Updated: Jan 20, 2021
It's in our heritage that we can find a path to unity with horses. In battle or daily work, the need of a self-controlling horse that is connected with the rider, is essential. When using a horse in war, like our forefathers did, or at work, as the cowboys do, the emphasis is more likely to be on the horse’s ability to control themselves, than the rider’s ability to control the horse. I believe the Vikings knew something that modern-day sport riders may have forgotten.
What did the Vikings emphasis when riding and training horses? Norse mythology, sagas, and cultural treasures from the Viking age, can give us some insight into Viking horsemanship.
The Norse Mythology
Horses have a strong standing in Norse mythology where 18 horses are named. Most famous is perhaps the eight-legged Sleipnir, offspring of Loki and Svaðilfari. Sleipnir was the world’s fastest horse and Odin’s mount. Arvak and Alsvinn are the horses, who draw the chariot of the sun. Equipped with cooling iron, to prevent them for burning.
Then there are Hrímfaxi and Skinfaxi, bringers of day and night. Hrímfaxi “bedews the earth with the drips from his bit,” and “light is shed over all the sky and the sea” from Skinfaxi's shining mane. I believe that horses and the art of riding were valued accordingly in the Viking age.
Little is known about how Vikings actually trained their horses, but Kormáks saga addresses poor quality riding. When Kormák encounters Narfi, Kormák is not impressed with Narfi’s riding skills: “Holding tight to your horse as well as your shield. You will soon feel the touch of my club upon your ear.” With these words, Kormák flung Narfi off horse’s back. Indicating that holding tight reins is poor horsemanship.
Generally speaking, the sagas flourish with heroes that are skilled horsemen and riders, while poor riding skills and poor horsemanship provide the comedy.
The Bayeux Tapestry
A lot can be interpreted about the Viking riding style, from the Bayeux Tapestry. A cultural treasure from the 11th century, describing the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. Here you see gaited horses at collection on loose reins, and it does not seem to matter wherever the riders are turning, backwards or forwards. Riders are equipped with shields and spears making it hard, if not impossible to hold tight reins. To me, this indicates well- trained horses that have a great amount of self-control. The horses are not micromanaged by the rider to perform.
What can we learn from the Vikings about horses?
If horses can be trusted to bring day and night on their own, as Hrímfaxi and Skinfaxi do, we can surely trust and allow them to perform patterns and tasks on loose reins. On loose reins, you build connection and trust with the horse that holds ground even in the battlefield. I believe the Vikings knew what many working cowboys know: "First you go with the horse, then the horse goes with you, then you go together." (Tom Dorrance)
If we start on tight reins, and make the horse go where we want to go, the togetherness with the horse and self-control of the horse is lost from the first step. With tight reins, we will not be able to ride your horse in battle with a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. And if Kormák saw us riding like that, he would probably fling us off your horse`s back!
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