It is a good custom to start by introducing oneself.
My name is Bjarni Þorkelsson and I come from Iceland. Horsemanship and horse breeding have been my role in life, both as a pastime and profession. One could say that I never really had a choice, I was raised this way and all my memories are connected with horses. I started riding long before I was old enough to do so on my own, sitting in the lap of my father, Þorkell Bjarnason, former Horse Breeding Advisor of Iceland. It is best to name him right away because it is impossible to talk about Icelandic horse breeding in an historical context without mentioning him. He was a breeding advisor for 35 years and all his life revolved around horses: In addition to his job duties, he used horses, he thought about horses, he talked about horses, he wrote about horses and he dreamt about horses. And he still does all of this. My mother – who also loves horses – has told me that one night she woke up because my father was sitting up in bed, shouting and moving about.
– What is going on, my mother asked.
– Well, can’t you see I am herding the young horses?
In order to answer the questions laid out for us, we must start by defining what we mean by sport competition. In my answer I assume that we mean the classical sport disciplines that are offered at World Championships, such as five gait, four gait, tölt and pace. It is necessary to keep this in mind.
There certainly is a connection between breeding goals – as they are reflected in the judgments of breeding horses – and the demands made on competition horses in sport. This connection is obvious when we look at the demands made for clear gaits, balance, leg action and suppleness.
The connections between some other factors are not as apparent. Some of the breeding goals are of general nature and have to do with health and longevity and they matter in any horse breed, not more in one than the other. For example, the latest condition for showing breeding horses in Iceland is the requirement of spavin x-rays on stallions.
One might also ask if the demands for certain conformation, which is 40% of the total weighing in breeding judgments, has anything to do with sports competitions, as long as the legs on competition horses don’t fail and sport judges don’t value one body type of horse more than the other. Perhaps we can agree on that?
Let´s remove the 40% in this way, that leaves only 60%. If we intend to breed a super pace horse, the walk, tölt, trot and form under rider can be removed from the breeding goal. Which leaves only pace, gallop and spirit of the overall picture that the breeding goal aims for.
This is becoming an easy matter isn’t it?
This is just an example to show you in plain letters what kind of trouble we could get ourselves into if we were going to let the judging system of breeding horses develop to fit very specific needs.
It is normal and necessary for the breeding goals to be more ambitious and varied than to serve only the narrow field of the sport competition. How else would we be able to meet such variable and different purposes as those stated in the sports competition, not to mention other needs? We don’t intend to start a special system for pace horses, another one for tölt competition horses and yet another one for four gaited horses etc. This has been discussed by people but has always been put off with good reason.
It is different when it comes to individual breeders. One might be interested in breeding possible World Championship tölt horses, another a pace winner etc. The third one might like to breed good riding horses, best suited for trekking around Iceland.
It is well known that some breeders take a shortcut by focusing on certain aspects that are being judged, while ignoring others. But those men have to realize that such measures will at some point be reflected in the total results in breeding judgments.
It is only fair, not least to those who try to excel in all the 15 traits that are being judged.
And now one might ask: Is it necessary to try to achieve success in all those different traits? Maybe, maybe not.
What would happen if we were not driven by a public, long term breeding goal and a strict and ambitious judging system that withstands shortsightedness and opportunism? When Dr. Þorvaldur Árnason was a student in Scotland years ago, laying the foundation to adapt breeding horse judgments to the Blup system, he said in a letter to my father:
“Research and improvement are more likely to bring results… rather than questionable experiments with the judging scale, mostly controlled by the emotions of individual horsemen. How quickly the judging scale was put into a fixed form and how well you have resisted proposals… for change, is a major factor in its success, in my opinion. Therefore it may be possible to get a decent heredity value on the factors in question”… (End quote)
In other words: Stability and long term goals are what made it possible to develop the judgments into a scientific process.
It is easy to imagine that more and more breeders might want to take such a shortcut and swing according to fashion and market demands, breeding horses that only fulfill a few of the breeding goals. If this method proves successful, the danger is that the official breeding goal will become a worthless piece of paper. I have pointed out that we may not have been alert enough regarding this matter, even so that in certain shows versatile horses with good pace have had to give in to simple tölt horses.
If we are not careful our beautiful, sturdy and versatile Icelandic “gæðingur” might be a thing of the past, the one we still dream of, though, and is capable of doing it all: Walk, tölt, trot, pace, gallop – with fierce power and charming spirit – but can also carry us around the highlands and heaths, across lava fields, rocks and rolling hills. We want our horse to be soft under saddle, muscled and fit, supple and well behaved, strong and courageous – always prepared to fulfill the wishes of its rider. All this in one horse – the Icelandic gæðingur. These are the demands we Icelanders make when it comes to our best horses. The demands are realistic and there are many examples to prove it. To throw that dream horse overboard would be an unforgivable accident. And the best tool we have to protect this type of horse is the current breeding goal and judging system.
Another factor in all of this is the interest and effort of certain breeders to try to bend the judging system to better suit the weaknesses of their own horses. Instead of trying to improve their own production, they try to get the judging system to deal with their weaknesses in a mild manner – even to raise them to a higher level. The marks for legs, correctness, head, back and loins, and even for neck and shoulders are often being discussed in this connection.
This is certainly a matter of thought. Icelanders can not only focus on fashion and market in its strictest sense. They have a cultural duty to preserve their horse breed which has qualities not found anywhere else in the world. This should also hold true for other Icelandic livestock. The preservation of those original Icelandic breeds is a big part of being an Icelander. They have lived through hardship and natural disasters with us – and seven centuries of foreign oppression.
