Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Helgar the Horrible

Hliods bid ek allar helgar kindir,
Listen to me all sacred people,
—from “The Poetic Edda”

Brenda Fullick’s dun-colored Icelandic pony, Helgar the Horrible, was unlike the other horses. He wasn't wily as my bandit Shetlands, dubbed the “Little Shytes” by irate neighbors, as there wasn’t a fence made that could contain the ponies. Nor was he prissy like the dainty Welsh ponies pretending to be grown-up horses at a gymkhana, their manes in need of imaginary smoothing.

Helgar was more akin to the dour donkeys—but the similarities ended with the dorsal stripes. Helgar didn't carry a grudge the way they did. Bent on carrot revenge, one donkey named Joshua, clamped down on my finger like a bulldog as I flailed on her forehead with my free hand. Luckily I had strong bones.

Helgar was an anomaly. How an Icelandic pony, descendent of Viking horses, came to northern California in the early 1960s, was an enigma. He couldn’t tell us his story. He was alone in a strange land, no kindred herd to cling to.

One quirk offered a faint clue to Helgar’s mysterious past, he was afraid of water tanks. Once he slammed Brenda against a redwood wine vat full of spring water. It resounded like a huge drum. The tank must have reminded him of rough seas. Unlike Leif Ericksson, who sailed to America in an open longship, maybe Helgar was imprisoned inside the belly of a freighter on that long dark voyage from Iceland.

If we offered Helgar a ladle-full of water, he’d rear up, with eyes rolled up inside his head, like a rabid dog at the sight of water. But he ferociously crossed streams and attacked his feed trough, a cast-iron bathtub, with impunity. Our tuna fish sandwiches were fair game as well.

This Icelandic pony was thick-headed—both metaphorically and literally. Physics wasn't his strong suit. Sometimes his brakes didn't work quite right. Hence the moniker, “Helgar the Horrible” (after Hägar, a Viking cartoon character). Helgar was otherwise very sweet.

Brenda was more than willing to trade mounts after he skidded off an embankment or two, or when he ran into the side of a barn that materialized out of nowhere. Why he was named after Hägar's wife, Helga, we'll never know. If the name Helgar is from Old Norse heilagr, a girl's name meaning the “holy, or blessed one”, then Helgar was a holy terror. Riding Helgar was a baptism by fire: we all rode him with a wing and a prayer.

Poor Helgar was an exile seeking companionship among Shetlands, donkeys and calves, he really didn’t like horses. We grew up with a circus collection of ungulates including a plains bison, (we called them buffalo), who peacefully grazed with the Holsteins in front of the Nicasio church—until some dimestore cowboy shot him one hopped-up Saturday night. Or at least that’s how the story went down in our circles. Wildfire gossip. She probably died of old age.

Rancher Mr. Nunes got another bison calf and fed him loaves of dry French bread, Nickel looked like a woolly version of Winston Churchill, replete with cigar. (Old American nickels had an imprint of a bison on one side with an Indian on the obverse side.) Nickel was a gentle, if massive presence, grazing on the slopes of Mt. Barnabe with the Herefords and Holsteins.

Helgar was fleet-footed—except for whenever he had a momentary lapse with physics. He could manage a spanking trot along the thinnest of goat tracks as if it were a groomed bridal path. He never needed shoeing, his hard hooves were like flint. We could ride him all day long and he would never tire, no matter how steep the terrain.

At daybreak, we’d traverse along the steep coastal ridges of West Marin, north of San Francisco, from Tomales to Bay, to Bolinas Ridge, or the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, “the Sleeping Lady”—all were a good day’s ride from home. Helgar was a tank, he always wanted to be first to climb to the top of a peak. He was like a kid playing “King of the mountain.”

Occasionally the stunted bull calf, Mr. Smitts, tagged along. (We called him Mr. Smitts because he was smitten by the Shetlands. They were exactly his size). He didn't know he was bovine which was downright embarrassing in spring when his hormones began to rise. At an inopportune moment, he’d roll his eyes up and hop up right behind us, lowing and drooling; we were more in danger of being impaled in the back by his budding horns (and libido) than by getting lost.

