The Norwegian Fjord: A Horse for All Ages

The Norwegian Fjord - A Horse for All Ages

Photo courtesy of Lori Albrough

By Melanie Huggett

“The eyes should be like the mountain lakes on a midsummer evening, big and bright. A bold bearing of the neck like a lad from the mountains on his way to his beloved. Well-defined withers like the contours of the mountains set against an evening sky. The temperament as lively as a waterfall in spring, and still good natured.” – Norwegian description of the Fjord horse

The Norwegian Fjord is considered one of the oldest pure breeds of horse. While they bear a striking resemblance to the Asiatic wild horse or Przewalski horse, they are in fact more closely related to the European wild horse, the Tarpan, as the Przewalski horse has 66 chromosomes while both the Fjord and the Tarpan have 64.

It is believed that the original Fjord horse migrated to Norway and was domesticated over 4000 years ago. Archeological evidence suggests that the Fjord horse has been selectively bred for over 2000 years, first by the Vikings around 1200 BC. Rune stone carvings in Norway, many of fighting stallions, show images of horses recognizable as Fjords. The Vikings took their Fjords, which they used as war mounts, in their travels to Scotland, Iceland, and elsewhere. In these lands the Fjord influenced the Highland Pony and the Icelandic Horse.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Carol Rivoire

The myth that Fjords are only plodding draft horses could not be farther from the truth! Maggie Sullivan competes with Riena, a mare from Beaver Dam Farm Fjords of Nova Scotia.

From the Vikings’ horses of war, the Fjord evolved into a working farm horse for Norwegian farmers in the mountainous western district of Vestlandet. Working on the hillside farms, the Fjord became surefooted, agile, thrifty, and hard working — qualities they maintain to this day.

Father Fjord
The late 1800s nearly spelled the end for the Fjord horse when the Fjord breed was crossbred with another of Norway’s three breeds, the Dole. A Dole stallion, Rimfakse, was brought to the national stud to try and make the Fjord bigger, sturdier, and better for farming. Despite argument by those in western Norway, as most farmers used the state’s stud, the Dole stallion was used and crossbreeding flourished.

After a few generations, however, flaws began to show in the new crossbreds: poor temperaments and unattractive colouring. In a meeting in 1907 it was decided to eradicate all Dole blood in the Fjord. A pure Fjord stallion, Njål, born in 1891 and sold to the Sunnmøre area during Rimfakse’s time, was located along with many purebred mares. He was brought back into the breeding program and he and his descendents were dedicated to breeding. For 12 years Njål lived and bred from Rasmus L Sundres farm until he died from pneumonia. Today Njål, called Njål 166 due to his number in the Norwegian Fjord registry, is considered the father of all modern Fjord horses. If you go back far enough, all living Fjords today will have Njål 166 in their pedigrees.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Carol Rivoire

Despite being a world away from the Fjord’s Mother Country of Norway, top North American breeders try to follow the guidelines set out by the NF. This mare and foal are from Blue Raven Farm in Nova Scotia.

The Mother Country
In 1910 the first studbook for the Fjord horse was created in Norway. Since then, Norwegians have truly embraced the Fjord, which was made one of the country’s national symbols. In Norway, the breed is very carefully monitored by the Norges Fjordhestlag (NF), the national Fjord association, which registers, evaluates, and approves Fjord horses. As the mother country of the Fjord, Norway sets the breed standard according to European law. The NF is very much aware of their responsibility for the breed both in Norway and abroad. In Europe, only approved and evaluated stock can be used for breeding in order to maintain the breed standard and quality; and only top quality stock is allowed to be exported to North America and other countries.

To North America
It is unknown when the first Norwegian Fjord landed on North American soil, but it may have been a six month old gelding bought by publisher J. Bertram Lippincott of Philadelphia in 1888. Later, around 1900, Warren Delano of Barrytown, New York imported several Fjords. However, it was not until the 1950’s that most of North America’s foundation stock was imported. Importations continue to this day, with Canadian and American breeders importing top stallions and mares to continue to improve the North American Fjord stock. Today, there are two associations that register Fjords in Canada: the Canadian Fjord Horse Association (CFHA) and the National Fjord Horse Registry (NFHR). Only purebred Fjords are able to be registered with both registries.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Ursula Jensen

Fjords can jump! They have been known to jump up to four feet. Here, stallion Penfrydd's Raynor, owned by Trinity Fjords, jumps during an NFHR evaluation in Libby, Montana.

