Sunday, July 25, 2004

Letter to Sigrun in Iceland (Helgar the Horrible)

Icelandic Horses in the rain

Alas I have no photos of Helgar the Horrible, who by this time is probably in Icelandic horse heaven! He was a gelding, not a stallion. I suspect that's why he was allowed to come to the US in the first place, no danger of gene pool problems.

He was unusual, some of his behavior was unlike that horses. Closer to pony or donkey behavior. Unlike the donkeys, he was not revengeful & didn't carry a grudge. BUT you never knew quite what to expect from him. He wasn't as wily as the Shetlands. Boy was he sometimes thick-headed: both metaphorically & literally! He once tried to take me right through a water tank. Guess physics wasn't his strong point... We never quite knew what made him tick. He was pretty enigmatic. Sometimes his brakes didn't work right so we never knew what to expect....

He was surefooted...except whenever he had a momentary lapse with physics, that is. He never needed shoeing, his hard hooves were like flint. You could ride him all day long and he never would tire, no matter how steep the mountain, and believe me, we rode hard. We took our assorted ponies, horses, donkeys and an occasional lonesome stunted (dwarf) bull calf named Mr. Smitts out for miles over the steep coastal ridges of Marin County, Northern California, as far as Point Reyes national seashore, and Bolinas (from Forest Knolls)... (we called the bull calf that because he was smitten by our Shetland ponies, and didn't know he was a bovine... which was downright embarrassing in the spring when his hormones began to run... he'd hop up right behind me, and the danger of being impaled in the back by his horns was...but I digress.)

Helgar preferred to trot and could trot almost as fast as a cantering horse, even Gay Girl, the thoroughbred. It was like riding a jackhammer....not smooth at all. He must've had at least three very distinctive trotting speeds. We used to sing and our voices would go uh-uh-uh in time with his trot, sounding like a car ignition unable to turn over (start) in winter... It was very hard to get him to gallop (hitting him or drumming your heels into his side didn't work) but the horses would eventually leave him behind in the dust and he'd eventually come tearing up from behind all worried looking.

There was a particularly mean Walking Horse named Brandy I occasionally rode (with some well-grounded fear, you had to get past his teeth to get on him), who did pace, so they were a happy match together. Brandy must've been 17 hands, and Helgar 12 hands. They looked ridiculous side by side. Helgar's trot was very distinct, and I can still see him in my mind's eye, looking like a little cartoon character with his head thrown back and his hairy little legs flashing out like a Walking horse. In retrospect, he probably was pacing in that I do remember us talking about it.... It was not a comfortable ride, not like a Paso Fino which I also once rode.

Helgar had a thick head, not at all refined like the Welsh pony that carries an Arab gene or two. He looked a lot like the horses in the cave paintings of Las Caux & Altamitra. Black tail, upright mane with dun (sandy) guard hairs, so it was two-toned. He was fairly stocky, thick-legged with long guard hairs on his fetlocks and jaw. And when winter came, poor thing, he looked like a chia pet he was so hairy. He never ever adapted to the milder California winters. Rain ran right off him. He refused to use the shelter, preferred to stand out in the downpour. We thought he was a little daft as we got a lot of rain (as much as 30-60 inches) and a surprising amount of frost in Forest Knolls. Not like Iceland, of course, but cold. Sometimes the ground in the shade would stay frozen for weeks.

He was a summer camp pony, so he was probably picked up at an auction somewhere during the early 1960s. Gregg's Forest Farm Summer Camp leased out their horses to us locals from September until June. Brenda Fullick, a friend, always got Helgar, so he was her horse, except in summer. (Gregg's daughter, Linda Gregg became a famous poet....)

We were told from the very beginning he was an Icelandic pony, so whoever originally bought him, at least knew that much. His pedigree followed him. We never thought to ask WHY he came to America. Many year later, I read articles on Icelandic ponies in America, someone was claiming to be the first to import them, and it wasn't true. I remember being outraged by the statement. Maybe he was a the first to develop a breeding herd.

I recently saw a documentary on the ponies; they all looked just like Helgar. I was surprised to see so many variations of Icelandic ponies. I originally thought the ponies were mostly duns like Helgar. The dun gene, incidentally, is an archaic one. Dorsal stripe, dark ears/nostrils/muzzle and legs (like a Siamese cat markings), faint stripes in the insides of his upper legs. All recessive gene markers. Duns often have the stripes. Like the now extinct Quaggia which was a type of zebra...

As a child and a teenager, I was fairly well horse crazy and I ready everything I could get my hands on when it came to horses. So I was fairly well informed. I have also seen in zoos the Eurasian Prezwalski's Horses, ancestor to the modern horse, and I was struck by the thought that Helgar looked a lot like them. Even his head shape was similar. I have seen Fijord horses and they're bigger. Our neighbors were Norwegian and they never thought Helgar was Norwegian!

If horses were brought to Iceland in the early middle ages, there would've been a good chance that they would be of the native European "cold blooded" stock, unmixed with the "hot" breeds of southern Europe & North Africa, which makes them a special breed. Maybe someone should do a genome project on them. See if there are any special genetic markers. Or find that they are indeed modern horses after all.

My renewed interest in the Icelandic horse is due in part to my Celtic Studies. I went back to school in 1998, and took Celtic Studies at UC Berkeley. For at least 3000 years, horses have always been central to all Celtic cultures, they/we were/are still famously reknown for horses to this date. And because I've done translations of the ancient Irish and Welsh epics, and have read translations of some of the Icelandic epics to boot (and am well aware of the ancient Irish-Icelandic connections even id the rest of the world isn't), I realized, suddenly, that I was looking at the same/similar ponies that the Irish would've been using during the time the epics were being transcribed!

Even many of the ancient Celtic/Gaulish warrior and Matronae/Epona sculptures of horses have the look of Icelandic ponies. The Gauls were so famous on horseback that Caesar eventually recruited them into his armies. His calvary were all Gauls, and most Latin horse terminology comes from the Gaulish, a relative of the Irish language. The modern word "car" from chariot is originally from the Gaulish. As is the word pony from the goddess Epona.

Thank you for this stroll down memory lane...I always wanted to come to Iceland and go pony trekkiing...all because of Helgar the Horrible.


Sunday, July 4, 2004


It was fair great meeting in the Marin (F)art & Garden parking lot even if your are the landlord in the Seagull and Anna is nowhere to be found because you've eaten all the apricots in the tree like thieves in the night and what was left but unripe peaches and you know what kind of bellyaching ther'll be if we'd et those and the bird has flown while we searched for Chekov's cherry trees--and how many times did he rewrite it? A lesson to persevere one's sullen craft.


Where the sun is shining, and the sky is that incredible cerulean when you stare straight up at its infinite blueness, and you forget everything only to have an egret enroute to the lake cross your trajectory and you remember it's in the city after all: the distant pounding of surf, the cars on the freeway while I hold vigil for my cousin in hospital, a victim of that same stretch of road. With shaking hands, I made three silk scarves, the gutta forgiving. Roses, egrets, orchids, sky emerge from the void.