Mr. Smitts kept his distance from Helgar who gave him a swift, well planted kick if he ventured too near. We often rode back from our adventures in darkness, sometimes under a full moon, the ponies always knew the way home.

When it came to speed, Helgar preferred to amble or trot, he had at least three gears, and he could trot almost as fast as a cantering thoroughbred. But it was like riding a jackhammer. We would sing, our voices revving “uh-uh-uh” like a car ignition, in time with his vigorous gait.

It was nearly impossible to get Helgar to canter or gallop (drumming our heels into his felted side was useless). At best it was a rough valhopp—with one end of the horse cantering and the other end trotting. If we were lucky, he would break into a high-stepping tölt (a smooth running gait), or a flugskeið, (flying pace) and when the horses left him in the dust, he'd come up from behind, all worried, nostrils flaring, as if to say, “Hey, what’s the big rush?”

An Icelandic horse performing a rapid ambling gait known as the tölt (Wikipedia Commons)
There was an ornery jugheaded sorrel Standardbred named Brandy I sometimes rode (I had to get past his teeth to mount him. I didn’t have my own horse at the time, so I got the ones nobody else wanted to ride).
Brandy, a retired racing harness horse, heavier than a thoroughbred, must've stood at 18 hands, while Helgar was a mere 12 hands tall.  Brandy was no legendary Dan Patch—who never lost a race, but he could really trot. The two horses looked ridiculous earnestly pacing side by side.

Helgar's fierce pacing was very distinct. I can still see him in my mind's eye with his head thrown back, fetlocks flashing out like hairy pistons, matching Brandy stride for stride. However, it wasn’t a comfortable ride, not like being on a Peruvian Paso Fino.

Helgar really had a thick skull, not refined like the modern Welsh pony who might carry an Arabian gene or two—though they had the same ancestor, the extinct Celtic pony, of which, the Exmoor pony is said to be the closest relative. (See also the endangered Iberian Sorraia—with distinctive DNA—ancestor to the Spanish mustang, the Galician, the Garrano/Minho and the Austurcón ponies).

Helgar also had long guard hairs on his fetlocks and jaw, and an unruly mohawk mane —like the prehistoric horses in the Cro-Magnon cave art of Altamira and Lascaux. When winter set in, he looked like a hefty hamster, his coat was so thick—he never adapted to mild California winters.

Cave painting of a dun horse from Lascaux,France ca. 15,000 BC (Upper Paleolithic). Wikipedia Commons
Helgar refused to go in a barn or paddock shelter, preferring to stand in the downpour. From beneath a shaggy dun coat, he’d peer our at us with bright beady eyes, rain running right off him. We thought he was a little daft as we got 45 to 60 inches of rain, and frost too. Not like in Iceland, of course, but cold enough to freeze the ground.

Helgar 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, who lived right below Gregg’s Camp, had first pick. It was always Helgar. When the Fullicks move into in the Sutton's old house on Arroyo Road, I lost my playmate, Pete. My world crumbled. But I gained a riding friend.

Brenda was a couple of years younger than me and a bit stuck-up. But her foster mom, the tall willowy blonde Judy Fullick, who was badly burned in a fire, and my mom were good friends. So I endured Brenda's mercurial nature because of our mothers. I don't remember the story about how Judy got burned, there was a bit of a mystery to it.

I do remember that there were two Judys in the Valley, the other Judy was Steve's mom, Judy Tristano. In those day, Pete and Steve were best friends. They wouldn't always play with me because I was a girl but when they went to the treefort up the hill, I traipsed behind them.

I ignored Brenda (who was younger than me) for ages, but my enduring love of horses led me down many diverse roads. Brenda and I were friends of mutual convenience, united by a love of horses. She was somebody to ride with.

Brenda always got whatever she wanted and she always Helgar, so he was her horse, except for during the summer months when inner city kids rode him—or tried to.

Helgar got a kick out of bucking those city slickers off, so come September, Brenda had to show him who was boss all over again. His buck, more like a rocking horse than a bronco’s, was all for show. I suspected his bouts with precipices were also for show. He was some kind of pony. A real wing borrower.