There are different opinions on these matters amongst Icelanders and Icelandic farmers. Some do not care about this cultural duty at all. Many Icelandic cow farmers want to import Norwegian cows, in order to, they say, maximize the productivity of the cows – even though we might lose invaluable qualities that are typical for the Icelandic cow.
Those farmers talk like this is their decision to make – and their association’s – but I say without hesitation that this is a decision that should be taken democratically by all Icelanders. The same applies when it comes to the cultural heritage that is included in the horse, its color variations, and its five gaits – not to mention its other natural qualities.
But what about Icelandic horse breeders in other countries, who have long been our good customers as well as our competitors. Do they share this responsibility? It is fitting to think a little bit about that question here tonight. Foreign breeders must be free to view these matters in any way they like. Fashion and market wants may be their motto. There is nothing we can do about that – it is their game.
Or perhaps not. I would like to spin a little further here:
In the last few weeks the Icelandic language has been hot subject in Iceland. There have been worries about the status of the language and its development, our duties and how we can preserve it so it doesn’t just get washed away in a mix of international languages. Not only for ourselves, but also because of what the Icelandic language has contributed to world literature and culture.
Can we, gathered here tonight, agree to look at the Icelandic horse in the same way: As a contribution of a small nation to world culture, and, because of that, that it might be our duty to preserve it with all its natural qualities. If we agree on that, this is a matter not only relevant to Icelanders, even though the main responsibility is still theirs.
However one might ask: Since we Icelanders hold this responsibility doesn’t it come with some privileges? A few words might be said on that topic but that may be beside the main point of our discussion. Anyway it is right to point out some of the headway and uniqueness we can offer from a standpoint of (and here I have listed up a few examples of these privileges)
1 Geographical surroundings for upbringing and training. These geographical conditions are also one of the reasons for our broad breeding goal, because the Icelandic market – which is our largest and best market – demands horses that are well suited for trekking around the country. It doesn’t matter how many trophies you’ve won in the best show grounds of the country, yes, and even the world – in the minds of all conquerors there is nothing that equals the freedom of riding the Icelandic highlands. That is the top, the best experience any Icelandic horsemen can have. This is a feeling that foreigners want to get to know too, which is apparent in the growing business of horse related tourism in Iceland.
2 Our possibilities to use the best breeding horses first, that is those that are born in Iceland.
3 The support we have of Stofnverndarsjóður, a fund which can and should help us if it looks like invaluable genetic material might be exported. This fund was founded more than 30 years ago at the instigation of Þorkell Bjarnason, former horse breeding advisor. The fund is now quite strong and its interest rates are used annually to support various University research projects that will – internationally – benefit Icelandic horse breeding for years to come.
4 Last but not least I will mention World-Fengur, the international studbook of the Icelandic horse, which best declares Iceland as its original homeland, and is under Icelandic control and responsibility.
I would like to look at one specific question on our list, about the coordinated equipment for sports competitions and breeding shows. Regarding this question I would like to say: There are certainly more horses that can be used in competition if they are allowed to use weighted boots. But we must not forget that in their natural state many of these horses are only mediocre. It is no question that if we had the same rules on shoeing and equipment in competition and breeding shows, it would help advance the development of the breeding. Stallions – and their offspring – that become popular on those grounds would not stand the comparison with those who would be able to prove their natural qualities with no boots (or light breeding boots).
There is also another difference that we could have a look at. This difference is reflected in the names of the two, one is called a competition and the other one a show (sports competition and breeding show). Those names clearly reflect the original ideas of the old men who started them and I don’t think they would appreciate the mixture of these concepts that apparently has shown up for the time being. I suppose they did not want the competition aspect to become so strong in breeding shows, even though they always placed the horses in positions according to their performance and supposed breeding value. For fun I could mention that my father often said when he was announcing at breeding shows, that he might just as well have wanted to take home the mare that was in the last position in a certain group rather than the top one. Some might interpret that as a lack of sticking to his words or judgments, but in fact it really just shows that all things can be questioned and that there are two sides to each coin. Momentary infatuation and the form of the day is not always what lasts the longest. In fact I doubt that charisma and style are traits that hold a high heredity. Some people would like to see these traits valued much higher in judgment, but I believe that genetic experts all agree that a high heredity is the basis and prerequisite for increasing the weighing of any trait.
In the end I would like to put forth two statements that you can think about and ponder whether they clash or not, but I believe both of them to be true:
I believe that it is possible to breed a good individual even though it´s not a particularly good candidate for sports competition.
But I also believe that it is no coincidence that all the main winners of Iceland’s competition teams at previous World Championships are the offspring of well know stallions that did well in our breeding judgment system. We all know the examples: Hvinur frá Holtsmúla, Hlynur frá Kjarnholtum, Snarpur frá Kjartansstöðum, Fengur frá Íbishóli, Fálki frá Sauðárkróki, Bassi frá Möðruvöllum and Silfurtoppur frá Lækjamóti to name a few of our latest champions. These examples show and prove that we do not have to worry about whether the current breeding system produces good competition horses – as long as we stick to our principles and keep going the way we have, with good basic thinking and philosophy in horse breeding.
It is my hope that these thoughts of mine have touched on at least some of the aspects to be discussed here tonight. I thank you for the opportunity to address the convention and to bring forth my points. It has been a pleasure to learn to know the atmosphere of this conference, an atmosphere of friendship towards Icelandic horses. Finally I thank you all for listening.