It’s hard to believe that I have been on or around a horse almost every day for the past 30 years. Growing up in Iceland, I would race home from school to ride, and by the time I was 14, I was training horses for clients out of the small barn in my parent’s backyard. At 16, I traveled abroad to teach my first international riding clinic the UK. By the time I was 20, I had a well-established training business of about 30 horses.
Driven to increase my knowledge of the horse, I attended Hólar, Iceland’s premier equine university, where I formally studied riding and riding instruction. I graduated with honors, the highest score for riding, and the highest degree possible below Master Trainer.
I first competed at 6 years old, and I did so quite successfully until I moved to the U.S. in 2006. I hold 31 Icelandic Championship titles in youth and young-adult classes, and one Scandinavian title among many others.
By 1997 my family and I had begun exporting horses to the U.S. and attending equine shows to promote the Icelandic horse. At that time, the breed had already become very popular in Europe but was just starting to gain popularity in the U.S.
After obtaining a green card for “exceptional ability” in business in 2006, I moved permanently to Kentucky and founded a business training, teaching, and selling horses. Before long, the teaching aspect of my work became an increasingly large part of my operation, and I began traveling extensively across the U.S. to conduct clinics.
At first I mostly taught Icelandic horse riders, but soon I became very curious about other breeds, gaited breeds in particular. I decided to welcome any gaited breed to my clinics and realized very quickly that it’s all the same; a horse is a horse and gait is a gait.
Today I work with all gaited breeds in my clinics with equally good results. As riders, we have very similar goals for our horses, regardless of the breed. We all want a good companion that is controllable, fun to ride, respectful, and that has a smooth, secure gait.
I’m driven to share my knowledge, experience, and passion with other horse enthusiasts. One of the primary ways that I’ve done this is by conducting riding clinics all across the U.S. Now I’m eager to share quality horsemanship with even more riders. That’s why I’m complementing my efforts with a recently launched a YouTube channel, where I share short videos that explain my approaches and techniques.
My background from Iceland
To better understand my approach to horsemanship, it helps to understand the strong horse culture in Iceland, where there are 4 horses for every person. The Icelandic horse has been an integral part of Icelandic culture and daily life ever since the Vikings first arrived on the island. The horse plays an essential role in the nation’s history, as it made farming, transportation, and life in general possible. The horse is a respected national treasure and part of Iceland’s national identity.
Hólar, Iceland’s equine university, is a world-renown school where about 25 riding instructors graduate every year. Hólar has great riding instructors who have traveled the world to seek knowledge to share with their students. Given that the Icelandic population is quite small, knowledge travels fast. Over the past 10-15 years, there has been incredible improvement in training and riding, resulting in increased knowledge and understanding of the horse.
I consider myself fortunate to have worked with some of the “old school” masters that had incredible horse sense and experience. In the old days in Iceland, it was believed that either you were born a rider or not a rider at all.
It has always been only one breed of horse in Iceland –the Icelandic horse. For that reason, the breed never became specialized in any particular discipline. Instead, they were trained to do it all. When I was young, I would train dressage, jumping, racing, and vaulting, in addition to gait riding. We would train all 4 or 5 gaits. Some Icelandic horses are 4 gaited, which means they have walk, trot, canter and tolt (the 4 beat single foot gait). Others have the 5th gait. This is the “flying pace,” which is a lateral race gait during which the horse can reach speeds of up to 35-40 miles per hour.
I consider myself lucky to have been exposed to all these different disciplines and gaits. It has provided me with a good, solid foundation in all-around horse training and helped tremendously in understanding horses in general.
My training methods
I think natural horsemanship is the only way to train a horse. What is natural horsemanship, you might wonder? To me, natural horsemanship focuses on “teaching” as opposed to “breaking.” This approaches training from the horse’s point of view and lets the horse have a choice, so that his way is our way. In natural horsemanship, we always have the safety and well-being of the horse in mind. We care about our relationships with our horses and want them to enjoy the process as much as we do.
