Art book HESTAR (“Horses”) is the perfect present for all art and horse lovers. It’s descriptive for the life and art of Pétur Behrens and his passion for the Icelandic horse. HESTAR is a collection of approximately 100 paintings and drawings of Icelandic horses and landscapes by Pétur on more than 200 pages. Each work is accompanied by the artist’s tailored description of the motif and technique. “I have held around 20 solo exhibition and participated in a multitude of group exhibitions,” says Pétur. “I had gathered and collected artwork which I wanted to share with a larger group of people than could fit a gallery and that’s how the idea came about, to publish a book.”
A symbol for Icelandic horse breeding.
HESTAR, originally released in 2016, is in three languages, Icelandic, English and German, and therefore suitable for both Icelandic and foreign readers. It was published by Bókstafur, a small publishing house in Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. “It’s therefore an all-East Icelandic project,” says Pétur. He lives with his wife Marietta Maissen at the farm Finnsstaðaholt near Egilsstaðir. There, they have prime facilities for their horses, a new stable and riding hall. Since 2015 they have rented a workshop and gallery space in Egilsstaðir where they work on their art; Marietta is also an artist.
Who is Pétur Behrens?
Pétur Behrens is known throughout the Icelandic horse world for his long and decorated career as a horse trainer, competition rider and breeder. He is also a well-known visual artist and many people are familiar with his work. But what is his story?
Pétur and Skuggi frá Hvítárbakka at the Regional Tournament in Hella in 1976. Photo: Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson.
Pétur was born in Germany in 1937, in a village south of Hamburg. “I am a war child and there was no place for hobbies and horsemanship in our lives. Everything was about surviving, not starving or being bombed,” Pétur explains when asked if he was interested in horses as a child. The only horses he saw were the draught horses of farmers. “Then when I was a teenager, a woman in Hamburg called Ursula Schaumburg worked for a company which traded with Iceland. She visited the country more than once, saw the horses there and got to know them. That resulted in her becoming an importer of Icelandic horses – the first in Germany.” That’s how Pétur became acquainted with horsemanship and Icelandic horses, when he was 16–17 years old. “My neighbours bought two horses; the importer was their friend. She came to their farm every weekend and kept the imported horses there while they were waiting for their new owners.” Pétur was invited to ride many of them. “Then something happened,” he states and laughs. “And I have never recovered!” Pétur was quick to learn how to ride. “I practiced gymnastics at school. My team and I were in competitions and became Hamburg champions. The sport helped me a lot with balance and understanding movements. If any sport is good practice for riding, it’s gymnastics.”
From his early childhood, Pétur took a great interest in visual art, even though there were no artists in his family. Later he was lucky that one of his teachers realised his potential and encouraged him to study visual art. Pétur followed his advice and graduated with distinction from Meisterschule für Grafik in Berlin in 1960. “That’s when I got my first gold medal,” says Pétur with a grin.
Pétur still has a passion for horsemanship. Photo: Karin Gerhartl.
Fateful trip to Iceland
In 1959, Pétur and one of his friends thought of visiting Iceland, which at that time was quite rare and a lot more complicated than today. Their intention was to earn money for their studies while travelling. They sailed to Iceland by cargo ship with a stopover in Norway. Then the friends drove by bus all around the country and got odd jobs here and there, including in herring processing in Siglufjörður, construction work on the Reykjavík hospital building and on the trawler Norðlendingur. Pétur was a stoker and his friend a deckhand. They were charmed by the Icelanders’ hospitality but could only admire the horses from afar, from the bus window.
Walking across Melrakkaslétta in 1959.
But the land and nation – and the Icelandic horses Pétur knew from Germany – had bewitched him and he decided to return. In 1963 he moved to Reykjavík. He was hired at the advertising agency of Gísli B. Björnsson and bought his first horse.
Career as a horse trainer
One day, when Pétur saw an advertisement in the paper for a horse trainer in Northwest Iceland, he jumped at the opportunity and applied for the job, even though he had little experience in basic training. But time went by and Pétur received no response.
With Jóhann M. Jóhannsson. Photo: Michael Simmat.
