A Visit With Olaf Nyby in Norway
by Barbara Corson of Fawn Grove, PA
In August 2004 my friend Donna and I were lucky enough to take a trip to Norway. Although we were only in Norway for 10 days, we learned a lot and I thought some SFJ readers might be interested in hearing about the experience.
About Olaf Nyby
The main goal of our trip was to learn from Olaf Nyby, an internationally known driver and horse trainer from Hedmark in eastern Norway. Nyby is the best known and most experienced driving expert in Norway today.
Nyby grew up working horses in the fields and forests of eastern Norway. He went on from this “real life” experience to drive both competitively and commercially, working with many different breeds in Norway and other European countries, as well as England, Canada and the USA. Today he is busy full-time training horses of all breeds, making various types of harness and competition vehicles, and giving clinics throughout Norway.
Nyby visits the U.S. regularly and has shared his knowledge and skills with many groups within the American horse community, including driving enthusiasts, breeders of Fjord horses, Morgans and saddlebreds, draft horse teamsters, and the New York City mounted police force! His primary contact in America is Smucker’s Harness in Narvon (Churchtown), Lancaster County, PA and he is the Norwegian distributor for this well-known harness manufacturer. Nyby’s wide range of experience, combined with an exceptional natural ability to teach horses AND people make him uniquely effective as a driving instructor. It was our privilege to have the opportunity to learn from him.
Horses in Norway
We arrived in Norway just in time to go with Nyby to a clinic he was giving in Trondheim, and the drive gave us time to ask some questions about horses in Norway. Here is some of what we learned:
Norway is a beautiful, rugged country, which has produced several breeds of hardy, versatile horses. Until the Second World War, horses were a primary source of power on the characteristically small, remote farms, and in the immense forests. The steep land and long cold winters created strong selective pressure and contributed to the development of tough, intelligent horses that generally thrive with minimal care.
The Norwegian Fjord horse (Fjordling or Fjordhest) comes from the west coast of Norway and is well-known in Europe and North America. Other Norwegian breeds are less well-known on this side of the Atlantic. They include the Døle horse, or Dølehest, a sturdy versatile farm horse from the eastern valleys, and the Nordlandshest (or Lyngshest), a small and very hardy breed from northern Norway. The forth and most numerous Norwegian breed is the cold-blooded trotter (Kaldblodstraver) which was developed from the Døle horse during the 19th century.
Nyby told us that working draft horses are not common on Norwegian farms or in forests today, but horses are definitely still numerous. For one thing, harness racing is very popular in Norway for both participants and spectators. Two breeds are used in this sport: the “warm-blooded trotter” which is more or less equivalent to the American standardbred trotter, and the “cold-blooded trotter” mentioned previously. I was really intrigued by this powerful little horse, whose tough, muscular appearance made me think of an old-style Morgan. They are a relatively small, light horse characterized by a strong but chiseled head, upright neck, steep pasterns, long legs in relation to body depth, and luxurious mane, tail and “feathers.”
The popularity of harness racing helps maintain a relatively high level of interest in driving horses in general throughout Norway. Other horse activities in Norway are similar to the U.S. and Europe and include dressage, combined riding and driving, show jumping, and western riding. Quarter horses, paints, and European warmbloods such as Oldenburgers are relatively common in Norway, but large draft horses such as Belgians, Percherons and Shires are rare. Except for Icelandic horses, “gaited horses” such as the American Saddlebred are also rare.
A Driving Clinic Observed
We got to see some of the Norwegian horse breeds at the driving clinic in Trondheim, which was well-organized and a wonderful learning opportunity. One of the things that impressed me was the diversity of the participants and the lack of exclusivity or competitiveness between them. The age and experience of the eight drivers varied a good deal, from those with little previous horse contact, to those who had considerable experience with harness racing and competitive driving. There was quite a wide variety of horses, too, including a very successful cold blood trotter stallion, a 16-year-old Norwegian Døle horse gelding that had been used for logging but not pleasure driving; a young “Gypsy vanner” stallion; and a yearling cold-blood trotter filly. Obviously each of the participants had his/her own goals for the weekend; some were just learning how to hold the lines, while others hoped to fine-tune their horse’s form or improve control at racing speed. In spite of the differences in experience and ability, I did not detect any “one-up-manship” or what I would call snobbery. The participants seemed to be there to learn and improve their skills, rather than to show-off or compete with each other.
With so many different horses and drivers, I thought the clinic would be difficult to coordinate, but it went very smoothly. Nyby has great patience with horses and students, but he is intensely dedicated to his work. Apparently he brings out the same kind of dedication in his students. A schedule was posted so that each driver knew what time to be ready and very little time was wasted. Two drivers worked with their horses at the same time under Nyby’s direction in a large open arena with good footing. Nyby observed the drivers with their horses, commented on abilities and problems, and demonstrated techniques for the participants to practice. There was enough time for each driver to have two one-hour sessions on both Saturday and Sunday. Even though it rained fairly hard on Sunday, work went on without hesitation and no one complained. At break times, all the participants could gather with Nyby in a clubhouse on the grounds, and this was a wonderful opportunity to discuss the day’s activities and ask questions. The young attendees seemed uniformly sincere in their desire to learn how to be better drivers. Nyby told us that the group had already arranged a follow-up clinic in the fall.