I sometimes say, “if it works, it works.” It does not matter whether the training method comes from western riding, dressage, or any other discipline. I sometimes feel that strong traditions in some disciplines keep them from evolving and improving. Things are done a certain way only because they have always been done that way. If you ask why, there’s not a sufficient answer. If you don’t know why, don’t do it.
In general, when it comes to starting a young horse and teaching and educating a horse, I try “to influence the horse’s mind.” I get inspiration from Western Riding and natural horsemanship.
When it comes to influencing the horse’s body, ‘’the art of riding,’’ I get inspiration from classical dressage.
Starting young horses
When I start young horses, I always spend time on the ground getting the horse to understand and trust me. I work with a rope halter and rope, and that is how I ride them at first. When I start to ride them, I am not thinking too much about the gaits. I just ‘’train the horse’’ by allowing enough time to get balanced with the rider. I focus primarily on teaching them to accept and react to the bit. At first, I ride with a rope and rope halter and then another rein for the bit. Then I slowly transfer the cues from the halter, which they know from the groundwork, to the bit. If something goes wrong, I pull on the rope halter and not on their mouth. I want them to be happy to go forward, whatever direction the rider chooses. In the beginning I usually have them follow another horse, and then when they are ready, they start to go ahead of the lead horse.
If they choose trot in the beginning, I let them trot. When I feel they have good balance and understand the rein and leg aids, then I start to prepare them for gait training. One of the most important things is to teach them the connection between leg and rein aid, which I do with lateral work. When I get to the point that I can start to collect them a little by riding them from the leg toward the rein and that they accept and give to the bit, then I start to push the walk on into running walk, which then slowly turns into a gait.
It is very important that the horse understands the connection between the leg and rein, knows how to round his top line, knows how to relax, understands my body and weight cues, and is good at lateral work.
Then I start to use all these ‘’tools’’ into the gait. For example, make sure he can gait by using his topline correctly. In the beginning everything is done in very short intervals. I prefer 5 steps of good, correct gait over 10 steps of not quite as good and incorrect gait.
Then when I feel that the horse understands what’s expected and is becoming strong enough, I start to expect more and for longer intervals. I then mix in some long rides where I mainly work on the stamina and expect less on the gait.
When training horses, trainers often talk about the two sides of it –the mental and the physical. The mental part refers to the horse understanding what you want him to do. The physical part refers to the horse being able to do what you want him to do. Sometimes I like to add a third side. The horse needs to believe himself that he can do what you want him to do.
- Understand what you are asking him to do
- Be physically able to do it
- Have the confidence/belief that he can do it.
I say this because I think it is very important that the horse is confident and never worries that the rider is going to ask him to do something he cannot do. If you think your horse is physically and mentally able to do 10 steps of something, do 9. Then slowly build him up and ask for more. It is important to remember that when you get something (good steps of the gait, for example) then let it go. If you let it go, you can always ask for it again. This way you create a self-confident horse that is happy to work and starts to offer you what you want. On the other hand, if you always ask the horse to so something until he breaks out of it (because he cannot do more), you create a horse that is constantly protecting himself and trying to get out of work.
I also think it is extremely important that the horse knows and is able to use his body correctly. A horse should never be hollowed, as that is unhealthy for him. He feels uncomfortable, and a horse that carries himself like that will never last as long as he otherwise could. In order for a horse to not be hollowed (disconnected), he does not need to be collected. Collection is a good exercise to make the horse stronger and better at carrying the rider. It does not need to be a constant physical state; however, I think the horse always needs to be connected. When the horse is connected, he is not disconnected or hollowed and is using his body in a healthy way, in that every time you mount him, he is getting stronger and better by not being used up. In order to be able to affect the way the horse carries himself, we need to educate him and get control over his body by teaching him the connection between leg and rein cue. We can never forget that horses are not meant to be ridden; it is our responsibility to help them carry us correctly so they stay healthy and last long.