When thinking about Iceland, most people immediately think about the Icelandic horse.
Although the breed is rather small, Icelanders refer to it as “horse” (hestur) and there is no other horse breed in Iceland. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and once exported steeds can't ever return to Iceland. Thus the breeding of the horses is as pure as it gets. The Icelandic is long-lived, very hardy, friendly and pleasant-natured and displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot and gallop commonly displayed. The breed therefore enjoys great popularity all over the world.
The Icelandic horse stands an average of 13 and 14 hands (52 and 56 inches, 132 and 142 cm) high and weighs between 330 and 380 kilograms (730 and 840 lb). Even though this is usually considered pony size, breeders and official breed registries refer to Icelandics as horses. There are a several theories as to why they aren't called ponies, one of them arguing the Icelandics had such a spirited temperament and large personality that one must call them horses. Also, the Icelandic language lacks a word for “pony”. Another theory suggests that the breed's weight, bone structure and weight-carrying abilities mean it can be classified as a horse, rather than a pony. The breed comes in many coat colours, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, grey, palomino, pinto, cream shades and roan. The Icelandic language knows over 100 names for different colours and colour variations. Icelandics have well-proportioned heads, with straight profiles and wide foreheads. The neck is short, muscular, and broad at the base; the chest deep; the shoulders muscular and slightly sloping; the back is long; the croup (or rump) is broad, muscular, short and slightly sloping. The legs are strong and short. Main and tail are full and rather coarse. Due to the harsh and cold climate in Iceland, the breed has developed a double coat for extra insulation.
The horses aren't easily spooked, probably the result of not having any natural predators in their native country.
The Icelandic horse is very friendly and docile, although also independent, clever and self-assured. Being easy to handle, agile and sure-footed makes them the ideal mount in difficult terrain. As a result of their isolation from other equines, disease in the breed within Iceland is mostly unknown, except for some kinds of internal parasites. The low prevalence of disease in Iceland is maintained by said laws preventing horses once exported from the country from ever returning, and by requiring that all equine equipment brought into the country is either new and unused or has been disinfected according to valid regulations including a certificate of disinfection by a foreign authority.
As a result of these precautions, native horses have no acquired immunity to disease.
Not only among horse enthusiasts Icelandics are known for being “five-gaited”.
As well as the typical gaits of walk, trot and gallop or canter, the Icelandic horse can perform two additional gaits, tölt and pace.
The tölt is a four-beat lateral ambling gait and famous for its explosive acceleration and speed while being extremely comfortable for the rider.
The footfall pattern of the tölt is the same as the walk (left hind, left front, right hind, right front), but differs from the walk in that it can be performed at a range of speeds, from the speed of a typical fast walk up to the speed of a normal canter. Some Icelandic horses prefer to tölt, while others prefer to trot.
There are two tölt varieties that are considered incorrect. The first is an uneven gait called "Pig's Pace" or "Piggy-pace" that is closer to a two-beat pace than a four-beat amble.
The second is called a Valhopp and is a combination of both tölt and canter and is most often seen in untrained young horses, horses that mix their gaits or are simply just footsore.
The pace (skeið) is a fast and smooth gait and is mainly used in pacing races.
It is said that riding pace is a unique feeling, the rider feels like flying, which is why it is often referred to as “flying pace” (“flugskeið").
Some horses are able to reach up to 48 km/h (30 miles per hour) while being ridden at pace.
The skeið is a two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls. Each side has both feet land almost simultaneously (left hind and left front, suspension, right hind and right front).
It is meant to be performed by well-trained and balanced horses ridden by a highly skilled equestrians and is considered the crown of Icelandic horsemanship. Not all Icelandics are able to perform this gait at all.
The pace is not recommended for long-distance travel. Although most pacing horses are raced in harness using sulkies, Icelandics are raced while ridden.
The Icelandic horse has a distinguished and almost romantic past.
During the Icelandic Age of Settlement (Landnámsöld), from 874 AD to 930 AD, the settlers brought their native horses with them.
The Viking settlers, importing horses of Germanic origin, were followed by immigrants from Norse colonies such as Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles of Scotland.
These later settlers introduced their Celtic horse breeds, the ancestors of the Shetland, Highland, Exmoor and Connemara ponies.
Those steeds were then crossed with the previously imported horses of Norse origin, such as the Norwegian Nordlandshest or Lyngshest, also known as the "Northlands horse" or "Northlands pony", the Norwegian Fjord Horse and the Faroe Pony of the Faroe Islands.
In 982 AD, the Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, passed laws prohibiting the importation of horses into Iceland, thus ending crossbreeding and avoiding certain epidemics, some sources claim the laws were put into place not earlier than the 13th century.
The breed is undoubtedly very old, if not the oldest, and of unparalleled purity.
There are, however, certain doubts remain regarding the purity as certainly not everybody in the Middle Age abided by said law and there are sources claiming the breed was mixed with oriental horses some time during the Middle Ages.
The initial settlers venerated their horses as a symbol of fertility as the animals played an important role in Norse mythology.
Equines are mentioned throughout early Icelandic history and literature, the mare Skalm being the first Icelandic horse being named in the 12th century in the Book of Settlement, a medieval manuscript describing the settlement of Iceland.
The most prominent steed of Norse mythology is mighty Sleipnir, the eight-footed pacer of Norse god Oðinn. Horses also play significant roles in the Icelandic sagas of Hrafnkel, Njáll and Grettir.
Development of the Breed
Natural selection played a key role in the development of the breed. A large amount of horses died from starvation and exposure to the elements.
Between 870 AD and 1300 AD Iceland experienced rather mild and warmer weather so that breeders selectively bred according to colours and conformations.
Later, from 1300 to 1900, selective breeding lost importance because the climatic conditions changed towards a colder period resulting in the death of many animals.
As an aftermath of the outbreak of the Laki volcano in 1783, around 70% of the horses in Iceland were killed by lava, clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds and later by starvation.
The equine population slowly recovered during the next hundred years, and from the beginning of the 20th century selective breeding again reclaimed significance.
The first Icelandic breed societies were established in 1904, and the first breed registry was established in 1923.
The first formal exports of Icelandic horses were to Germany in the 1940s, Great Britain's first official imports were in 1956. Since then, the number of Icelandic horses exported to other nations has steadily increased since the first exports of the mid 19th century.
The Icelandic is especially popular in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and North America.
There is an estimated stock of almost 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland (compared to a human population of 317,000) and about 65,000 in Germany making it the second largest breeder worldwide for the friendly breed.
As of today, the Icelandic horse is represented by associations in over 19 countries, with the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF) serving as a governing international parent organization.
Icelandics in Iceland today
These days, most horses are used for competitions and leisure riding but a considerable percentage is bred for meat production- unlike in Germany, where eating horse meat is considered a taboo.
Icelandic horses still play a significant part in their home land where the animals enjoy a lot of freedom, the grazing herds dot the countryside all year long and are a characteristic element of Iceland's landscape.
Iceland without its signature animal is unimaginable.