Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An Icelandic Horse (hair) Tale

Icelandic horses have a lot of hair, as anyone who has seen one knows. According to the breed standard, "a long, thick mane and tail" and a "thick, protective coat in winter" are typical. "Shaggy" is the word that usually comes to mind.

Of course it's cute. But that long mane and tail, in the old days, was an important resource on Iceland's farms, as I found out this week while visiting two of Iceland's museums.

The first was the Folk Museum at Skogar, in the south of the country. In addition to a collection of old houses, fully furnished, there's a separate building of several rooms stuffed with what can only be described as, well, stuff.


There are books and embroideries and a two-stringed fiddle. There are birds' eggs, skeletons, rocks, pinned insects, pressed flowers, and a stuffed two-headed sheep. There are busts of several local dignitaries and two paintings by one of Iceland's most famous artists, Kjarval, in the basement, along with some mid-20th-century living room furniture and a famous writer's studio. There's a fishing boat. There's an excellent description of how to make spoons from cows' horns.

And alongside a collection of butter churns and side-saddles and children's toys (made of bones) were what caught my eye: beautiful bags and ropes made of different colors of horse hair.



 The second museum I visited was the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum at Glaumbaer in the north. It's a place I know well. I visited it in 1997--on horseback--while researching my book A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, and worked there as a volunteer on an archaeological dig in 2005, while researching my second Iceland book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. In addition to a Viking Age longhouse (now reburied and awaiting further excavation), there's a well-preserved turf house at Glaumbaer, part of it dating to the 17th century, and a cafe famous for its fish soup and its cheesecake made from Icelandic skyr, a kind of yogurt.


Glaumbaer's curator, Sirri Sigurdardottir, told me that a woman in Skagafjordur still made things out of horse hair. She clipped the hair from the horses' manes and tails and hand-spun it with a spindle, then braided it into rope. Sirri showed me a sample--it turned out I had taken a photo of some matching rope objects at Skogar, not knowing exactly what they were.


They are hobbles, Sirri explained. There's a loop at one end and a sheep bone at the other end of each rope. You twist the rope around your horse's feet and lock it with the bone so that your mount won't stray at night. At least, that's how these hobbles originally were used. Today the museum store at Glaumbaer sells them ... as wedding gifts. They're very popular, Sirri says.

Icelanders do have a well-developed sense of humor.

Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

85 comments:

  1. Þóra MagnúsdóttirJune 5, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    The hobbles are calleld hnapphelda in icelandic and when you get married you "gengur í hnapphelduna" or "you get into the hobblles", therefore it is a funny weddinggift.

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  2. I have a treasured carved horn spoon from my great grandmother. I think the hobbles are a very appropriate wedding gift and highly symbolic.

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  3. More interesting ways to use horsehair than stuffing chair seats.

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