The famous Icelandic horse is known to be extremely versatile, good-tempered and intelligent. These small horses (not “ponies”) are particularly successful in endurance racing and therapeutic riding. They can also do well in carriage pulling, polo and barrel racing as they are reputed to be sure-footed and able to cross rough terrain. Today, the most common use for the Icelandic horse is recreational horse riding. Icelandic farmers ride their faithful companions to round up the sheep around Iceland every year in September.
The Icelandic horse has become really popular on the international scene for being easy-going and one of the friendliest horses in the world. In Iceland, they are usually treated as a member of the family and have plenty of space in huge fields. The horses can live up to 40 years, but the oldest reported horse reached the age of 59.
Over the years, the Icelandic horse developed into two main strains: the Svaðastaðir and the Hornafjörður strain. Horses which are descendents of Svaðastaðir are known to have a more attractive gait while the others are larger and have great endurance.
It is possible to meet Icelandic horses all around Iceland, along the Ring Road or other famous routes such as the Golden Circle. Although taking pictures is authorized, it is forbidden to feed them or pet them if you don’t have the permission from their owners. Also be mindful not to stop in the middle of the road or on the side if there is nowhere to stop safely. It is a great experience to approach these wonderful creatures, but it has to be done properly. Also, do not cross over the fence to go on the field which is a private property.
The History of the Icelandic horse dates back to the settlement of the island between 860 and 935 AD. As the first Viking settlers came to Iceland from Norway, they could only bring a small number of livestock on the boats, so they probably took their best animals. This means that the Icelandic horses have their origin in a herd of preselected and high quality individuals who managed to survive a rough trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Other sources believe that the Vikings brought their smallest horses to have more space on the boats. Once on the island, they served as the most indispensable servant for the first Icelanders in this wild unknown country.
Since then, no more horses from foreign countries have been allowed in Iceland, resulting in a pure breed for over a thousand years. That is the reason why nowadays in Iceland there is only one breed of horse: the Icelandic Horse. The horses originally imported were mostly from Germanic descent and are the ancestors of Shetland, Highland and Connemara ponies. They also show some genetic similarities to the Mongolian horse, which arrived in Scandinavia through Russia.
In History, quality Icelandic horses were highly demanded for practical purposes but also as a status symbol. The horses were present in the very early History. Indeed, they are mentioned in the Book of Settlements, for example when the chieftain Sela-Þórir established his settlement where his horse decided to rest. Horses were really important for warriors, who treated them with great respect. Vikings used to bury their dead with their personal belongings, the useful things that they would need to make their journey to the other world. People with the highest rank in society could bring more valuable goods. Some powerful Vikings such as chieftains were allowed to have their faithful horse buried with them.
Icelandic horses were also well known in the Norse mythology. Many Gods owned horses that played important roles in the Sagas during battles. For instance, Óðinn had a eight-legged horse, capable of flying, named Sleipnir. According to the first Icelandic book of laws, stealing a horse from someone was punishable by banishment. Convicted thieves were outlawed and during the Viking age, all outlaws could be legally killed on sight.
The Icelandic horse was always part of the culture. It has also been an integral part of the workforce in the last century, mainly used for transport. For the last decades, the horses were mostly used for breeding and leisure riding, as well as traveling and competition purpose. The horse are not anymore essential for warriors but for farmers to round up the sheep annually in the Highlands. Nowadays, there are about 80,000 horses in Iceland, a country with only 330,000 people.
The Icelandic horse is one of the purest horse breed in the world. Studies revealed that the Icelandic horse is descendent from an ancient breed of horses that is now completely extinct outside of Iceland, where it has been preserved thanks to isolation. For over 1,000 years, there has not been any genetic input from other breeds.
In 982 AD, following a disappointing attempt to crossbreed the Icelandic horse with oriental breeds, the Viking Parliament forbade every horse imports to Iceland to prevent the degeneration and the loss of the livestock. Since that day, no horse can enter the country at all.
On the other hand, once a horse leaves Iceland, for competitions for instance, it can never return. Icelanders who are going to international competitions never take their best horse as they will have to sell the horse used for the competition afterwards. The best horses are kept in Iceland for breeding and national competitions.
The total population of Icelandic horses in the world is estimated to be over 250,000. A substantial population is growing abroad, especially in Europe and North America. The tiny horses have incredible adaptation skills and are comfortable in the glacial climates of Greenland and Alaska, as well as down South in Australia and New Zealand. There is an International Federation of Icelandic horses, counting with 18 countries around the world.