The CFHA was formed in 1977 as a way for Fjord owners to share information and was incorporated under the Animal Pedigree Act to form a registry in 1982. In 2005, the CFHA became a member of the Fjord Horse International Association (FHI), which is run by the NF and based in Norway. Every year the FHI organizes a breeding conference to discuss breeding goals and international interpretation and coordination of the studbooks. In addition, the FHI runs judging courses for Fjord evaluators. Canadian Fjord enthusiasts can participate in both the conference and courses. Unlike with European registries, Canadian Fjord owners and breeders are not obligated to register their Fjords with the CFHA, which has approximately 3000 Fjord horses registered as of 2008.

The NFHR was first formed in 1980 in the USA. It follows the best guidelines of the European Fjord registries in order preserve the genetic purity of the breed. One such rule is that Fjords in the NFHR are not allowed to crossbreed; the NFHR will pull the registration of a mare or stallion bred with a non-Fjord. DNA testing ensures that no crossbreds are registered, as crossbred Fjords tend to maintain the Fjord looks. “Often the untrained eye cannot detect a crossbred,” says Brian Jensen, an international evaluator and Fjord breeder based at Trinity Fjords in Lumby, BC.

Evaluations began in Norway as a way to rate Fjords to ensure that only the best reproduced, and they continue in Norway and abroad for this purpose.

There is no CFHA evaluation program at present. However, Canadian Fjord owners and breeders wishing to get their stock evaluated have been doing so through the NFHR.

The NFHR has been running evaluations since 1983. At that time the evaluations were done by an international panel of judges, who were impressed by the quality of North American stock. Since then, the NFHR has created their own evaluation program and has licensed judges in both Canada and America. The first evaluation to use the NFHR program was held in Libby, Montana in 1994.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Lori Albrough

The Fjord should have a medium sized head with a broad, flat forehead and a straight or slightly dished profile. Their eyes should be large, round, expressive, and well set on the head. Shown is stallion Mogly from Bluebird Lane Fjords in Ontario.

Evaluations include both a conformation and performance component. Horses are rated between 0 and 100 in conformation, movement, riding, driving, and draft work. A score of 80 or above in both conformation and performance indicates a top quality horse. Scores between 70 and 80 indicate a very good horse.

The Modern Fjord
On average, Fjords stand 13.2 to 14.2 hands high and weigh 900 to 1200 pounds. “They’re a size that is not too large and intimidating for children and smaller adults, yet they’re strong enough and large enough for most adults,” says Carol Rivoire, who has been breeding Fjords at Beaver Dam Farm in Nova Scotia since 1991. Rivoire’s stallion Gjest is a testament to the breed’s hardiness, still active and breeding at age 32.

The head is medium sized, with a broad, flat forehead and a straight or slightly dished profile. The eyes should be large, round, expressive, and well set on the head. The poll must be long enough to allow proper flexion, and while the throatlatch is slightly deeper than most other breeds, it must be refined enough to allow proper flexing at the poll as well.

The neck forms a natural arch and will appear heavy but well raised and in proportion to the entire horse. Placement of the neck on the shoulder should create an upward and outward flexing image. The mane is traditionally cut so it stands in an upright crest, accentuating the curve of the neck.

The Fjord should have good depth through the girth, a well muscled and short to moderate length back, and a deep barrel. The croup should be long, broad, well muscled, and sloping; too sloping or too flat are not desirable. It is important that the back, loins, croup, and quarters are in harmony. The legs should be correct and clean, with a small amount of feathering.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Lauren Sellars

Fjords make wonderful trail riding and backcountry horses.

Body structure ranges from the flatter, lighter muscling of the performance type horse to the round, heavier muscling of the draft type. Evaluators in North America recognize three “types” of Fjords: athletic, draft, and all-purpose. No matter the type of Fjord, it must still reflect the breed standard in overall appearance and temperament.