“Then a man, whom I’d met at Fákur horse club, invited me to his home for coffee. His family was lovely and he asked me many questions. Suddenly he said: ‘You responded to a job advert.’ I was startled because how could he know? It turned out that the farmer who had advertised the job was a relative of the good man, who later became a dear friend of mine. The farmer had written to his relative and told him that one man had applied for the job but that it was a foreigner and asked him to check the applicant out!” Pétur ended up getting recommendations and was hired.
“Even though I was rather inexperienced in basic training, I was a good rider of Icelandic horses and I was young and self-confident. It helped with getting recommendations that I had bought a horse which hadn’t been trained and was rather wild, but I trained it and was very successful.” Pétur adds that it wasn’t unusual at that time that inexperienced trainers were hired as long as they were passionate about horses. Ad so Pétur moved to the farm Efra-Vatnshorn. “Then reality hits: Winter in North Iceland, bad weather, horses that were easily spooked and some that had hardly ever come in contact people before. But Pétur passed the test – always with Müseler’s Riding Logic within reach – and was hired to other farms as a result.
In an advertisement with Reynir Aðalsteinsson. Photo: Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson.
Horsemanship, visual art, writing and translating
Pétur met his first wife, Ragnheiður Sigurgrímsdóttir in 1966. Ragnheiður had part in introducing classic riding to Icelanders. She and Rosmarie Þorleifsdóttir had studied at the respected riding school in Warendorf in Germany. Upon graduation, they returned to Iceland and each of them founded their own riding school, teaching a “new” technique to Icelanders, which in fact was based on a classical riding tradition which had been practiced on the European mainland for centuries.
Ragnheiður’s and Pétur’s home, Keldnakot in South Iceland, became a centre for riding and training. Pétur took part in establishing the Icelandic Horse Trainers Association (FT) in 1970 and is an honorary member. Pétur won the B-category in the regional tournament in West Iceland in 1970 and was on the Icelandic national team at the European Championships for Icelandic Horses in Switzerland in 1973. He served as the national team manager a few times after that. Alongside horsemanship, Pétur taught visual art at the Iceland University of the Arts and Reykjavík School of Visual Arts and worked on his own art creation. He held his first solo exhibition in 1976.
On Skuggi frá Hvítárbakka at the Regional Tournament in Hella in 1976.
Pétur was also one of the founders of Icelandic horse magazine Eiðfaxi in 1977 and has written a myriad of articles and opinion pieces, in addition to a book on horse training, and illustrated the classic “Blue bible” by Rostock. Pétur and Marietta have written and translated a multitude of professional articles and books on the Icelandic horse, including masterpieces The Icelandic Horse by Gísli B. Björnsson and Hjalti Jón Sveinsson and Vatnagarpar (“Water Heroes”) by Jens Einarsson. They translated Eiðfaxi International for more than 20 years and thereby helped promote the Icelandic horse domestically and abroad.
In 1986, Pétur and Marietta bought the farm Höskuldsstaðir in Breiðdalur, East Iceland, and worked there as artists, translators, horse breeders and trainers until 2010 when they moved to Finnsstaðaholt. There, they live and work with their horses and in the workshop in Egilsstaðir they work on their art. Pétur is currently preparing the publication of a collection of portraits.
Pétur and Mariette at Höskuldsstaðir in Breiðdalur, where they lived until 2010. Photo: Flurina Barandun.
Gold medal for his contribution to Icelandic horsemanship
Pétur Behrens’s influence on the Icelandic horse world is undisputed and in 2010 he received the highest honour of the Icelandic Equestrian Association (LH), the gold medal. “When I think back it’s a confirmation that I made the right decision: To move to Iceland, get to know the horses and people, work on my art and work with my good friends on making the Icelandic riding culture better and more enjoyable,” says Pétur. “It was a big risk, to abandon my career as a graphic designer and artist in Germany. There, people thought I was mad. They said: ‘Are you really going to move to Iceland? My God!’ Now, I sometimes find it hard to understand Germans. I understand Icelanders much better and I dream in Icelandic!” Pétur concludes with a laugh.
Horses of Iceland supports the book’s promotion.
Text: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos: From Pétur Behrens’ private collection.