Nyby can move fast, in fact sometimes it seems like he has the ability to be two places at one time! On Saturday, for example, he zipped into nearby Trondheim to drive for a wedding. Nyby has driven for many weddings in the past, including several royal weddings in Norway and Denmark, but he told us he rarely does this type of work anymore. So Donna and I felt privileged to be able to observe the picturesque event. Trondheim is an ancient city (over 1000 years old) with a beautiful harbor, a huge medieval cathedral, and lots of statues, including one of an ox! I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many ox statues so I took a picture. After the wedding, we practically flew back to the trotting club grounds for several more hours of driving instruction. Summer days are long in Norway and people seem to take full advantage of them.
Horse Training in Hamar
On Sunday evening we returned to the Hamar area where Nyby’s stable and workshops are located. His barn is generally full of equine “students” of different breeds and abilities. Many of the animals that Nyby trains come to him with behavior problems to be resolved. He also takes in untrained, green horses and gives them their foundation training in driving. The residents of the barn during the week Donna and I were there included:
A 2-year-old coldblood stallion that had a kicking problem;
A 3-year-old coldblood stallion that was hard to control at racing speed and was not using his hindquarters well;
A big 6-year-old Oldenburg gelding that was green, and a bit reactive / unsure of himself;
A “Gypsy vanner” filly that was green, confident and able to “think for herself”.
Nyby had been working with this group of horses for a week or so by the time Donna and I arrived. All of the horses were making progress with their education and we were able to see more progress during the week we were there.
Each horse was worked at least once daily, for about 40 minutes. If an individual horse is having trouble with some exercise, Nyby will often work the animal twice a day for short periods. The facilities Nyby uses include a round pen, several good-sized fields, and a forested area with trails and a stream. The general pattern we observed during our stay was for each horse to warm up in the round pen/corral, and then, when ready, to move to work in the field and/or forested area. The horses were worked in harness, long lines and an open bridle. Different horses obviously have different abilities and Nyby tailors each animal’s lessons as appropriate, but goals always include acceptance of the bit, the harness, and the load, and a relaxed, comfortable, and willing attitude. These are things that are essential in any driving horse, whether the animal is going on to competitive driving, pleasure driving, or draft work. It was very interesting to me to see how the different horses responded depending on their breed, age, gender, and past experiences. By the end of the week, all had progressed. The Oldenburger and Gypsy vanner had been put to a cart for the first time, the 3-year-old stallion had demonstrated willingness to stretch out at an extended trot and then come back to a relaxed walk, and the 2-year-old stallion was accepting the harness (crupper) well and was pulling 3 tires with a relaxed attitude.
Nyby’s success in training does not depend on elaborate facilities or equipment, but rather on his experience, keen observation of the horse, coordination, timing, patience and realistic expectations. Watching him work reminded me of the natural social behavior of horses — the dominant animal uses as much assertiveness, aggression or force as is necessary to establish dominance, and no more. The “and no more” part of that sentence is the more important, and — for human horse trainers — the more difficult part. Anyone can use force to frighten a horse, but not many people can assess the horse’s response, and remove the pressure at the correct instant. This is what dominant horses do, and also what Nyby does. When necessary, he is willing and able to “push” a horse to the point of reactivity, but he never stops assessing the horse’s reaction, and he has the skill (timing and coordination) to release the psychological and physical pressure exactly when he sees the desired response. Donna and I watched this happen several times during our visit and the result was consistent: a calmer, more willing and more confident horse.
Nyby recognizes that horses have different abilities and he does not ask for the same achievement from every horse. But at the same time, he also believes horses have a built-in need to “work”, and that in general, horses are most comfortable when they can receive direction from a leader they trust and respect.
As a veterinarian and farmer, I have been observing and learning about domestic animals, including horses for a long time. But I have a lot to learn about driving and I came away from the week’s experience with increased understanding of this most difficult kind of horsemanship. After thinking about what I observed, I would summarize like this:
Horses are perhaps THE most observant and perceptive of animals, and they have lightning quick reflexes, and great physical coordination. Truly exceptional horsemen, like Nyby, are as perceptive, quick and coordinated as a horse. Although not everyone can be exceptional (by definition), I believe virtually everyone could maximize his/her horse-handling skills by emphasizing the things Nyby does: observation, timing, coordination, realistic expectations, and mutual respect between horse and handler.
About Norwegian harness:
Nyby makes and sells various types of harness, including Norwegian work harness. Like Norwegian horses (and Norwegian people!) this harness is the product of centuries of selective pressure under harsh working conditions.
Norwegian harness differs in several ways from what I have seen in America. One difference is the collar (bogtre), which is formed of two curved wooden hames with fixed leather pads. The hames are long and are held together at the top and bottom with adjustable straps, which means that one collar can fit a range of horses.
A second characteristic of Norwegian harness is a strong ring of metal (in Norwegian, the “orering”) located behind the shoulder, to which all the other harness components — collar, saddle, girths and breeching — attach (see figures 18 – 20). The ring also holds a heavy metal tongue (the “ore”), which fits through a slot on the shafts and is held in place with a corresponding pin (the “orepinne”). The pin and ring assembly makes it easy to hook the horse to a load with either shafts or traces, even when you’re wearing icy frozen mittens. Furthermore, there is no need to undo buckles or dig through the snow to find the single tree! I think anyone who has used draft horses during a long, cold, dark northern winter would appreciate Norwegian harness.