of Many Colors
Icelandic horses are loved for their minds, disposition
vacation that took an unexpected twist changed Dan Slott's
direction two decades ago. A former senior managing director
of Bear Stearns, Slott flew to Iceland in 1985 with the idea
of enjoying an informal hiking tour. That notion changed after
he met an Icelandic friend of a friend.
Dan Slott's 2,000-acre Millfarm in Ancramdale,
NY, where he runs his Icelandic horse operation.
Hammur, a young stallion.
Dan Slott with his first-prize Icelandic stallion Pà.
Trainer Kristjan Kristjansson.
“He picked me up at the airport and asked if I rode.
I said yes,” recalled Slott, who grew up on a farm in
Holmdel, NJ. So Slott was game when his new acquaintance wondered,
“Would you like to try the Icelandic horse?”
“Instead of hiking, we spent the next ten days riding
Icelandic horses in different parts of the country. It was
a spontaneous sort of thing,” said Slott.
Call it love at first seat contact. Icelandic horses have
five gaits, as opposed to the ordinary horse's walk,
trot and canter. Their trademark is the tölt, a smooth,
four-beat rhythm that can ratchet up to racing speed. The
fifth gait is the pace, where the legs on each side move back
and forth together.
“I was very surprised when I got on an Icelandic horse,”
Slott said. “What struck me was not a lot of the things
I've learned about the horse since then, but rather,
the performance end of it, because they have this incredible
ability to come under themselves and collect themselves very
Slott quickly discovered to his delight that Icelandic horses,
which are found in more than 40 different colors, are different
in many other ways from conventional horses. For one thing,
they're small. Though they officially are called horses,
they generally stand between 12.3 and 13.1 hands, well under
the standard height limit of 14.2 hands for ponies. A hand,
the four-inch unit that calibrates a horse's height,
is used to measure the animals from the ground up to the withers,
at the base of their necks. The typical show jumper, in contrast,
runs 16 hands or better, often up to 17.2 hands.
While those horses were developed in the comfort of green
fields in temperate climates, the Icelandics had to adapt
to a less hospitable environment. Although they originally
were brought over from Europe in the 9th century when the
Vikings settled Iceland, their isolation meant they did not
evolve the same way as European horses. As a result, they
don't need the type of coddling required by their larger
cousins. Icelandics also develop hair coats that run several
inches long in winter, as effective as a parka in keeping
And isolation has had other benefits. As Slott got more involved
with Icelandic horses, he came to appreciate their temperament.
To him, the appeal of these horses “has a lot to do
with their minds, their disposition, their character.”
He explained that strict controls on Icelandic horses have
helped keep the breed pure. Horses cannot be imported into
the island nation; and, once a horse leaves, it can never
return. Great care is taken with genetics.
“Breeding horses are judged for their minds. If a breeding
horse gets a bad score in Iceland it's pretty much eliminated
from the gene pool,” Slott explained.
He was so taken with the animals that in 1989 he started an
Icelandic horse operation on his 2,000-acre Millfarm in Ancramdale,
NY, about 100 miles north of his other home in New York City.
Although he also runs a high-yield bond fund, it's obvious
that Slott's heart belongs to his horse business.
Janine Gordon, who heads her own public relations firm, recalls
meeting Slott at a party more than a decade ago. When the
subject of horses came up, Slott asked Gordon, “Do you
“I told him, `I've wanted a horse since I was
four years old, but I'm not going to buy one until I
meet one that is as comfortable as my car and with the disposition
of my dog,” Gordon reported. “He said, `I have
79 of those,' and that's how it happened,”
said Gordon. She has become very attached to her Vinur (pronounced
like wiener), a little bay “with hair like Tina Turner.”
He gives Gordon a feeling of security she compared to “driving
a very fine car. They correct for you, even if you're
not a brilliant rider. When they go into the tölt, they
pull their head way up and you feel something like a centaur.”
Though the fear factor might discourage potential riders,
or those who had a bad experience with a horse, Icelandics
can offer solace. Anne Elwell, secretary of the U.S. Icelandic
Horse Congress, an affiliate of the International Federation
of Icelandic Horse Associations, used to ride Arabians. Then,
she said, “I got tired of getting hurt on horses.”
When she discovered Icelandics, she found, “you can
go fast, you can have fun and you can be safe.”
Dawn Atherton, president of the Great Lakes Icelandic Horse
Association, said the first time she rode an Icelandic, “I
had to have one.” Atherton lives in Michigan, and an
Icelandic really fits the bill in that climate because the
horse can handle the cold and is low-maintenance. She said
Icelandics can easily live outside year-round if they have
a turnout shed to shelter them. Only about an acre per horse
is necessary in order to keep them at home, though access
to more land is necessary to indulge in their specialty of
Slott says he is running his operation at Millfarm “with
the idea of making money,” but he has more than a financial
interest in what he's doing.
“We have to get quality products onto the market for
people to realize the excitement behind the Icelandic horse,”
Millfarm's horses understandably do not come cheap.
The price range is $10,000 to $40,000, though that actually
looks like a bargain in comparison to a stallion syndicated
in Iceland for $2 million.
In America, however, there are hurdles to overcome with the
little known breed. Part of the problem is the animals'
diminutive size. Some like it, because if there is a mishap,
the rider doesn't have far to fall. But with better
known breeds, rider and horse tend to be more in proportion.
Though most adults loom large on the back of an Icelandic,
Slott suggests that using a different frame of reference helps
to accept this picture.
While he describes dealing in Icelandic horses as “a
pretty interesting economic opportunity,” Slott is cautious
when asked what he thinks of Icelandic horses as an investment
for others. “You never know when something is going
to take off. This to me certainly has that potential. But
I don't know if investing in the horses, other than
taking a piece of a syndicate or something like that, is for
the average person,” he cautioned. “The market
isn't developed enough.”
Of the 10 million or so horses in the U.S., he estimated only
3,500 to 4,000 are Icelandic. “If Icelandic horses were
to catch on, the supply-and-demand situation would be very
favorable,” Slott said.
“A big segment of the population has this dream of riding
off into in the sunset. It's not that easy,” he
pointed out, because other breeds can be such a challenge.
While “it's easy on an Icelandic horse,”
at the same time, he warned, “that doesn't mean
this is Day One stuff. Obviously, Icelandic horse riding gets
very sophisticated, because you've got five gaits, not
three. But depending on where you want to go with this process,
you can be fine on your own having a great time with your
horse and not knowing a lot about riding.”
Of course, these little horses are strong, so it is important
for an inexperienced rider to have a well-trained mount and
instruction before venturing off.
At Slott's Icelandic Sports Ltd. venture, another Icelandic
import, trainer Kristjan Kristjansson, schools the horses
to the point where “they can do everything but mix a
very dry martini,” as Gordon puts it.
The best recommendation for a Millfarm horse is a satisfied
owner, in Slott's view. “Part of the fun of this
thing is creating a good experience for somebody,” he
explained. “Selling people a really good horse can change
their lives and bring them a lot of excitement. When you jump
a horse, the point of exhilaration is when you're at
the apex of the jump, and you're connected to the horse
at that one particular moment in time. With the Icelandic
horse, the point of exhilaration exists for practically the
entire ride. Once you get this feeling, no other horse can
ever do it for you.” he said.
Jaffer is an award-winning journalist and author who specializes
in equestrian subjects.
Image 1: Mark Wyzille, image 2,3,4: courtesy of Millfarm,
image 5: Mark Connolly.