Friday, July 30, 1999

easy rider

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in Forbes in July 1997).

ORACLE'S Lawrence Ellison has one. The Engelhard family of Engelhard Corp. fame have four. Not just any old horse, but one of the oldest originals -- an Icelandic. What's so special about the horse? The smooth ride. You can go up to 35mph on one of these things while scarcely being nudged from the saddle. "It rides like a Mercedes," says Janine Gordon, a weekend rider from New York City.

Iceland's first Viking settlers brought horses with them, circa A.D. 800-900. Since then no horse has been permitted to enter Iceland, and any horse that leaves can't return. This has kept the local breed pure.

So the Icelandic has retained its distinctive size (smaller than most horses) and ride.

Garden-variety horses have three gaits: walk, trot and canter. The Icelandic has a five-speed transmission. You get the usual three gaits plus the tolt (a four-beat gait somewhat similar to a walk but much faster and much more animated) and the pace, a fast two-beat movement.

The pacing horse at full speed looks like it's flying -- its legs tucked under in an equine equivalent of all-wheel drive.

"I'm not an experienced rider, but I have come to the opinion that there is something special about them," says John Everist, a real estate developer in Sioux Falls, S. D. who bought one in 1995.

One early U.S. fan of this foreign breed was Daniel Slott, a former senior managing director at Bear, Stearns who left the firm in 1989 to devote himself to his 800-acre horse farm in Ancramdale, N.Y. Slott, now 52, encountered his first Icelandic horse on a tour of Iceland in 1985.

"No one knew much about the Icelandic horse 12 years ago, when I showed it at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden," says Slott.

Since then he's sold close to 100 of them, at $15,000 to $40,000 apiece.

That's more than you'd pay for just any old horse -- the kind Icelandic fanciers dismiss -- but it is much less than you would pay for a top-notch Thoroughbred racehorse or an Arabian.

The Viking horse is an interesting animal. Iceland's harsh climate weeded out the weaker animals. The survivors are strong and surefooted but have the undemanding temperament of a loyal sheepdog. The Icelandic even looks like one, in a horsey kind of way: Its thick and shiny coat, generous mane and a tail that almost sweeps the ground give it a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale look. A nearly full-grown four-year-old Icelandic stands 131/2 to 141/2 hands (a hand equals 4 inches) high at the withers, or the top of the shoulders. Most horses you see these days range from 141/2 to 17 hands high.

There's a reason for this. Centuries ago all horses once had smaller dimensions -- until people figured out that a bigger animal might come in handy when they went out raping and pillaging in war, at which point horses were bred for military muscle and height. The rougher gait of a modern horse is one consequence of all this.

The Icelandic horse is also more even-tempered. "Most people are afraid of taking their horse riding, as one little disturbance like a rabbit crossing the path makes horses freak out," says Slott. Adds Kristjan Kristjansson, a native of Iceland and Slott's partner: "The other day I went out on a ride, and a heron came close to us in flight. My horse just shuddered slightly and continued."

It is said that Caligula's intention to appoint his horse consul was a final act of madness that brought the nutty emperor one step closer to assassination. Had the horse been an Icelandic, Caligula might have died in his bed.