By Mimi Pollack
Did you know there are horses in San Diego County that can trace their roots directly back to the Vikings? They are Icelandic horses and their ancestors were perfect for crossing the oceans on Viking longboats as the horses were short, calm and sure-footed. Icelandic horses today are not very different from their predecessors and Iceland has been careful to keep it that way.
The government of Iceland will not allow any horses into the country, not even Icelandic horses that were born there and exported. The government maintains strict control to ensure the purity of their horses’ bloodlines, and they are considered the purest breed in the world. As a result, the horses in Iceland are not vaccinated because there are no diseases. These horses are only vaccinated after they leave the country, never to return. Another safeguard is if you bring your own riding equipment to Iceland, it has to be brand new.
These special horses have no natural predators in Iceland, so they rarely kick, and although each horse has its unique personality, in general they are known for being friendly, curious and social.
In San Diego County, these special horses can be found at Sunland Ranch in Encinitas. In fact, this ranch celebrates all things Icelandic, and it is obvious how much time and care the owner, Kimberly Hart, has devoted to this breed. She imports all her horses from Iceland and personally inspects each one.
Having traveled extensively in Iceland and being familiar with the landscape, culture and mores, she moves between the two worlds with ease. In addition, after having imported 300-plus horses, she knows how to deal with some of the quirks that come up when the horses first arrive here.
For example, there are not many trees in Iceland, so the horses can get spooked by shadows at first. They also fear large boulders and give them a wide berth. Hart says that it usually takes about six months for the horse’s true character to reveal itself and for the horse to settle into its new environment. Once settled in, they prove to be hardy and fearless and, as Hart says, terrific partners. These sociable horses will follow you around and are interested in whatever you are doing.
They also make good trail horses as they are sure-footed, even in rough terrain. The horses have five gaits, but are especially known for “tolting,” a special gait that according to Hart makes you feel like you are gliding. They are also known for having a long life span.
Sunland Ranch is the only ranch in San Diego County that imports Icelandic horses. Before the pandemic, Hart also organized tours of Iceland in the fall and spring, for people to experience firsthand Iceland’s horse-centric culture. She hopes to do another tour in spring 2021.
Hart’s love of horses and animals stem from her childhood. She grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and for a time, owned a successful pet store there. After moving to San Diego, she began riding Icelandic horses in 1995, and in 1998 opened Sunland Ranch. Besides importing, training and selling horses to good homes, she also gives horseback riding lessons, and offers trail rides. Hart is always happy to answer questions and impart her vast knowledge of the horses and the country they come from.
Sunland Ranch is a welcoming place. When you drive up and park near the barn, two cats come out to greet you, and an unabashed mini-donkey named Tuesday brays at you. There are several large arenas for riding and practicing, with trails nearby to fully experience the joys of riding an Icelandic horse.
Mimi Pollack is a former English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer.
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