“Type is probably the most difficult aspect of the Fjord to understand and express in terminology. The Norwegians describe it as ‘got mote,’” says Jensen. “It must look like a Fjord, behave like a Fjord, and work like a Fjord.” Whatever the type, the body parts must be in harmony. There should also be distinct gender characteristics: the stallion masculine and the mare feminine.

The Fjord should have three good gaits performed with energy, balance, and cadence. “A well bred Fjord can have three very good gaits, capable of earning very good scores in open (dressage) competition,” says Lori Albrough, who breeds Fjords at Bluebird Lane Fjords in Southern Ontario.

“Fjords have exceptionally nice gaits,” says Rivoire. “They are smooth riding at the trot and canter, and have a good ability to lengthen strides. Most good Fjords have a lovely cadenced trot that’s wonderful to see and thrilling to ride or drive.”

Fjord of all Trades
The Fjord is not a specialized breed, but one that can be used for a variety of activities. “Fjords come from a ‘jack of all trades’ background, doing whatever needed doing for the Norwegian farmer and family,” says Albrough. “The versatility of the breed is an important trait.”

Dressage, pleasure riding, pleasure and combined driving, Western performance, trail riding, packing, jumping, eventing, vaulting, light draft work, games, and therapeutic riding are just some of the uses of the modern Fjord.

“They’re totally versatile. Bring in the Christmas tree, haul your firewood, go for a drive, take a ride,” says Rivoire. “Fjords are also very competitive in the higher level competitions in most sports.”

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Lori Albrough

Fjords can excel in many disciplines, including dressage. Lori Albrough trains stallion Mogly in Florida.

The common perception that the Fjord is a slow, plodding draft horse could not be farther from the truth. Fjords have been seen winning international level dressage, advanced level American Driving Society (ADS) combined driving, elite carriage driving, reining, and more! And while they may not be at the top of every equine sport, their athleticism and versatility makes them suitable for the majority of riders in most disciplines.

Dun Five Ways
Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of the Fjord horse is their dun colouration and primitive markings. Fjords may come in five dun colourations: brown dun, red dun, grey, white dun, and yellow dun.

Primitive markings include the dorsal stripe, a dark stripe down the centre of the mane (“midstol”) and tail (“halefjæs”), and horizontal stripes on the legs (zebra stripes). Some may also have stripes over the withers, or dark spots on the cheek or thighs (called “Njål’s mark” after Njål 166 who had such spots on his cheeks).

Ninety percent of today’s Fjords are brown dun, called “brunblakk” in Norwegian. The colour of the body is pale yellow-brown, with the dorsal stripe, midstol, and other markings dark brown to black. As with all the dun colourations, it can be found in lighter and darker shades.

The red dun (“rødblakk”) horse has a pale reddish-yellow body. The dorsal stripe, midstol, and other markings are always darker than the body, but never black — usually a red or red-brown. When foaled, red duns can have white hooves, but they will darken as they age.

The grey (“grå”) is not a true grey as in other breeds, but a black dun. The body colour varies from a silver-grey to dark slate grey, and the primitive markings are often lighter than the body colour. Unlike the other colours, where the muzzle is lighter than the body colour, the muzzle of a grey Fjord is often dark.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Ursula Jensen

The Fjord’s gentle nature makes them wonderful children’s mounts and therapeutic riding horses.

The yellow dun (“gulblakk”) is the rarest colour of all, and could also be called palomino dun, where both the cream and dun gene act on a red base colour. The body is a yellowish-white. The dorsal stripe, midstol, and halefjær may be a darker yellowish colour than the body colour, or may be indistinct.

The white or “uls” dun (“ulsblakk”) is a brown dun with an additional cream gene, which dilutes the pigment. It would be called a buckskin dun in other breeds. The body of the uls dun Fjord is cream, with a paler mane and tail. The midstol, dorsal stripe, and halefjær are grey or black. In the early 1900s, the uls dun was the predominant colour in the breed, but lost favour as breeding an uls dun to another uls dun produces “kvit” offspring (cremello or perlino dun), which are very pale and have blue or wall eyes. There is intentional selection against “kvit” Fjords as it is not one of the five Fjord colours recognized by the NF.

