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
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"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.
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.
Bettina was then living in Portugal. Her mother, a prominent horsewoman, was the Countess de Flers, the former Phyllis Field, daughter of department store magnate Marshall Field III. Bettina had always received skilled instruction. To train with Oliveira, however, was an unexpected privilege.
Her progress was dramatic. By the time she was 12, Bettina had performed a ballotade, a difficult movement in which the horse trots in place and leaps into the air; its origin stems from military battles. At 16, she was presented with a coveted pair of spurs awarded only to instructors, and she became Oliveira's exhibition rider. At 19, she earned a license to train horses and, at 21, she earned her degree as a master horse trainer.
"It was because of Mr. Oliveira that I became fascinated with dressage as an art form and with how things fit together," says Drummond. "Thanks to him, I became absolutely devoted to Iberian horses." Her partners in the experience were the Iberian horses in his barn; a few of them were Andalusians from nearby Spain, but usually they were Lusitanos, which are native to Portugal.
Iberian horses are known for their spectacular movement, balance, suppleness and agility, not to mention a courageous, spirited and gentle disposition. Their facial profile is convex, their eyes are almond-shaped, and they have sloped croups (top hindquarters), which make their hind legs flexible and allow them to move in a collected, or restrained, gait. In Spain, these horses are most often used for ceremonial duties in the bullring and for high-level dressage, a process of putting horses through a series of precise maneuvers using very little in the way of discernable commands.
The origins of the Iberian horse are closely linked with the history of that region--a saga of invasion and occupation by different African sects during the fifteenth century. It can only be surmised that the Iberian horse resulted from crossbreeding of indigenous stock and the North African Barb.
Iberian stallions generally stand from 15.2 to 16.2 hands high at the shoulder and have a commanding presence and lofty and spectacular paces. They are compact and strong, limber and powerful in the hindquarters and neck. Most important is their docile temperament, which makes them easy to teach and happy to submit to dressage disciplines without loss of spirit. Drummond's Pruyn Stud at Auden Field sits high on a hill overlooking the Newtown, Connecticut, countryside. Years before she started the farm, her mother had dreamed of establishing an American dressage center. In 1991, at age 28, her daughter fulfilled that dream by buying the Newtown property with a partner. In 1994, shortly after her grandmother, Ruth Pruyn Field, died, Bettina established Pruyn Stud. "I named the stud after my grandmother because she is responsible for my having it," she says. "She left me some money to do something with horses, and it enabled me to buy my Iberian breeding stock."
Admittedly ambitious about training horses in the classical mode, Drummond says she is "not particularly competitive" when it comes to riding. Her goal these days, she says, is "to produce some wonderful dressage horses that go on to do what I was taught, so that I may, in turn, pass on what I have learned." Toward that end, she has been importing Lusitanos for training and showing along with a few French horses (a breed called Selle Francais), which Drummond feels are more suited to the "look" required by contemporary dressage tests.
It is the Lusitanos, however, that are her first love, and she hopes to introduce more of them into American dressage competition. "Right now, I'm trying to tone down the anxiety quota," she adds. "Lusitanos are often very hot and reactive because they're bred to look for the bull in the bullring. At the same time, they have this marvelous forward nature from the leg because they're always ready to charge. Some people see their natural suspension as taking away from the forward nature. I believe this is because few people will ride them on the edge of their nature. When you ride them with your hair on fire, boy, it's like martial arts. And once you get ready to roll, you can't back off. They have fine, sensitive personalities, and once you get their engines stoked, they're magnificent."
Nancy Burr stands barely five foot, two inches. When she's dressed in her riding clothes, she resembles a jockey. "Please don't tell me I look like National Velvet," she says with a smile as she puts a brush to the glistening bay coat of Ballywhim Ardan Mor, one of her prized Connemara stallions. "People are always saying that. I competed a lot when I was a girl in Westport [Connecticut] and there was a time I actually did want to win the Grand National or some other great competition, but I'm through with that now. I'm a serious horse breeder."
Recognized by the American Connemara Pony Society as one of the nation's top breeders, Burr, who is in her mid-40s, knew a lot about horses before she decided to breed these ancient ponies.
She started riding at age five, partly because her mother, Mary, was the secretary of the Fairfield County Hounds in Connecticut, partly because she was "just plain horse crazy." Later in her childhood she hunted and pony-clubbed with New Jersey's Spring Valley Hounds and rode at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport.
In 1983, Burr, who is married to Connecticut businessman Kevin Montanaro, finally decided to take the plunge and settled on Connemaras. "I'd known a wonderful pony that was half Connemara when I was a girl and I wanted to breed them," she says.
The Connemara pony is Ireland's only indigenous breed. It is also one of the most beautiful of all ponies. Before the arrival of the Celtic raiders and traders in the fifth and sixth centuries b.c., Connemaras resembled the stocky equines that now inhabit Norway, Iceland and the Shetland Isles of Scotland. But it wasn't until the late sixteenth century, when an Andalusian mare reputedly escaped from a wrecked vessel belonging to the Spanish Armada, that the breed began to change.
The influence of the Iberian horse on the Connemara is obvious even for those who don't believe the legend. In the sixteenth century, Galway City, a port near the Irish coastal area of Connemara, was an important trading center, particularly with Spain, and the Irish countryside was dotted with beautiful Andalusian and Lusitano riding horses. Some of these were undoubtedly bred to native ponies, as were Arabian horses two centuries later.
Connemara ponies nearly perished by 1850, another victim of the great potato famine that ravaged Ireland during the 1840s. But the ponies that did survive are not the versatile ponies of today. The modern Connemara resulted from an 1897 royal commission led by J. Cossar Ewart, a professor at Edinburgh University, who examined Irish horses to assess the breeds worth saving. He single-handedly saved the Connemara, which he described as "fertile and free from disease...without exception the best animals I ever knew. Its extinction would be a national loss." He suggested crossbreeding its surviving members with Welsh cobs, thoroughbreds, hackneys and roadster ponies.
Thanks to Ewart's perceptive breeding recommendations, the already versatile Connemara became even more so. In 1923, Ireland formed the Connemara Pony Breeders' Society. Three years later, England formed a similar organization, and in the 1950s, the American Connemara Pony Society was formed "in recognition of the need for a pony of great stamina and versatility, capable of carrying an adult in the hunting field, yet gentle and tractable enough for a young child, fearless as a show jumper, yet suitable and steady as a driving pony."