On the beautiful island Iceland in the middle of the cold North Atlantic, amongst volcanos and glaciers, lives the proud and majestic horse breed who has fascinated and enchanted people for centuries – The Icelandic horse. Those who have had the pleasure of getting acquainted with these intelligent and friendly creatures know that these horses are not just like any horse breed. They have a great historic background amongst the Icelandic people that goes back all the way to the Viking age. But it’s not only their interesting history which make this horse so interesting, so here’s 10 facts about the Icelandic horse that you might not have heard of before!
Worshipped by the Vikings
When the vikings moved to Iceland during 8th century, they brought horses with them from both Norway and the British Isles. During that time the climate on Iceland was warmer than today and the horses therefore had plenty of fresh pasture. But as the climate changed and the weather became cooler, so did the Icelandic horse. The breed had to adapt itself to the climate change in order to survive and it evolved into what we today call the Icelandic horse. There is an old tale about these strong horses – According to the saying ‘the Icelandic horses belonged to the gods’ meant that when needed they could transform themselves to these horses. Therefore the Vikings would worship the horses, and paradoxically they would sacrifice them and drink their blood in order to rub off some of their holiness and strength. In the difficult terrain, where the rad network wasn’t properly installed until after WW2, it’s not difficult to understand the Vikings tribute to the Icelandic horses. Through rain, storm, lava deserts, rivers, over glaciers and mountains they carried their riders, making them a vital part of survival. They meant everything for the families there, using them as transportation between school and church for example.
Even though the breed does not grow above the limit for a pony (148cm – 14.2hh), they are still classified as a horse. It might be due to the fact that they are weight-bearing. Their short height and small frame does not stop them from carrying a full-sized adult for long distances with ease. They are well built with a powerful body structure, which is a characteristic of a large horse. Its body proportions, muscle mass and bone structure are typical for a larger horse rather than a pony, and with its strong minded personality they are excellent for horse riding.
Can live for 50+ Years
Icelandic horses can become very old, often 30 years or more. The oldest Icelandic horse known became 54 years old. Since they have a very long lifespan, there is absolutely no rush to ride them as a youngster. An Icelandic horse’s structural development is usually complete by the age of 7, and they are most productive between the ages of 8-18. It is therefore recommended to wait with starting an Icelandic horse under saddle until they are at least 4-5 years old. (Other horse breeds are usually started around 3 years old).
A Tourist Attraction
Iceland’s tourism have increased with over 140% from 2021-2022 – and the statistics show a steady growth the last decaxe and does not show any signs of slowing down. A big part of Iceland’s popularity is the Icelandic Horse. Many tour operators organize trail rides or week long camping trips to experience Iceland by horseback. The breeds calm nature makes them perfect beginner friendly trail horses.
Only a Small Herd Live in the Wild
Many people believe Iceland is full of wild Icelandic horses roaming the streets – however even though many Icelandic horses are released into the mountains of the land which their owners manage to graze, the majority of them belong to a farmer that have purposely left them there to enjoy the rich vegetation. These herds are usually moved around each season and brought back in for winter when there is less food to forage.
5 Gaited Horse Breed
From its medieval ancestors, the Icelandic horse inherited the ability to perform running walk (also known as tölt) and flying pace. Therefore, they possess five gaits (the others are the standard walk, trot and canter) which is two more than the average riding horse! Running walk is a four-legged gait where the horse moves forward in a smooth, rhythmic and uninterrupted pace without lifting all four legs at the same time. This allows the rider to sit completely still in the saddle pad, even at high speeds. Flying pace is a fast two-beat gait where the horse’s two diagonal pairs of legs move at the same time. This means that the horse lifts and brings forward the legs on one side at the time, which gives a jumping and flying impression. Different Icelandic horses have different approach to running walk and flying pace, some find the pace with ease, and for others it does not come as naturally. It depends both on how the horse is trained, and on which parents and genes it has. If you have a young Icelandic horse, it might be a good idea to get professional help from a trainer, so that the horse learns the paces correctly from the beginning.
Since 11th century it’s been illegal to import horses into Iceland, which has made the Icelandic horse one of the most purest breeds since they have not been mixed with other horse breeds. There has always been a careful breeding program for these horses, the Vikings put great effort into into the breeding work already in the 9th century to preserve the breeds qualities and characteristics. About 900 years ago an attempt was made to breed the Icelandic horse with oriental blood from other horse breeds, which resulted in a disaster with degeneration in the horse breeds. That’s when the ban on importing horses was strictly set by the world’s oldest parliament. An Icelandic horse that has left the country once can never return back due to the risk of carrying diseases. Therefore, the horses that live in Iceland are seldom vaccinated because they are so isolated from diseases that are common elsewhere. Today there are 100,000 purebred Icelandic horses registered on Iceland alone.
Can Survive in Cold Weather
The wild Icelandic Horse herds are used to wandering long distances to find pasture and water. Only the strongest ones managed to survive, and one huge bonus for dealing with the tough environment was to not be too tall. Therefore, the height of the Icelandic horse’s withers remained between 125 and 145 centimeters. They have a very thick coat, so thick that they can have multiple centimeters of snow layered on top of their coat, and yet the horse is dry and warm closest to the body. They are double-coated which is made up of a soft undercoat and a water-repellent topcoat. The mane and tail is also very sturdy to shield from the cold.
There are 4 Different types of Icelandic horses
Throughout histiry – four “different types” of Icelandic horses have been bred. Even if there are not any major differences in the horses, they can be bred for different purposes. Stockier Icelandic Horses with good conformation were bred for farm work and harness driving. While others were bred for meat production, since the cold climate made it impossible for the people to survive merely on cattle. The most famous type of Icelandic Horse was bred on the southwest parts of Iceland and it resembles the exmoor pony and is used for riding.
The Only Horse Breed Allowed of Iceland
It has been illegal to import horse to Iceland for the last 1000 years which has allowed the island to protect the Icelandic Horse breed from poor breeding programs and diseases. Once an Icelandic Horse leaves the Iceland, they are never allowed to return. This makes the price if buying and Icelandic horse from Iceland very high. However many reputable Icelandic horse breeders dream of having a purebred Icelandic Horse that was born on the Iceland with pure bloodlines and exported from there as a youngster.
In 982 AD the Icelandic Althing (parliament) passed laws prohibiting the importation of horses into Iceland,Wikipedia
Bonus: Perfect Beginner Horses
Icelandic horses have similar characteristic to draft horses, they tend to be kind and gentle creatures making them perfect beginner horses. Their small size also make them less intimidating to the unexperienced handler and their hardworking mentally makes them a joy to work with. The Icelandic horse breed is therefore a popular breed for tourist trail ride operators in Scandinavia where the breed is fairly common.