White or flesh-coloured markings are not often seen in the breed. A small star on the forehead is allowed, but other markings are considered undesirable. In 1982 the NF decided that stallions or colts with white markings other than a small star may not be licensed to breed or awarded a rosette.

The Mind of a Fjord
While their looks, expressive eyes, and quality movement make the Fjord a wonderful sight, their temperaments are what truly endear people to them. Fjords are very people-orientated and seek out human attention, says Albrough.

They have great charm and intelligence. Jensen believes their “kind and gentle nature, hardiness, and willingness to work” is the best thing about the Fjord horse. They are “very tractable and smart,” he says.

Fjords are also cooperative, dependable, and calm. “I like the way they tend to think a bit more before reacting to ‘scary stuff,’” says Albrough.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Lori Albrough

Fjords are extremely personable and expressive. This darling foal, Bluebird Lane Fjelljo, is only eight hours old and already showing the charming Fjord personality!

Their gentle nature makes a well-trained Fjord ideal for therapeutic riding and as a beginner mount. However, both Jensen and Albrough stress that Fjords are not “born broke” as many seem to believe.

“People often see the gentleness and see them as non-threatening, but they are still a horse with the same instincts,” says Jensen.

“Don’t be swayed by buyers who say anyone can train a Fjord or that they are ‘born broke,’” says Albrough. “Fjords are horses! They need the same competent, consistent, professional training any horse needs in order to be a good citizen and safe working partner; and maybe they need it more because they are so darn smart they will quickly figure out the loopholes of an unskilled handler!”

With good, consistent training, the Fjord horse is a willing and amiable partner for anyone looking for a riding, driving, or light draft horse, or a family friend.

“The famous Fjord temperament and character has never changed. This is a goal that is guarded ferociously by every Fjord breeding country in the world,” says Rivoire. “Above all, the Fjord must be people-friendly and an excellent worker.”

Fjords In Canada
Those Canadians who have grown to know the breed well have been truly taken by it, and are breeding, importing, and training some truly top horses. Albrough competes with her Fjords in dressage, earning Dressage Canada’s Bronze and Silver Medal Achievement Awards for high scores on two different Fjord horses. Her homebred mare Bluebird Lane Kestrel was Training Level Champion at her first ever show, and Albrough’s gelding Prisco has earned both Champion and Reserve Champion in Third Level at large national shows. She hopes to go even further with her new imported stallion, Mogly.

Norwegian Fjord Horse Breed Pure Breed Tarpan Wild HorsePhoto courtesy of Carol Rivoire

NovaFjords is a group of four Fjord breeders whose goal is to promote the Nova Scotian Fjord. Members Janie and Sandy Sommer of McKinnon’s Neck Farm stand with seven-year-old mare Jazzy.

Jensen and his wife Ursula, who have been breeding Fjords for 26 years, compete with their Fjords in combined driving, and have won Reserve Champion at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta in High Country Driving Events. They have also won several dressage tests at ADS sanctioned and non-sanctioned CDEs. 

While Fjords are bred across Canada, Nova Scotia in particular seems to attract Fjord horse enthusiasts. A group of four Fjord breeders in Nova Scotia came together in 2008 and formed Nova Fjords, which promotes the Fjord in Nova Scotia by commissioning Fjord-themed artwork.

“All the members of Nova Fjords consider the Fjord Horse a masterpiece of the equine world,” says Rivoire, whose Beaver Dam Farm is one of the founding members, along with Wallace Point Fjords, Blue Raven Farm, and McKinnon’s Neck Farm.

With such passionate enthusiasts in Canada and abroad, the future of the Norwegian Fjord looks secure. Those that own a Fjord know how truly special these Norwegian horses are, and would do anything to keep them true to their roots: the striking, hardworking dun horse who has been a good friend to man through the ages.

Main Article Photo courtesy of Lori Albrough - Grand Champion Mare Bluebird Lane Kestrel shows the Fjord breed standard well. No matter the type, a Fjord must “look like a Fjord, behave like a Fjord, and work like a Fjord.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

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