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An Icelandic Breed Evaluation Show by Cara Moser.

I showed Morgan horses in my youth. The pattern was the same at every show: conformation classes in hand in the morning, and ridden classes to follow. With a good horse, one might amass quite a collection of ribbons and trophies attesting to its correct conformation.  Champions would be declared and applauded.

The Icelandic Horse is judged differently. There are no in-hand classes at regular shows. The breed is touted as a riding horse, and therefore judged under saddle for the most part. However, Breeding Evaluation shows are held where the individual animal is assessed for correctness either for conformation only, or for both conformation and performance under saddle. The score received at these shows becomes a permanent part of the horse’s registry information, available for anyone to examine when choosing breeding stock. A great deal of emphasis is placed on breeding scores. I have heard that, in Iceland, a breeder may choose to geld a horse rather than present it for evaluation and run the risk and shame of attaining a poor score. There are also owners in Iceland who make a habit of taking their horse(s) to a succession of breeding shows in hopes of finding a sympathetic judge who will finally give them the score they seek.  
Since the Icelandic horse is the only horse breed in Iceland, and the country itself is quite compact, there may be several Breeding Evaluation shows to choose from on a given weekend. In Canada, this is not the case. Icelandic horses are relatively few in number, earning a “rare breed” designation. The geography is a considerable handicap given the distances of thousands of miles that exist between pockets of Icelandic horse breeders and owners. Recently, in Western Canada, there has been only one Breeding Evaluation show every second year. For the last two years, there have been annual shows, and it is hoped that this will continue.

Arnold and Toos Faber, of Fitjamiri Icelandics, host the show near Vernon, BC, Canada. Our judges this year were from Iceland and Denmark. The venue is a bit remote and very picturesque. The horses are judged over two days, beginning with conformation. The Icelandic is the only breed I have encountered where the individual animal is measured: height at withers, height at top of rump, body length from point of shoulder to point of rump, width of chest, width of hips (stallions only, for some reason), length of hoof (regulated, as is shoe weight), circumference of front leg tendons and knees, and scrotal diameter. Precision calipers are required for these multiple measurements. Once this data is gathered, the horses proceed to the arena where two judges assess conformation. A basic gait assessment is also done, and the horse must trot for this. It is surprising how many Icelandics prefer to tolt when asked to move on, and sometimes a second person is needed to shoo the horse forward into trot.

The ridden portion of the evaluation takes place on a straight track with a compacted surface. It is 350 meters long, and bounded only by a rope along each side. The horse is only judged along the central 200 meter portion to allow for some wind-up and slow down room at either end. The first day, horses are shown singly on the track. Each rider has 10 passes to ride before the judges to demonstrate the horse’s gaits to best advantage. In a Breed Evaluation, the horse is judged on the best segment of its performance. This is in contrast to a sports show, where the intent is to maintain the best possible gait for the duration of the appearance on the track.  Still, trainers work very hard for many months prior to the Evaluation to obtain gaits that are clear, well separated (no tolty trots or trotty tolts!), rhythmic and demonstrable at various speeds. Gaits required are walk, slow and fast tolt, trot, slow gallop, fast gallop and pace. One lovely feature of the different gaits is that they can often be judged by sound. This requires some experience, but one can sometimes comment that the last pass at fast tolt sounded better than the first one.  Icelandics are genetically four or five gaited. However, all horses are judged on the basis of five possible gaits (walk, trot, canter/gallop, tolt and pace).  This automatically puts four gaited horses at a disadvantage in scoring as they receive a token 5 out of 10 possible points for pace.

Figure 1 Hanna Dilts on Skjomi at fast gallop  Photo by Verena Pecay-Barber
On the second day, the riders have the opportunity to present each horse again, aiming to show improvement in gaits that may not have been as well ridden as hoped the previous day. Much analysis and planning goes into the riding on Day 2. This time, two horses are judged on the track at the same time. I was very impressed this year with the cooperation between the riders in determining what each could do to show to best advantage without taking away from the other pair’s performance. This is not always the case but here, professionalism and good showmanship prevailed.

Figure 2 Hemmingur got 9/10 for mane and tail. Photo by Verena Pecay-Barber.

After all this, the points must be added up. This is a very complicated process. I have no idea how it was managed before computers, as each feature of conformation and riding is weighted differently. For instance, the structure of the neck and shoulder far outweighs the score for mane and tail. As I learned from the first show I saw, “A horse may have a kick-ass mane and tail, but if it doesn’t tolt well, that doesn’t matter!” Also, the tolt is much more heavily weighted than walk. In addition, there are points offered for “spirit”, a category that encompasses both the willingness to move at speed, and the ability to be brought back willingly afterward.  Yes, there is an app for all this, and many owners could be seen entering scores into the app to determine a final score ahead of the judges. Ultimately, the horse is given a score out of 10. Horses scoring 8.0 or higher are given the prestigious title of First Prize. Horses scoring between 7.5 and 8.0 are awarded Second Prize. Because of the difference between four and five gaits, there are very few First Prize four gaited horses. This year, a lovely, four gaited chestnut pinto mare, Sida, who received the heart-breaking close score of 7.99!

Figure 3 Sida, final score 7.99! Photo by Verena Pecay-Barber

The final portion of the weekend is devoted to assessing young horses, as yet untrained under saddle. This gives a preliminary assessment, and points to the individual’s potential. Ideally, it will be followed by a formal evaluation once the horse is trained. To our delight, several current year foals were also presented for evaluation, including one youngster that was technically too young to be given a score as it was only 3 weeks old. However, it was the first foal from a recently imported stallion and the owner was anxious for an outside opinion. The little ones moved freely alongside their dams. Ideally the babies were to show several gaits, ease of movement and good conformation. Here, there is a lovely category titled “joy of running”. Who cannot love a trait like that! The wee babe was deemed to be very promising and frisked away happily with mom.
As might be expected, geldings rarely undergo evaluation. An exception might be made in the case of a mare that has already produced two First Prize offspring. Producing three First Prize foals would give her the rank of Honor Mare. If she had a gelding son of quality, he would be allowed an evaluation in hopes of boosting him dam’s status.

Figure 4 Blika, silver dapple buckskin. Photo by Verena Pecay-Barber
I found it very interesting assessing the colors of some of the horses. Icelandics seem to have some genes that don’t appear in other breeds. Or at least some combinations that are quite outstanding. Here is Blika. She is the product of a black silver dapple stallion and a buckskin mare. She has wonderful golden eyes!
For the grand finale, Arnold brought out his stallion, Flugar, and six of his offspring. All had been assessed at the Evaluation. It was awesome to see the influence this horse has had on the quality of Icelandics in western Canada. Skjomi, Hemmigur and Sida are all Flugar babies.
It was very heartening for the crew running the evaluations to hear from the judges that we put on a better organized show than many they have judged in Europe. This is a great gathering in which to learn more about these hairy little horses that we all love.



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