The Icelandic Horse


Icelandic horses are not like regular or typical horses. They are smaller than usual, somewhat like the Shetland breed, so that they are sometimes referred to as ponies. On the other hand, Icelandic horses are known to be long-lived. Since they are generally well cared for and Iceland laws restrict trade in other breeds, there is almost no chance that foreign diseases will creep in and infest the local herds.



The first Icelandic horses were taken to Iceland by the earliest Viking settlers around 860 to 935 AD. The Norse settlers were followed by immigrants from Norse colonies in Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles of Scotland. These later settlers arrived with the ancestors of what would elsewhere become Shetland, Highland, and Connemara ponies, which were crossed with the previously imported animals. Icelandic horses are therefore related to the Faroe pony of the Faeroe Islands, the Fjord horse, the Yakut and Nordlandshest of Norway because of their physical similarities. In 982 AD, the Icelandic Althingi passed laws that prohibited the importation of horses, hence ending any more crossbreeding. The breed has now been pure for more than 1,000 years.



Icelandic horses weigh from 330 to 380 kilograms (730 to 840 lbs.) and have an average height of 52 to 56 inches (132 to 142 cms.). That’s why most of the time, the domestic breed is referred to as “pony” and not “horse”. On the other hand, zoologists propose that Icelandic horses have the bone structure, strength and weight-carrying abilities of a horse. Icelandic horse breeds have different coat-colors. There’s chestnut, dun, bay, black, gray, palomino, pinto and roan. Unlike the usual horses elsewhere, Icelandic horses have larger heads with compact bodies, similar to the physiognomy of donkeys. Another trait the two breeds have in common is their short legs. Nonetheless, Icelandic ponies are known to be strong. They have quite long cannon (supporting leg) bones but short pasterns.
The mane and tail are full, with coarse hair, and the tail is set low. They have a double coat for extra insulation for winter. They possess great agility and they are very sure-footed. Although small, they can carry heavy loads and run fast.



The Icelandic horses are five gaited horses. The five gaits are walk, trot, canter/gallop, flying pace and tölt. The walk is a four-beat gait. When walking, the horses should be calm and briskly moving ahead. The walk is a great way to teach the horse to relax and to be well-focused. The trot is a two-beat gait where the front and back legs on opposite sides move together. The trot is used a lot in basic training before a horse can master tölt. The tölt, in the other hand, is the specialty of the Icelandic horse where the horse’s back legs should move well under the body and carry more of the rear weight, thus allowing the front to rise, be free and loose. The flying pace is a two-beat gait, well-known in the international racing world. When pacing, the horse moves both legs on the same side together. The canter/ gallop is considered as one gait in Iceland. It is a three-beat gait, ridden at different speeds.



At the end of the day, modernization has tended to leave traditional ways of transport behind. Cars and motorcycles continue to replace horses. As elsewhere, Icelanders use them for farm transportation and chores.
Icelanders also use horses for entertainment. The first horse race was held in Akureyri in 1874. Since then, the Agricultural Society of Iceland, along with the National Association of Riding Clubs, has regularly organized a wide variety of shows. Horse races are held almost year-round, from April to June and even in winter.
Some horses are bred for export. Some are bred for slaughter, and most of the meat is exported to Japan. Others are bred for farm work. Some are bred for horse riding and horse races, to be exported to Europe and North America. Iceland has one of the best breeds of horses. The are strong, children friendly, healthy and beautiful.