You Can Enjoy Riding Icelandics
by Bonnie Slotnick
Ron Winters, a southern California attorney, has seen the world from the back of a horse. When he goes on vacation (giving his reining horse a break), the destination is always horse-related; a cattle drive, a reining or polo clinic, an endurance race, or a stint as a wrangler on a days-long beach ride in Mendocino, to name just a few.
Winters has nothing but fond memories of his experience at the Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm, a family-run establishment in rural Waitsfield.
"The horses were great and the people were great," Mr. Winters recalls. "You know how it is, the dynamics of every ride are different. What the people have in common may be nothing more than a shared love of horses and the outdoors." But owner Karen Winhold, with her ready smile and low-key sense of humor, manages to bring together the diverse groups that ride out from her farm. Ms.Winhold has ridden all her life, and grew up with Morgans. "She knew who could do what and made sure that we all had a wonderful time," says Mr. Winters. If necessary, a rider was switched to a different horse, and the pace was adjusted to ensure the safety of the least experienced rider a basic tenet of trail-riding.
The seven-day holiday that Mr. Winters chose began on Labor Day. The group consisting of a single woman taking her first solo vacation, Winters and his wife, and another couple. Of this pair, the wife was a horse trainer, obviously an accomplished rider, but her husband, a chiropractor, was deathly afraid of horses. She had been trying to get him to ride for a long time, and thought that, although he was about six foot, three inches, he might do better with a pony-sized horse. "And of course he did terrifically," she said.
Toward the end of the week, three other single women joined the group for 2-day and 1-day rides. The flexibility of the group's size demonstrates the variety of choices offered by the Vermont farm, including week-long vacations, long weekends, and short breaks. Not everybody can schedule (or afford) a full week on horseback, so there are also two-, three- and four-day treks, as well as full-day, half-day, and one-hour rides. The longer rides are inn-to-inn treks, where the riders are welcomed at a comfortable country inn each night and ride off toward another every morning. Accommodations include the Mad River Inn and Westhill House, and according to Mr. Winters, "the food was universally pretty darn good" and the rooms, without exception, were cozy, in the classic tradition of Vermont hostelries. The rides traverse fields and meadows, forest tracks, back roads, and riverbanks. There is time along the way, and after the day's ride, for sightseeing, bird-watching, fishing, souvenir shopping all the components of a well-rounded vacation. The day on the trail lasts from about 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., covering an average of 25 miles a day.
Ms. Winhold herself rides out with the group on the first day, and members of her staff may take over on subsequent days. Her mother, June, herself a lifelong horsewoman, takes care that the horses and riders are well-nourished throughout an inn-to-inn trek. She prepares the food when a picnic lunch is planned (alternatively, the lunch stop may be a bountifully-stocked general store or cafe en route). June meets the riders as they arrive at their destination each evening; she sets up temporary paddocks and feeds the horses. The next morning, she is once more on the scene to help with tacking up and getting everyone mounted. As the riders depart, she drives off with their luggage and delivers it to the next stop. Fall foliage season is naturally very popular for Vermont vacations; the maples blaze into stunning color against a cerulean sky and the temperatures are pleasantly brisk. But you can ride these Icelandics at any time of year. In summer, the thickly-treed mountain tracks offers cooling shade, and the horses summer coats are agleam: chestnut, dun, silver-gray, snowy-cream, palomino, pinto Icelandics come in many colors! In winter, you can travel the trails on a woolly-bear of a horse you wouldn't recognize if you saw it six months later. The Icelandic's coarse, thick mane and long, dense coat give the horse a primitive look (like a stone-age stuffed animal), and its reliable sure-footedness (plus borium) stands these animals and their riders in good stead. And of course springtime is fine, too you name the time, tell Ms. Winhold what you have in mind, and she'll tailor a memorable vacation to your specifications.
The business was established 11 years ago, and the Winholds bought it about six years ago, taking over the farm and the seven horses then in residence. Mother and daughter moved recently to a nearby property. Home for them and their 26 Icelandic horses (plus a semi-retired Morgan who won nine state championships), is now a 40-acre farm with a view of the Mad River Glen. There is a new eight-stall barn (most of the horses live out all year round, and no breed is better suited to that life). Two of the original horses are still on hand, heading happily into their golden years, and Karen Winhold is currently starting a young horse. Although they 're gentled from the start, Icelandic horses don't go into serious training until age five. They are very long-lived, often thriving well into their 30s and beyond.
In America, adults are rarely seen on ponies, but in Iceland the combination is an everyday sight. "If you're a normal-sized American and are dubious about enjoying a trek on ponyback," consider Mr. Winters' observations. At five foot, nine inches, he took a little while to get used to riding an Icelandic, but he was soon at home in the saddle.
"You could say I never felt like less of a man just because I was on a small horse! One day we'd stopped at a woodland pool to water the horses, and some people rode by on great big thoroughbreds and gave us quite a look as we stood with our little golden retrievers," remembers Mr. Winters, "But you know, long after those big guys would be exhausted, our little tykes would still be on the go. We rode at speed for the better part of the day, and they never broke a sweat."
If you have any questions about Icelandics, just ask Karen Winhold. "She's very knowledgeable about the breed," says Mr. Winters. "Karen is also very conscientious about her stock, and she does everything the right way." It's hard to think of a more perfect person to be riding behind as you turn your handy little Icelandic horse down a loamy track toward a field abloom with wildflowers, with a backdrop of green mountains and brilliant sky.