Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Weather-wise Horse

Riding a horse in Iceland is like traveling back in time a thousand years--there are so many stories about horses from the Icelandic sagas that come to mind. Many of the horses in the sagas have unusual intelligence and character. There’s Kengala, for instance, in Grettir’s Saga, which was written in the 1300s. I learned of Kengala while researching my book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, in the late 1990s and was surprised recently to notice a Kengala in the pedigree of my own mare, Mukka, born 2002.

The Kengala of the sagas was a dun-colored mare with a dark stripe down her back. The meaning of her name is obscure, but could come from kenna, “to know,” or kengur, “a bowed back.” She was owned by the farmer Asmundur, Grettir’s father, and was “so wise about the weather” that a storm invariably followed when she refused to graze. “If she does this,” Asmundur told Grettir, “you are to stable the horses, but otherwise keep them grazing up north on the ridge, once winter sets in.”

Grettir was a rebellious teenager and hated the chores his father gave him. This one, at least, was “man’s work,” as he put it, and things went well until “it became cold and snowy with poor grazing. Grettir was thinly clad and not yet fully hardened, so he began to feel the cold bitterly, but Kengala grazed away in the most exposed places during the worst of the weather.” Grettir resented having to obey the horse’s weather-sense, and one morning he came to the stable with a sharp knife and jumped onto her back. “There was a fierce struggle, but in the end he succeeded in cutting loose her back skin all the way to her loins”—essentially flaying off her dorsal stripe. When he drove the horses out to pasture that day, Kengala, not surprisingly, ran straight back to the barn.

Asmundur was alarmed to hear that Kengala refused to graze, and told the household to prepare for a blizzard. After two nights and still no sign of a storm, he went out to the stable to see Kengala for himself. Greeting his favorite mare, he ran his hand along her back and was horrified to find the skin coming away at his touch. Grettir stood there grinning; his father “went home swearing violently.”

The weather-wise Kengala had to be put down, but Grettir also came to a bad end, living most of his life as an outlaw, chased from place to place. Some people reading Grettir’s Saga think of the outlaw as a tragic hero. From the horse’s perspective (and mine), he got what he deserved.

The translation of Grettir’s Saga that I like is the one by Denton Fox and Hermann Palsson (University of Toronto Press, 1974). You can read more about this saga on my friend Emily Lethbridge’s blog, Sagasteads of Iceland (

The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, where I published a version of this story in 1998, is the official breed publication of the Icelandic Horse Congress; I am on the editorial committee. Visit the congress’s website ( to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today, or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson’s video blogs, and Life with Horses (

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

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