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The Antiquity Of It All

Five top American breeders discuss their devotion to a handful of ancient, elegant breeds with smooth gaits and amazing style
Diana Stuart Jones
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

Dan Slott had always loved horses, having grown up with them on his father's farm in Holmdel, New Jersey. So it was no surprise when he decided to saddle up for a ride during a vacation to Iceland 14 years ago. What was surprising was that the horse was unlike any he had ever seen.  

"Until then, my experience had been mostly with thoroughbreds, and I'd never ridden an Icelandic," recalls Slott, a Manhattan bond trader at the time. "When I did I was impressed. Here was a horse that for centuries had been developed just for riding. It was speedy, comfortable, safe and very intelligent. From a performance point of view, I was impressed with this horse's ability to move with ease, and it was so much to my liking, I decided to give up other types of riding."  

But Slott didn't stop there. Upon his return he began breeding and training Icelandic horses at Mill Farm, a 2,000-acre spread he created in Ancramdale, New York, with Icelander Kristjan Kristjansson, who has trained and bred Icelandic horses all his life. Nestled in a valley that's dotted with boulders and surrounded by green rolling hills, the farm looks as if it were pared from the Icelandic countryside.  

"These are the ancient gaited horses of the Vikings, the only naturally five-gaited horses in the world, and they all move with power, consistency and smoothness," says Slott, who is married to Molly Schaefer, the publisher of Town & Country and a horsewoman in her own right. "They also have wonderful temperaments because [in Iceland] they breed [the horses] selectively, as much for mind as for performance."  

Throughout the centuries, the aim of horse breeders has been to duplicate and improve equine characteristics important to man, a pragmatic approach that appears to have reached its ultimate expression in today's "big business" equestrian world, where strains are exquisitely refined and matched against the requirements of often-narrow disciplines. Because the objectives are so specialized, however, finding a well-bred riding horse with a gentle, tractable nature can be difficult.  

Unlike breeders of thoroughbred race horses, Slott is one of a select few around the United States who specialize in breeding horses meant to be ridden for show and fun, not finish lines. Five of those breeders can be found within a 50-mile radius of northwestern Connecticut, and each offers a dramatically different breed: Polish Arabian, Peruvian Paso, Connemara, Iberian and Icelandic. n Horses as we know them today started evolving approximately 6,000 years ago, when man first attempted to domesticate the swift four-legged animals running just beyond his reach. Eventually the pursuers captured one and tamed it, then caught others and started breeding their favorites to each other. Once man started interjecting his will, various types and breeds began appearing, as horses with great prepotency (the ability to consistently pass on their type and character to their offspring) duplicated themselves.  

Two Eastern breeds emerged early on and had a profound influence on all the horses that followed. They were the swift desert horse of the Middle East, known as the Arabian, and the rugged North African horse of the Barbary Coast, known as the Barb. These breeds formed the basis of the world's foundation stock and influenced all modern-day breeds.  

As early as 3000 b.c., horses resembling modern-day Arabians were observed living on the Arabian Peninsula. They are said to have been bred by Bedu tribesmen, who recorded their pedigrees orally until the historian El Kelbi chronicled them in 789 a.d. He traced their roots to a stallion called Hoshaba and a mare named Baz that, legend has it, was captured in Yemen by the great-great-grandson of Noah.  

Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham and the first ancestor of the Bedu tribes, supposedly kept Arabian horses. So did King Solomon and the Prophet Mohammed, who was apparently so taken with the animals that he made their care a tenet of faith. It was he who influenced the Moors, who carried a reverence for horses to Spain in the seventh and eighth centuries.  

New York businessman Arnold Fisher was not an experienced horseman when he encountered his first Arabian horse. It was the spring of 1981, and a friend had just invited Fisher, a middle-aged nonrider, on a trail ride in Bedford, New York. The beauty and temperament of his mount were sensational and after his ride he inquired about its breed. "Arabian," he was told. With that, Fisher's life took a new direction.  

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