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The Fjord Horses of Norway

The Fjord Horses of Norway

What has stripes on its legs and an upright mane like a zebra? The answer is the Norwegian Fjord Horse, (pronounced "fee-yord" but compressed to a quickly spoken "fyord"),  a short but very strong breed of horse from the mountainous regions of western Norway that is also known as "Vestlandshesten" (the horse of the western country).   It is one of the world's oldest and purest domesticated equines with a long recorded history of no crossbreeding with other horses.
 
It is believed that the ancestors of the Fjord horse migrated into Norway from central Europe over 4000 years ago. It bears a striking resemblance to the horses painted on cave walls 30,000 years ago. Archeological excavations at Viking burial sites indicate that herds of wild Fjord horses existed in Norway after the last ice age. It also appears that they were domesticated over 3000 years ago, and that they were selectively bred for at least 2,000 years.  The Norwegian Fjord horses were an important part of Viking society, and may have been part of the founding stock for breeds like the Icelandic horse, as well as native Celtic ponies in Britain, or vice versa.

Fjord Horses of today retain many of the color characteristics and primitive markings of the Przewalski or Mongolian Wild Horse, from which many believe they are descended, but the Fjord is rather like the European wild horse, the Tarpan, which is now extinct in its natural state. The Fjord Horse could not have descended from the Przewalski Horse since the Przewalski has 66 chromosomes, and the Fjord and Tarpan have 64.

Every Fjord Horse exhibits the "wild" dun color of the ancestral horse as well as primitive markings which include zebra stripes on the legs and light feathering on the hocks along with dark or striped hooves. A distinct dark dorsal stripe runs from the forelock down the neck and back and into the tail. The ears have dark edges and transverse stripes may also be seen over the withers. Norwegian Fjord Horses maintain the hardiness and vigor of their wild ancestors with efficiency of feed conversion, maintaining excellent body condition on good pasture alone as well as on sparse grazing.

Today, it is one of  the national symbols of Norway and the tourist industry uses the Fjord horse as a representative of Norwegian culture.  Fjord horses carry tourists back and forth to the breathtaking waterfalls and glaciers of Norway's scenic countryside, and are part of any tourist package in Norway that includes horses.   The Fjord horse appears on the civic crests for many regions of Norway and was also represented at the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer as a cultural ambassador--along with two other native Norwegian breeds, the Døle horse and the Northlands horse--drawing carriages that transported competitors and celebrities to the different activities.

All breeding in Norway is controlled by a Norwegian government agency, Norges Fjordhestlag and Norsk Hestesenter (NHS or Norwegian Horse Centre) Exportation of Fjord horses is carefully controlled to ensure that only champion stock leaves the country. The Fjords now have registries in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. Approximately twenty-two Fjords have been imported to the United States, most of them in the middle 1950's.  Since 1981, the Fjord breed has been tracked in the U.S. by the Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry (NFHR) and in Canada by the Canadian Fjord Horse Association (CFHA).

Fjords generally range in size from 13.1 to 14.2 hands and weigh between 900 and 1,200 pounds. Technically, the Norwegian Fjord horse should be classified as a pony, but they are always referred to as horses in Norway and so the trend has continued world-wide. The extraordinary power for their small size enables Fjords to be used for all types of riding, driving and draft work.

The gaits of the Norwegian Fjord horse should be energetic, with good balance and cadence with sufficient elasticity to perform an effortless walk, trot and canter.  The trot is energetic, but excessive action is not considered typical for the breed.

The extremely gentle disposition of the Fjord Horse, their cool temperament, curious, active character, loyalty and overall versatility, both under saddle and in harness, make them the ideal family horse. When properly trained, they will do any task.

One of the most unique characteristics of the Norwegian Fjord Horse is the naturally growing upright mane. A dark, usually black, dorsal stripe runs through the center or core of the mane, while the outer fringe hair is cream or white. The forelock on mature horses covers from one half to two thirds of the head.  This two-toned mane is a unique characteristic rarely seen on other horses with dun coloring. The mane kept trimmed between 4 to 6 inches in a characteristic crescent shape to emphasize the curve of the neck, and to ensure that it will always stand erect even when wet. The lighter outer hair is then trimmed slightly shorter than the dark inner dorsal hair to display the dramatic dark stripe down the center, which runs all the way down the spine and into the core of the tail.

Horizontal zebra stripes may occur on the legs and are most noticeable and numerous on the forelegs. They are the same color as the midtstol, but are of a paler shade and tend to be more visible during the summer.  They may be indistinct or missing from pale horses. They may also be missing in grå horses, whose legs may be of the same color as the body, or darker up to the knees and hocks. Foals are born without zebra-stripes, but after the baby coat is shed out, that is when the stripes will appear, if they are going to appear at all.

Sometimes there are small brown spots on the body, for example on the thigh or cheek. Occasionally there may also be dark zebra-like stripes across and at right angles to the withers.  

White markings are not common in Norwegian Fjord horses and aside from a small white star on the forehead, they are considered undesirable. IN fact, at the 1982 meeting of Norges Fjordhestlag it was decided that stallions and colts with other white markings can’t be licensed.

At the end of 1800's the Norwegian Fjord Horse nearly died out, though the reason is unknown. Today’s horses all descend from a single surviving stallion, Njal 166, who was born 1891. In genetic terms he is known as a founding stallion. His genes have influenced the development of the entire breed as we know it today and are in all living Norwegian Fjord Horses.
Because so few individuals survived whatever calamity befell the breed, the genetic diversity of the breed was severely reduced, and some alleles were lost altogether, possibly including the AA and At alleles of the agouti locus. The breed went through what is called a genetic bottleneck, when the wild-type allele at the dun locus seems to have been lost, so that now all Norwegian Fjord Horses are dun. In this breed the dun allele therefore is the only allele at the locus and is said to be fixed (i.e. its frequency is 100%).

Color variations between the 5 duns are subtle and hard to distinguish unless horses of different shades are standing side by side. The color terms are non-standard compared to English terminology, the difference being based in part on the Norwegian terms, which were set in 1922 and their English translations which were made official in 1980. In the Norwegian (Norsk) language, the darker stripe of hair in the middle of the mane is called the "midtstol", while the darker hair in the middle of the tail is the "halefjær".

Brunblakk is the most common color. In 2005, 90% of all registered Norwegian Fjord Horses were brunblakk.  Rødblakk is the equivalent of red dun.  It can be difficult to tell the difference between a brown and a red dun. Rødblakk foals may be born with white hooves that darken over time. Although grå means gray in Norwegian,  grå dun horses are actually black dun horses, or occasionally smoky black dun (i.e. black with both cream and dun dilution). Grå is not the conventional gray that causes graying over time, but they range from pale silver gray to dark slate gray. Ulsblakk is the equivalent of buckskin dun. Originally ulsblakk was the most common color of registered Fjord horses and was also called borket, but its popularity waned due to the production of kvit foals when ulsblakk horses were bred together.  Gulblakk is the equivalent of palomino dun and the rarest colors of all.  Kvit is the equivalent of cremello or perlino dun. It is a rare color due to intentional selection against it, and they glass (blue or wall) eyes. The color could be produced by crossing gulblakk with either ulsblakk or gulblakk; or by crossing two ulsblakk horses together.

In spite of the small gene pool, the only genetic fault reported in the Fjord horse was a condition that was observed in the 1980's known as hereditary lethal arthrogryposis (muscle contracture). It was observed in female foals that were all sired by a stallion named Bingo. This stallion was quite normal in appearance but the defective foals were born with contracted legs, extra limbs and jaw defects including cleft palate and parrot mouth. It has not been a problem in recent years.
 

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