Click on the picture to watch an audio slideshow of an Icelandic horse with its newborn foal near Akureyri, northern Iceland. Within half an hour of being born, the foal is able to walk with its mother in the field.
Narrated by Zoë Robert, photos by Símon Vilbergsson.
It’s spring time in Iceland and that means one thing for horse breeders: the delivery of foals.
The female horse gestates for eleven months. In the past some horse breeders led mares to the stallion at the age of three. But today the most common practice is to wait until the mare has been trained. This gives the breeder time to learn about her qualities and behavior before allowing her to breed at the age of four. Some breeders, however, delay this process even further.
Where horses are kept outside in a herd, the pregnant mare leaves the group several hours before giving birth in search of privacy. It is important to ensure that the pregnant mare is in a well-kept field with no ditches or other hazards that may cause her to fall. As a horse owner it is also important to watch over the herd during this period.
There are other signs too that the arrival of the foal is approaching. These signs include the mare becoming restless. She can sometimes be seen kicking her stomach and repeatedly laying down and then getting up again.
Providing there are no complications, the labor lasts around ten to twenty minutes. Interestingly, in Icelandic a different word for giving birth exists for each animal. For horses, the word is “kasta” which also means “to throw”.
Normally the foal is born with its front feet first. The mother licks the newborn to clean it and help its blood circulation. University of Iceland horse breeding lecturer Thorvaldur Kristjánsson says that the grooming process serves as the first opportunity for the mother and the newborn to establish a relationship and that it is therefore important not to disturb the two. During the first hours after birth, the new mother is especially protective of her foal and will drive away other horses and unfamiliar humans that try to get too close.
Within half an hour of being born, the foal is able to walk with its mother in the field. Good nutrition for the foal during its early months is crucial. For this reason, mares give birth in the spring when the grass is best. This allows the foal and the mare to graze on the fresh grass during the warmer months in preparation for the long winter.
It also ensures that the mare’s milk will be rich in vitamins for the next spring. If the mare gives birth early in the spring, when the grass has not yet come up, the mare is given extra food. However, during the first weeks the young foal receives only milk from its mother.
Kristjánsson says that in order to avoid poisoning of the mare, it is important to check that she has gotten rid of the placenta within five hours of the foal being born. Mares can have up to twenty foals during their lifetime. However, ten to fifteen is more common and is also considered productive.
Because the import of horses and other animals is mostly forbidden in Iceland only one breed of horse exists, thus making all horses on the island purebred.
Most Icelandic horses are registered on a web-based book of origin called Worldfengur. The registering of the horse is very comprehensive and quality controls are constantly being improved. Before the age of one, most foals are marked with a microchip or frostmark and then named and registered on the website. The goal is to have all Icelandic horses born around the world registered on Worldfengur.
These pictures were taken in spring 2005 near Akureyri, northern Iceland. The mare, which is grey in color, is named Skíma, which means “faint light.” The foal is named Seyra which means “small stream” and is palmino in color.
An Iceland Review multimedia presentation about the training of Icelandic horses will be available soon.