We were told by the Gregg’s wrangler that Helgar was an Icelandic pony, so whoever originally sold him cared enough to ensure that his heritage followed him. We never thought to ask how or why he came to America.

Years later, I read articles on Icelandic ponies in America, someone back east claimed to be the first to import them, but it wasn't true. I found a reference to the importing of Icelandic ponies dating back to 1960: Maybe Helgar, like Leif Ericksson, was an early immigrant to America.

When I saw a documentary on Icelandic ponies, I was surprised to see so many color variations. I thought the ponies were mostly duns like Helgar. The dun gene, incidentally, is an archaic one. Dorsal stripe, dark tipped ears, muzzle and legs, faint stripes on the inside upper legs, all recessive gene markers.

Dun horses often have faint stripes similar to the extinct Quagga, a subspecies of the Plains Zebra. (Asses, though cousins to horses, are different—tufted tails, shorter legs, wider body, no withers—they only produce sterile hybrids when bred with horses). I saw in a zoo, the endangered Przewalski’s Horse, or tarpan, the wild Eurasian relative of the modern horse. (E. ferus is a true wild horse that's never been domesticated), and I thought Helgar with his grullo dun markings, looked a lot like them. Even his distinctive head was similar.

 A grullo Sorraia colt with zebra stripes. His dorsal and leg stripes will remain, but the pattern on his back will disappear when his new coat grows in. Wikipedia Commons.
Because horses were brought to Iceland and the Faerøe Islands in the early Middle Ages, they’re probable descendants of the native European Forest Horse (the Konik is the closest relative), or the extinct Irish Hobby, undiluted by the "hot" (Arab and Barb) breeds of southern Europe and North Africa, which makes them a very special breed. It would be interesting to see if there are any unusual genetic markers as compared to the modern horse.

My renewed interest in the Icelandic horse is due, in part, to Celtic studies at UC Berkeley. For thousands of years, horses have been central motif of Celtic cultures. I've translated ancient Irish and Welsh epics into English, and read translations of Icelandic sagas, so I’m well aware of the deep Dublin Norse-Irish-Icelandic connections.

(According to the Icelandic sagas, Norse-Irish epic hero of the Laxdaela Saga, Olaf the Peacock, spoke Irish. And then there's that hot-tempered feuding Irish redhead Njál (Niall) lawyer/sage who got burnt to a crisp for his stubborness, to consider).

The Norse Vikings who colonized Ireland and Iceland were raiders—not settlers—who hailed from Dublin. They brought Irish wives and livestock with them—it makes sense that they also brought the horses of the realm. Ireland was always famous for its horses. The Norse-Irish Vikings didn't send home for larger draft-horse pony blend, the Norwegian fjord horse to fund Icelandic herds:
Viking settlements in Ireland and Great Britain were primarily male enterprises. A cemetery on the Isle of Man includes mainly male Norse burials, with females from the local indigenous [Celtic] population. Irish and British women are mentioned in old texts on the founding of Iceland, indicating that the Viking explorers had acquired wives and concubines from the British Isles. Genetic studies of the population in Iceland and the Western Isles/Isle of Skye reveal that Viking settlements were established by unattached male Vikings who acquired women from among the local [Celtic] populations. This may be explained in terms of physical distance to new settlements from the Scandinavian homeland; closer settlements were more suitable for family migration. —Viking Expansion
I then realized I was looking at ponies similar to the horses that the Vikings and what the Irish might have used during the time the medieval epics were being transcribed—as well as seeing living models of horses from antiquity. Imagine those ponies making the long sea journey from Norway and Ireland to Iceland in a longboat, they had to be agile and docile as well as small, hardy easy keepers.

Many of the ancient Celto-Gaulish warrior mounts and the Matronae/ Epona sculptures of horses (ca. 500 BCE) have the look of Icelandic ponies. The Gauls were so famous on horseback that Caesar, after having conquered Gaul, recruited them into his armies. His cavalry were comprised of Gauls, and most Romano-Latinate horse terminology comes from Q-Celtic Gaulish.

