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A Passion for Riding Horses Since Childhood

Published on June 17, 2022 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 5 months 3 weeks ago


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Dr. Hakonarson with his horse, Nattfari, at home in Valley Forge.

By Emily Shafer

After riding horses since he was 5-years-old in Iceland, Hakon Hakonarson, MD, PhD, bought his own horse when he was around 11, eventually training and selling horses throughout high school and college.

"I’ve always had a passion for horses and owned horses," said Dr. Hakonarson, who is director of the Center for Applied Genomics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Research Institute. "Now, I own some good quality breeding mares and some stallions in Iceland."

When he moved to the U.S. in 2006, he brought four Icelandic horses with him and built a barn in his 6-acre backyard. His Icelandic horses are a "five gaited" breed. In addition to the three typical gaits — walk, trot, and gallop — Icelandic horses have additional gaits known as tölt and pace.


One of Dr. Hakonarson’s horses back in Iceland, named Ardur.

"The Icelandic horse is really unique because it’s the only horse breed that has these five gaits," Dr. Hakonarson explained. "Some horses have one or the other of the additional gaits, but only Icelandic horses have all five. At horse shows in Iceland, they are primarily focused on showing the different gaits. It’s fascinating to see the riders interacting with the horses to switch the gates."

His son takes care of his horses in Iceland, but Dr. Hakonarson still has two horses in Pennsylvania, which he rides regularly in Valley Forge Park to dissociate from everyday life for a bit.

"It’s beautiful," Dr. Hakonarson said. "The landscape is great, and you are alone, and it’s just very nice."

One of his horses is 33-years-old, which is significant because typically horses don’t age much beyond 30 years. But Dr. Hakonarson said this horse is still in great shape. His second horse is 19-years-old, and both like treats.

"They are bigger, and they become your friends, and they like to be groomed," he said. "And, when they see you in the field, they know you are coming and going to give them a grain or other treat, and they come running up to the stables to greet you. They obviously want to spend time with us."


Dr. Hakonarson rides his horse, Dimmalimm, in Valley Forge.

When he was younger, Dr. Hakonarson was involved in horse competitions, but these days, he mostly rides on the weekend for 30 to 45 minutes at a time. He brings both horses, riding one on the way out, and the other on the way back, so they both get exercise.

Riding horses is a family affair: His children are riders, and his son is a professional rider and still competes in Iceland.

"My grandparents always had horses, and I got attached to them that way," he said. "When I was a boy, I just jumped on the horse’s back, and I started riding. I did a lot of riding until I was about 20 years old. Since then, it’s been more sporadic, and more for fun."