Over one thousand years ago, settlers brought an ancient breed of horse from Norway to Iceland. Today, the descendants of these horses have evolved into the much-loved breed known as the Icelandic Horse.
By Nadia Aslam. Photos by Daniela Greis
The breed from which they descend are now extinct in their native Norway – but will forever live on through their Icelandic offspring. The government and people of Iceland have played a vital role in ensuring that these horses not only survive but also thrive on the rugged island terrain, which they now call home.
Perhaps one of the most vital decisions, which secured their survival, is the absolute ban on equine imports to the country of Iceland. Many people are unaware of this rule, but it is 100% accurate. No horse may be brought into the country of Iceland, even if it originally comes from the island. As soon as they leave – they are unable to return.
This strict import ban is in part due to concerns of contagious disease, and in part – to preserve the bloodlines of this noble breed that has played a vital role in shaping the country, and culture of Iceland.
A Big Horse in a Small Horse’s Body
Standing between 125 and 145 cm in height, the Icelandic horses are often compared to the Shetland pony in terms of power – as their stature is no indication of their strength.
Utilized by Vikings hundreds of years ago as the only form of transport through harsh terrain, and across glaciers. The Vikings are, of course, well known for their imposing size, and while there is a common misconception that due to their smaller height, these are “ponies,”
But the Icelandic Horse is just that – a horse and they are more than capable of carrying fully grown adults with great ease and stamina.
Vikings were the first herdsmen, pairing the strongest mares, and stallion to create an even hardier, and stronger breed, they set the standard for what we see today.
Current breeders often consider developing the breed their patriotic duty. Thanks to this, there have been significant advances in breeding programs over the past ten years alone, with the average height of the Icelandic horse increasing by approximately 20 cm in that time.
“There are twenty-one countries that all have their own Icelandic Horse chapters, and the breed is especially popular in Germany, with over 50,000 living in the country. You can even find them in countries like Australia, the Philippines, and New Zealand! “
For those with no experience of the breed, it can be difficult to put together a mental image of what the Icelandic truly is. I would say that their temperament, physical aptitude, and agility make this breed highly comparable to the American Quarter Horse.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, much like the Quarter Horse – The Icelandic Horse is adept at livestock herding. As opposed to cow sense, they are more renowned for their sheep sense! Working the native sheep of Iceland with precision, finesse, and composure.
The Only Horse That Can Fly
One of the most unique qualities of this breed is, of course, their gaits. With the majority of horse breeds having three or four natural gaits – The Icelandic Horse surpasses this with five natural gaits, two of which are found in no other breed in the world.
A natural gait is one that a horse is born able to perform, they have the innate instinct to move in this way, and no training is required to teach these gaits.
The first three gaits consist of, the walk, trot, and canter. With the two exclusive gaits being incredibly distinctive, these are the Tölt and the Flying Pace.
The Tölt is a natural four beat gait that is renowned for being incredibly comfortable to ride. Following the same pattern as the walk, an Icelandic Horse can Tölt at up to 32 km per hour. Visitors to Iceland will often get the chance to see Foals Tölt while playing in the field. If given the opportunity, we recommend trying it out under saddle – it truly is one of the smoothest rides that you’ll ever experience.
The Flying Pace is an incredibly fast-paced two-beat gait in which the horse moves both legs on one side simultaneously as opposed to diagonally. The name “flying pace” comes from the fact that during the gait, all hooves are off of the ground simultaneously. And, of course – as some can perform this gait up to 48 km per hour.
This highly intelligent breed is at their most content when working, because of this, they thrive in a competitive environment. Icelandic Horse enthusiasts both in Iceland, and around the world have many competitive opportunities open to them – whether they choose to compete in specific Icelandic horse competitions, or branch out into more mainstream disciplines.
The breed specific classes tend to focus on the quality of gaits, willingness of the horse, and conformation. The Icelandic horse, unwilling to be outdone by his more common counterparts has also been seen competing with the best of them in the Dressage, Showjumping, Western, and Mounted Games arenas to name but a few.