The modern word "car" from “chariot” is originally of Gaulish derivation as is the Engilsh word “pony” and the Welsh word eboi for "foal" from the euponym of the Celtic goddess Epona—the Great Mare. Proto-Celtic *ekwos 'horse. (The Icelandic islanders call them horses as there is no word in Icelandic for pony.)

Epona, 3rd c. AD, from Freyming (Moselle), France (Musée Lorrain, Nancy) Note the horse is tölting. Wikipedia Commons
The Old High German word for gaited horse is celtari (zelter)—or the Celtic horse gait, and celtari is a cognate word for the Icelandic term, tölt. The Celtic sculptures frescos of Epona.Matrona on her diminutive palfrey suggest the pony is tölting. She is depicted riding a gaited horse.

Epona and her horses, from Köngen, Germany, About 200 AD. Flanked by two horses, Epona is sitting on a throne holding a fruit basket on her lap. The Celtic goddess revered as the patroness for wagoners was also popular among the military. The images was mainly in the provinces of Gaul and Germania. Wikipedia Commons.
Indeed Helgar was a conundrum. I often wondered how this sturdy little Icelandic pony, a medieval throwback to the Celtic and Viking horses, found his way to California. It’s hard to imagine the epic Irish hero CuChulainn, or the Welsh Rhiannon of the Birds on the back of the likes of Helgar. Loki, maybe.

I’ve been told that importing horses from Iceland isn’t difficult, but once they leave their homeland, they can never return. Helgar would be over 40 years old if he’s still alive; there are reports of ponies living well into their 50s. Perhaps Helgar, with his borrowed wings, has already returned to the island of his birth, to roost on the peaks of Snaebrid or Hvannadalshnukur—its summit resembles our own Mt. Shasta—or to gaze upon the vast glaciers of Vatnajokull. Perhaps he is returning home to the lava fields and fjords where the sea greets fire and ice with a fierce prodigal love.

Hvannadalshnúkur the highest point in Iceland, photograph by Matias Ärje. Wikipedia Commons.

© 2007 Maureen Hurley. A much shorter version of this story was first published in "Stepping Out" Icelandic Pony Journal, 2004, Great Britain.

Horses’ Ability to Pace Is Written in DNA
"Andersson said researchers began their investigation in January 2011 with Icelandic horses. These horses have an ambling gait called tolt, a gait so calm for the rider that it is “like sitting on a sofa.”

The genesis for this piece is from an email to my Yahoo silk painting group. I used to eagerly read every daily post from silk painters from all over the world. Several emails morphed into writing pieces, including Blue Coyote. Once we moved over to Facebook, the letters to each other stopped. FB is much more narcissistic, no time for long list serve letters to each other. I no longer visit the group page. Wonderfully, it's about art, and the old Yahoo album was horrid. But I miss the backstories of our lives —MH 1/3/2014):




Letter to Sigrun in Iceland (Helgar the Horrible)

More horsy bits from me:
(Capital letters designate poem)

Sitting Deep
Horse chestnuts
The Little ShitsEating the Wind
King of the Gypsies
There is so Much We Save from Childhood

Some Viking bits:
Olaf the Peacock's Irish Mother
The Viking-Irish Redhead Gene Myth
Sheep Islands notes

Here's an interesting turn of events from Facebook as to Helgar's origins. (I stumbled across it on its third reposting from Lost Marin to the Nicasio Historical Society page by way of San Geronimo Valley Stewards
Does anyone remember Richard Marl Watson who had a ranch in Nicasio and Icelandic horses and raised Icelandic Sheep dogs ?  I was given one of his Icelandic horses so I'm trying to find out more about him.  He purchased the ranch in 1949 and sold it in 1959. I got the horse from the Howards in 1969. She was said to be 35 years old at the time. He was also credited with saving the Icelandic sheep dog from extinction.

