s attracted riders from all over the continent. In 2002 another planeload — 83 horses in total — touched down in Winnipeg flying directly from Rekyavik.
“It was the largest export ever of horses in one load from Iceland,” said Arnason.
The horses were kept for quarantine on their farm at Rosser that year, then delivered one by one to new owners across North America.
There are approximately 1,300 Icelandic horses registered with the Canadian Livestock Records today, but a more accurate estimate of living horses is possibly 600, meaning these sturdy little horses seen at Gimli every summer remain a rare sight.
“There’s probably 2,000 in North America,” adds Arnason.
The Arnasons have 30. Some are at the Rosser farm, which he co-owns with his brother who continues to raise racehorses there. The rest of the 30 are pastured elsewhere in Manitoba, including some near Gimli, and a few on another farm Arnason owns near the eastern edge of Riding Mountain National Park.
They’ve also pastured horses on land near Rossburn, which they’ve since sold to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) on arrangements they could continue keeping horses there.
‘Just amazing’ animals
Arnason says the horses have given his family much pleasure all these years. Today he and his daughter, Lauren, continue to spend several hours a week riding together.
“It’s something we’ve shared since she was a little girl,” he says. “We spend a lot of time together. We meet after work three days a week to train them, and work together with the demo for Gimli.”
He’s only sorry many still take the same view of the Icelandic horse he once did.
Most can’t see beyond its size, he says. “What I’ve found over the years is that, in general, horse people aren’t willing to give them a chance. Yet, I’ve never met a person who has given them a chance that isn’t totally surprised. They look as docile as a lamb, but they move out with power like a running quarter-horse or a thoroughbred.
“They are just amazing animals,” he continues. “But you can’t explain it, and people just don’t get it. I didn’t, until I rode them.”