Until ten or so years ago, many people didn’t know much about the country of Iceland.
Instagram and other photo sharing sites have helped to show off the beauty of the country. Thanks in part to this, and the prevalence of International travel among millennials, the country is seeing more and more tourists visit their little island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.
With a rather modest population sitting somewhere around the 350,000 mark, the country warmly welcomes over 2,000,000 tourists per year. Tourism obviously plays a vital role in the economy of the country, and one of the biggest attractions is – The Icelandic Horse.
A Horse For Everyone, or Near Enough
The horse population in Iceland currently sits at 97,900, meaning that for every three people, there is one Icelandic horse.
Suffice to say; it makes sense that there is so much participation in horse sport when it’s so readily available.
“This mysterious and majestic breed is a favorite with artists, and photographers alike, they have long been pictured running loose across the beautiful and rugged terrain that is Iceland.”
While there is a ban on the import, there is no such rule for the export of horses – therefore, you’ll see Icelandic dotted around many countries throughout the world.
There are twenty-one countries that all have their own Icelandic Horse chapters, and the breed is especially popular in Germany, with over 50,000 living in the country.
You can also find them in Australia, the Philippines, and New Zealand! Currently, the number of registered Icelandic horses outside of the country is 167,709.
Breeding For Excellence
In this day and age, the Icelandic Horse Breeding industry is a force to be reckoned with. With hundreds of registered breeders all aiming to breed the very best.
So, what is the best in the Icelandic Horse World? A horse that is well muscles has harmonic proportions, exceptional gaits, and is willing in his work.
In this day and age, quality breeding stallions are abundant; which certainly makes for more varied breeding. Whereas back in the day, there were a few stallions that were the hit of the age, and now have an incredible amount of offspring, the selection available has come on in leaps and bounds.
Of course, the winners of the big competitions always tend to have a lot of foals hitting the ground the following year, but this is a trend that I’m confident we’ll always see in horse breeding.
What The Future Holds
There is strong support for the breeding, training, and education surrounding this rugged steed, backed by initiatives such as the Icelandic Horse Expo, and Horses of Iceland.
Both programs aim to spread the word of the breed far and wide. Promoting responsible breeding, and proper horsemanship are two vital areas of importance.
There is still the struggle of overcoming the misconception that horsemanship is not a priority – when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Granted – some Icelandic horses are spending their days simply meandering over coastal bushland, and enjoying the awe-inspiring scenery. But, Iceland is also home to several renowned horsemanship programs, state of the art equestrian centers, and horses trained to the highest levels of horsemanship.
With the help of the powerful, and intelligent Icelandic Horse, professional horsewomen, and men graduate from these programs and go on to make an impact on the equine industry in countries around the world.
It’s inspiring to know that for a child in Dubai, could be taking their very first riding lesson with an instructor who owes their education, and knowledge, to the horses, and horse folk of this small island in the North Atlantic Ocean!
This mysterious and majestic breed is a favorite with artists, and photographers alike, they have long been pictured running loose across the beautiful and rugged terrain that is Iceland. Recently, the breed had the honor of being featured in the photographic book titled “Iceland” by renowned photographer Alex Asensi.
You would be forgiven for assuming that the Icelandic Horse spends all of their time living on the land, but alas – Iceland is home to a rich eco-system of horsemanship, with training programs that bring future equestrians from far and wide to train with the Icelandic horse.
I would go as far as to call them Scandinavia’s answer to the Quarter Horse, with a placid nature, combined with sure-footed athleticism.
The Icelandic Horse is on the up and up, and with the efforts of Icelandic Horse Expo, and Horses of Iceland – we look forward to seeing much more of this small horse with a big heart in the future.
Huge thank you to Icelandic Horse Expo and Horses of Iceland for letting us know more about the Icelandic Horses, presented by Jelena and Runar.