Due to the geographical isolation of the country, there are very few horse diseases in Iceland, which means no vaccination needed. The regulations about importation of horse riding gear are very strict. When coming to Iceland, it is forbidden for the travelers to bring along used leather riding equipment such as gloves or boots. If one wants to bring his own equipment like helmet, it is mandatory to disinfect all gear.
They may be short, but still, they are not ponies. If one calls the Icelandic horses “ponies”, he/she will not make local friends. Icelanders are really proud of their small but strong horses, just like their country. The horses are squat and muscular. During the winter time, they have a long shaggy fur.
Icelandic horses tend to be around 132 to 142 cm tall (52 to 56 inches) to the withers and weigh from 330 to 380 kg (730 and 840 lb). According to the international rules, most horse breeds shorter the 148 cm (58 inches) are categorized as ponies. However, there are other characteristics that make a horse a pony and the Icelandic horse is right on the limit. Icelandic people will always argue about that. According to them, the horses have the genetic makeup, intelligence and strength of a horse and not a pony.
The closest relative to the Icelandic horse is the Shetland pony. The Icelandic got taller due to better feeding and selective breeding.
The Icelandic horse is the most colorful breed in the world, coming in over 40 different colors, with more than 100 variations. Most of the known horse colors can be found within the breed. All the colors are allowed in the studbook and variety is even encouraged. The official breeding goal is to preserve all natural colors of the breed.
The most common colors are red (or chestnut) and black (brown), while the rarest one is the color-changing roan. In fact, Icelandic roans are also called color-changers because they show their real color with the summer coat and the full winter coat, but in spring and autumn, the middle layer of their coat is white. The red base color is possible when both parents give the red gene. If both parents are red, then the foal can only be red. Black horses can be either fully black, or heterozygote, which means that they have both red and black genes.
Some Icelandic people used to think that the color of a horse reflects its personality. Some horses are named after their color, such as Bleikur (pink), Gráni (grey) or Kolfaxi (black-maned). However, there is a naming committee for horses, which means that they can’t be named however the owners want to.
In addition to the base colors, there are many variations such as skewbald, dun, palomino, grey, silver dapple, splash-skewbald and roan. The variations are often combined, so a horse can have several genes. Different add-ons can also be noticed such as a blaze, snip, white leg or other marks, which makes each horse unique.
The small Icelandic horse is famous for its genuine and welcoming personality. They are among the friendliest and most adventurous horses in the world. They are smart and really quick to learn, with a great will to work. Usually, it is very easy to handle them for example during a horse ride or on the ground. The horses never had any predators on the Icelandic land, that is maybe the reason why they are so approachable and curious.
Icelandic horses adapt quickly to every given task. The same horse can be used for competition and for recreational horse riding, even for the most inexperienced ones. The versatility of the horses is a priority for breeding.
Traditionally, Icelanders favored strong horses able to walk long distances on hard terrain. Icelandic horses can give their all in full speed when required, but they also can stand still for hours to shelter their humans from snow storms. Horses saved their owners many times, for example by knowing where to go when the rider was lost. The tiny horses have been indispensable servants since the settlement of Iceland. As there were no roads, the horses were used for carrying goods, transporting people, providing meat, horse hair and milk.
The Icelandic horse is a unique breed as most of the horses in Iceland master five gaits (ways of walking), while other breeds usually can handle 3 or 4. In addition to the original walk, trot and gallop or canter, Icelandic horses have the tölt and the skeið.
The breed is known worldwide for its four-beat lateral gait called the tölt, also known as the 5th gear. It is a very comfortable walk for the rider, done in such an elegant way. In fact, the horse’s hind legs have to move well under the body, carrying more weight on the hind end. The front has to rise up high and be free and loose as the horse walks. Icelandic horses manage this gait naturally, with a variation of speed. It can go from a slow gracious tölt to a very fast and extended one. The particularity of this gait is its smoothness. Tölt is an Icelandic word, and the only word for this gait, as only Icelandic horses can do it. The tölt is more or less a speed up version of walking, but more beautiful as only one foot of the horse has to touch the ground at a time. This gait can be really useful to ride on uneven grounds as it provides a steady ride.
Skeið, also known as flying pace, is used in pacing races. It is best described as a very rhythmic gallop. This gait is fast and smooth, some horses can even reach up to 50 km/h (30 mph). It consists of a two-beat lateral movement with suspension between footfalls. It really makes the rider feel like flying. Skeið is used for racing and only for short distances, usually for about 100-200 meters. Not every Icelandic horse can perform this pace. The horses that can manage all the five gaits are considered as the best of the breed.