Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Good Horse

This morning, first thing, I went out to feed my horses, as I have done nearly every day for the past 16 years. And as he has done every day for the same period, Birkir from Hallkelsstadahlid was waiting at the tackroom door to greet me, rather impatiently, tugging on the string I use instead of a doorknob so that, as soon as I unlocked the door, it flew open.

He grudgingly let me hug him and press my cheek against his warm face. Grudgingly stepped aside to let me unchain the gate to the hay storage. Tentatively followed me in to snatch a bite of hay and, shamefacedly, backed up to let me carry a few flakes out into the paddock to spread for him and the other horses.

He is always the same, Birkir: his great, brown, kind eye, his carefulness in keeping as close to me as possible without jostling me or stepping on my toes.

I remembered the day I bought him, in the summer of 1997, my first horse. I wrote about it in my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color, published in 2001 and just out this year in paperback.

I had ridden Birkir for 15 minutes, in the rain. I bought him from Sigrun of Hallkellstadahlid in western Iceland on the advice of a farmer friend known to have "an eye for horses." I have never regretted it. An Icelandic horse trainer once told me, "If I had a stable of horses like Birkir, I would be a rich woman."

I have only one, and I am a rich woman.

Here is what I wrote, so many years ago:

The rain was still steady, but inside the barn it was warm and brightly lit and comforting. A raised center aisle separated two large pens full of horses, each haltered and clipped to a rail. They stirred and stamped when we entered, and I looked along their orderly ranks for Birkir. Amazingly, I picked him out at once, the light bay with a star, and walked down the aisle toward him feeling as if he were already mine. Sigrun approached him from the rear, and the horses parted, leaving room for me to step into the pen and join her. We stood at his flank, looking him over, and he turned his head to watch us, his neck arced high, his ears pricked with curiosity. He had a dark, liquid, inquisitive eye, soft and friendly. Unlike Elfa, he was completely at ease around us. He did not sidle away when I reached to pat him--on the contrary, he poked his nose forward, doglike, to the limits of his rope, as if looking for attention. I scratched behind his ears and ran my hand down his neck and along his smooth wide back. His mane and tail were thick and dark, his black stockings neat, his hooves well-shaped, his coat a glowing red. He seemed larger and sturdier than most Icelandics I'd seen, and it was clear he was in excellent health.

"He's beautiful," I said, and meant it. I was filled with desire, suddenly, to own this beast--filled with awe that it was possible to own a creature so fine, so alive--surprised that anyone would actually let me take him away...

Photo of Birkir by Jennifer Anne Tucker and Gerald Lang

In May 2014, the trekking company America2Iceland is organizing a riding tour in Iceland for people who want to buy--or just learn how to buy--an Icelandic horse. They're calling it the "Good Horse Has No Color" tour and have invited me along to share how I chose Birkir and Gaeska, the two stars of the book, in 1997. I'm not entirely sure what they want me to do--we have the winter to work it out. Or how to explain what it was that I saw in Birkir, at five years old, and see now that he is 21, every morning when I come down to the barn and he's tugging on that string to let me in.

A wise Icelandic friend told me once that it's best when the horse chooses you. I'm grateful that Birkir did.

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


  1. I loved reading your book. I don't know if I could say that Dreki chose me. I'm not sure he was really capable of choosing anyone. Wary of anyone he didn't know, flinching at being touched or sudden movements, he was saddle trained for trail riding, but always on edge at being handled on the ground. When he arrived, he was put into a paddock with a run-in, and he would not willingly come within 20 feet of you, unless you had some grain, but he would streeeeetch his neck out to try to get the grain while staying as far away as possible, and would quickly step out of reach if you tried to touch him. Slowly, over several weeks, he learned to trust me. He is a different horse under saddle - willing to go anywhere, over obstacles, through mud or water, not spooky... unless someone he does not know tries to approach. Now, 9 months later, he looks for me from the paddock, to see if I am coming, and nickers when he sees me. He no longer flinches when I raise my hand to rub his forehead or neck. I can flick a lead rope over his back and rump and sides and he stays calm. He often approaches me on his own. He is still wary of people he doesn't know, but at least if they have a peppermint horse treat to give him, he will take it carefully (if nervously) and let them pet him. Maybe today he would choose me. If I am blessed in the future to have the means and opportunity to get another horse, I will try to pick the one that picks me.

  2. There are more horses available at my aunt Sigrun of Hallkelsstadahlid! You should also keep track of Sigrun's blog :

  3. ... and here: