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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

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Soon he was on the phone with his mount's breeder, Ruth Schmidt, a breeder of black Arabians whose own horse, Casio Bay, had been considered for the 1979 movie The Black Stallion. Sight unseen, Fisher purchased a stallion, Dunabasque, over the phone. Then, acting again on his friend's advice, he called Larry Jones, a horse trainer in nearby Sherman, Connecticut, and asked him to train the horse. Fisher and his wife, Audrey, soon teamed with Jones. Today, their Dunromin' Arabian Farm, in Pine Plains, New York, is one of the nation's leading breeders of Polish Arabians.  

"The day Dunabasque came off the trailer, I was hooked," Fisher recalls. "I'd never seen anything so magnificent in my life." A grandson of the great Polish stallion Bask, Dunabasque was a superb example of the Arabians that Poland has been producing for more than 400 years (he died in 1997). The purebred Polish Arabian has influenced nearly every one of the world's major Arabian horse gene pools.  

This highly prized horse is a result of a selective Polish breeding program, which tests each horse's physical soundness and training potential on the racetrack. Horses too small, too nervous or constitutionally unsound for racing are culled from the breeding pool. Similarly, mares that have succeeded on the race track but prove to be irregular breeders or poor mothers are sold.  

Eager to learn more about his new horse and others like it, Fisher asked Jones to accompany him and his wife to the 1982 U.S. National Championships in Louisville. "That's when I realized the extent of Larry's knowledge of this breed," he says. "He was able to predict most of the winners. I knew then that if I wanted to get into Arabian horses, this was the man who could guide me."  

Since his first trip to the nationals with the Fishers, Larry Jones has trained dozens of young horses for the couple. "Polish Arabians make excellent training candidates," Jones says. "They have been selectively bred for centuries, with emphasis on traits such as soundness, stamina, beauty and trainability. The next result from the Polish horsemen's foresight is a very consistent modern-day gene pool, which regularly produces for us a beautiful and trainable, athletic Arabian horse."  

These days, the Fishers have 39 horses at their 286-acre farm, with a few champion stallions, including Penitent, a magnificent grey named National Champion Stallion of Poland in 1985 and European Supreme Champion Stallion in 1987.   Fisher smiles and sits back in his chair, recalling the first foal he ever delivered at the farm. "I didn't know much about this business then, and I'd certainly never delivered a foal. It was in the winter. The colt was lying on the straw under the heat lamps and as it lay there nickering, attached to its dam, it was almost a religious experience."  

Like the Arabian, the Icelandic can boast an ancient bloodline; but it also has a genetic purity few breeds can match. Because of restrictive legislation on horse breeding passed by Iceland's general assembly, the Allthing, in the tenth century, there has been no infusion of outside blood for more than 1,000 years. Furthermore, exported Icelandic horses are not permitted to return. The result is that the native horses retain their original conformation and size. They have great carriage and usually stand no higher than 14 1/2 hands, roughly 66 inches. Perhaps best of all, they still have five smooth gaits.  

In addition to the usual walk, trot and canter, the Icelandic horse--which can carry a 250-pound man--has a gait called the tolt, a remarkably smooth four-beat movement in which the animal moves its feet quickly in the same order as it does in the walk. In this gait, the forepart of the horse rises, the back yields and the rear legs move in well under the animal's body to create a movement that cradles the rider in the saddle, allowing for constant connection with the horse. In the fifth gait, known as a pace, both legs on one side of the horse move in unison and the horse extends itself quickly and powerfully, often traveling at speeds of up to 35 mph. The rider sits in the saddle for all Icelandic gaits.  

"Strangely enough, these horses are easier to ride than horses with just three gaits," observes Slott. "You get on one and suddenly find yourself riding better than you've ever ridden before. These horses are meant to be ridden and enjoyed in the open countryside."   Slott first learned of the affection Icelanders have for their native horses when he was vacationing there. "The horses there have occupied a central place in that country's history and folklore for over 1,000 years, and they were carefully and thoughtfully bred to serve as mounts and companions to the family. Even today, it's not uncommon to find four or five per household."  

Ten-year-old Bettina Drummond gazed into the magisterial face of Nuno Oliveira, master of the Portuguese School of Classical Education. She had been accepted as his student.  

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