The Icelandic national team is gearing up for the World Championships for Icelandic Horses in Oirschot, The Netherlands, August 7-13.

Excitement is in the air. It’s the Icelandic national team’s last big day of preparation for the World Championships 2017 for Icelandic Horses. At horse breeding farm Grænhóll in South Iceland, the contestants load their gear, hay and food supplements for the horses into a truck. The national team’s vet prepares the passports for all the horses – registering their physical characteristics into a book which will be examined upon arrival in Europe. The following weekend, horses and riders are bound for Liege, Belgium, from where they will drive to Oirschot, The Netherlands. The championships run from August 7-13 but the riders want to get there early.

“There is so much that can happen and I don’t want to be in Iceland receiving a phone call that there’s something wrong with my horse,” says veteran national team member Guðmundur Björgvinsson, current world champion in four gait. “The first few days we will just take it easy, destress the horses after the long trip and have them get used to the environment. It’s a shock to them. Everything is different from what they are used to.” Guðmundur will be competing on black stallion Straumur frá Feti, hoping to defend his title which he earned on Hrímnir frá Ósi two years ago.Vice-chair of the Icelandic Equestrian Association Jóna Dís Bragadóttir is at site overseeing the veterinarian inspection, helping to load the truck and making sure that all necessary papers are filled out. Due to the risk of infection for horses from Iceland – which have not encountered the same diseases as horses in Europe – the Icelandic team will have a stable to themselves, which no one else is permitted to enter.
There are 19 riders on the Icelandic national team, of whom two are women. Twenty-year-old Máni Hilmarsson will be competing at the World Championships for the first time this year on his silver dapple skewbald stallion Prestur frá Borgarnesi. “It’s the best horse in the stable. Always calm. You wouldn’t guess that it’s a stallion. Anybody can ride him,” says Máni of his companion. 

Prestur comes from his family’s breed and they’ve competed at many tournaments together. They’re the 2016 Icelandic Champions in five gait and won the preliminaries in pace test this year. “At every competition, we’ve been among the best,” says Máni. Expectations for the World Championships are high. Máni was the last contestant to be invited to join the young riders on the national team, only a few weeks prior to the championships. With over 300 participants from 19 countries, and 15,000 visitors, riding Prestur on the track in Oirschot will be different from all other competitions – the highlight of their career. “I’ve never had so many people watching,” Máni remarks. Emotions are mixed. After the championships, he must part with Prestur, as no horses that leave Iceland can ever return, because they might carry infectious diseases back to the country. Perhaps it’s a consolation, then, that Máni’s family has several foals fathered by Prestur, some of which have inherited the same unusual colour.
National team coach Hinrik Bragason is expecting a strong competition. “There are over 50,000 Icelandic horses in Germany and 90,000 in Iceland, so we don’t have that much of an advantage anymore,” he says. There are approximately 170,000 Icelandic horses outside of Iceland. “Our riders have to get used to new horses for each competition, unlike the other teams, which ride the same horses again and again.” Remaining at the top is a challenge but Hinrik feel that Icelanders have an obligation to keep up and bring home trophies. “We must send out the message that this is the home of the Icelandic horse,” he concludes.
By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos by Gunnar Freyr Gunnarsson.