Which led to this article from
hundalífspóstur.is: The Honourable Richard Mark Watson Íslenski fjárhundurinn Þórhildur December 15, 2015. Mark Watson´s birthday, July 18th shall be defined as „The Day of the Icelandic sheepdog“.
About the man:
Mark Watson was born on the 18th of July 1906 in the UK. His family was wealthy, had a large farm in Scotland, a summerhouse in Austria and lived elegantly in London. Mark Watson was well educated, studied at the foremost colleges of Britain and also on the mainland, especially in Paris. He spoke French fluently and spoke German also rather well. Before World War II he served in the diplomatic corps of his native country, both in Paris and in Washington. During World War II Watson was in the Royal Air Force. He travelled all across the world and was very interested in all kinds of artistic events.
Hilmar Foss described the man in an article in the newspaper Morgunbladid, 1959: Watson is a plain man and nice, he does not use his title and lives modestly as a farmer and a scholar.
Watson explains in the same interview: I became interested in Iceland in my youth and Iceland has ever since then always been the Land of my Dreams. I dreamt about adventure in Iceland, its beauty and ancient renown. I started writing to the post office director in Reykjavik. He was so nice as to send me various postcards that later became my first collection of photos from Iceland.
From the newspaper Morgunbladid 1958:
Mark Watson came on his first journey to Iceland during the summer of 1937, he took a lot of photos and later exhibited them in London.
A year later Watson came back to Iceland and he then travelled on horseback around the country. During his travels, he took photos and also recorded a motion picture in colour. His motion picture and several of his photos were exhibited in the Icelandic Section of the World Fair in New York 1939.
In December 1938 Mark Watson was made an honorary member of The Icelandic Archeological Society (Hið íslenzka fornleifafelag).
Mark Watson was honoured by the Icelandic president with the medal Stórriddarakross with a star in April 1965.
Mark Watson was a great dog person. He was one of the first people to realize that the stock of Icelandic sheepdogs was on the verge of extinction. He decided to do everything he possibly could to save the breed. He bought and collected and brought together dogs that were found and had in common the typical Icelandic sheepdog look. The dogs were then sent to California, where Mark Watson lived for a few years.
Mark Watson lived in the US from 1946 – 1958. He traded in antique furniture in New York, and then managed the farm Wensum kennel in California. Mark Watson also purchased horses in Iceland and imported them to the US.

That would be Nicasio!
In Nicasio, California lives a man called Mark Watson. There he now breeds Icelandic dogs in his dog refuge at Wensum kennel. He is very enthusiastic and very knowledgeable concerning everything that has to do with dogs.
Mark Watson travelled in Iceland in summers 1955 and 56, travelled widely and searched for pure bred Icelandic dogs. He then bought a total of 8 dogs, four pairs. He was very careful in his selection and cautious. He found the most numerous pure bred dogs in Breiddalur in the East. There he bought 4 dogs and one at Fossardalur in Berufjordur. Then he bought one in Jokuldalur, 1 in Jokulsarhlid and 1 in Blonduhlid in Skagafjordur.
It also has to be mentioned that later Mark Watson received two dogs from Talknafjordur. He exported a total of ten dogs to California.
Hilmar Foss: After living in the US, Watson settled at a large farm in Southern-England for a few years. He continued breeding dogs there. His Icelandic dogs already awakened interest at the great Crufts show, in 1958. The Honourable Richard Mark Watson died in March 1979 at his home in Eaton Place, London.
No mention of the ponies, but the photos suggest otherwise, if these photos are in Nicasio, which I think they are, as that ridge has remained virtually unchanged. One of those ponies could even be Helgar.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


For you crawl on your belly
like a worm, leaving
a glistening trail of startracks
for others to follow
You leave a trail of light
trapped in slime
rainbows appear in the moonlight
and meadows of color
escape into the air.
O snail, your shell
is like the whirlpool,
a Charybdis sucking us in.
Your raspy beak rotors through
the strongest of boxes and
colored chalk, and prized flowers.
Then in return, you leave behind
small paintings of the sun
on a apple left out overnight
on the table.

Sometimes in the middle of the night
when i'm thirsty
my sleepy feet lead me
to the kitchen sink
where I fidn your kith and kin
barefoot, the sound of eggshell
and the silent moon cry
O snail, your body, 
a small painting on the floor
no one will admire 
or visit in a museum.

CPITS poem written at Cleveland ES, ca 5/07