On the beautiful island of Iceland, in the middle of the cold North Atlantic, amongst volcanos and glaciers, lives the proud and majestic horse breed that has fascinated and enchanted people for centuries – The Icelandic horse. Those who have enjoyed getting acquainted with these intelligent and friendly creatures know these horses are not just like any horse breed. They have a great historical background amongst the Icelandic people that goes back to the Viking Age. But it’s not only their interesting history that makes this horse so interesting, so here are ten facts about the Icelandic horse that you might not have heard of before!
1. Worshipped by the Vikings
When the Vikings moved to Iceland during the 8th century, they brought horses from Norway and the British Isles. During that time, the climate in 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 climate change 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 they could transform themselves into these horses when needed. Therefore, the Vikings would worship the horses, and paradoxically, they would sacrifice them and drink their blood to rub off some of their holiness and strength. In the difficult terrain, where the road network wasn’t properly installed until after WW2, it’s not difficult to understand the Viking’s tribute to the Icelandic horses.
They carried their riders through rain, storms, lava deserts, rivers, glaciers, and mountains, making them vital to survival. For example, they meant everything to the families there, using them as transportation between school and church.
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 because they are weight-bearing. Their short height and small frame easily carry a full-sized adult for long distances. They are well built with a powerful body structure, 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.
3. 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 long lifespan, there is 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 to start an Icelandic horse under saddle until they are at least 4-5 years old. (Other horse breeds usually start around three years old.)
4. A Tourist Attraction
Iceland’s tourism has increased by over 140% from 2021-2022 – the statistics show a steady growth in the last decade and no 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 breed’s calm nature makes them perfect beginner-friendly trail horses.
5. 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 farmers who have purposely left them there to enjoy the rich vegetation. These herds are usually moved around each season and brought back for winter when there is less food forage.
6. Five 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 simultaneously. 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 legs move simultaneously.
This means that the horse lifts and brings forward the legs on one side at a time, which gives a jumping and flying impression. Different Icelandic horses have different approaches to running, walk and flying paces; some find the pace easily, and for others, it does not come as naturally. It depends on how the horse is trained and 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 pace correctly from the beginning.
7. Purest Breed
Since the 11th century, it’s been illegal to import horses into Iceland, which has made the Icelandic horse one of the 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 have already put great effort into the breeding work in the 9th century to preserve the breed’s qualities and characteristics. About 900 years ago, an attempt was made to breed the Icelandic horse with oriental blood from other horse breeds, resulting in a degeneration disaster in the horse breeds.
That’s when the world’s oldest parliament strictly banned importing horses. An Icelandic horse that has left the country once can never return due to the risk of contracting diseases. Therefore, the horses living in Iceland are seldom vaccinated because they are so isolated from diseases common elsewhere. Today, there are 100,000 purebred Icelandic horses registered in Iceland alone.
8. Can Survive in Extreme Temperatures
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.
9. 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.
10. 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
11. 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.