Isfaxa Icelandic Horses
About Icelandic Horses
Icelandic Horses, a short history
By Bonnie Swenson

Icelandic horses were brought to the island by Viking settlers over 1100 years ago.   
The Vikings came by boat, and due to their limited space, brought only the best and
strongest with them.  The strongest men, the best women, and the best horses
(believed to be from the British Isles and Western Norway).  The Vikings used these
horses for transportation, warmth, work, and occasionally for food.  The horse was a
vital asset to the settlers, and became a major part of their culture.

Over the centuries, the horses adapted to Iceland’s harsh conditions including
limited food sources and brutal weather.  They grew shorter, stockier, and hardier.  
They developed a thick double coat to survive cold winters.  Their bones are 1.6
times denser than regular horses.  They have a warming chamber in their noses
that warms the air before it is inhaled.  Their stomach is 1/3 smaller, allowing them to
become “full” on a smaller amount of food.  Their gut is 1/3 longer, allowing them to
digest their food more efficiently, and retain as much nutrients as possible.  This
makes them “easy keepers.”  They stand at 12-14 hands, and are considered
ponies by American standards.  However, they are a breed of horse, bred to carry
adults (Vikings no less!).  They weigh about 800 to 1000 pounds as adults.  There
is no word in Icelandic for “Pony.”

The horses mature slowly, not reaching full maturity until age 5.  Many run wild in
the mountains for the early years of their lives, gaining strength, surefootedness,
and natural social awareness.  Training is started on the ground at age 4, and
advanced riding and gait work continues at age 5.  Traditionally, Icelandic horses
can be mounted from either side.  This originated from the placement of the sword
at the Viking’s side, but has evolved into a belief that whatever you teach one side
of a horse, you should teach to the other.  This has led to evenly developed neck
muscles, an evenly distributed mane, and a well rounded mind.  Because they
mature slowly, and their training is not rushed, their usefulness lasts into their 20’s.  
It is not uncommon to ride them into their 30’s.  The oldest Icelandic horse on record
was 52 years old.

There are no natural predators in Iceland.  As the horses adapted to their
surroundings, they shed the “fight or flight” instinct that still exists in other breeds.  
Throughout Iceland’s history, ill tempered horses have been excluded from breeding
programs.  This ongoing process has produced a breed that is calm, affectionate
and docile.  Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but overall the Icelandic
horse is steady, surefooted and solid. Having been bred traditionally as farm and
family horses, they are generally friendly and very intelligent.  

The Icelandic horse is naturally 4 and 5 gaited.  They all demonstrate walk, trot, tölt,
and canter.  The tölt is a four beat running walk, similar to a rack.  The gait is
natural to this breed, and is often expressed in the field as early as the day the foal
is born.  The gait is smooth and allows the rider to travel for miles in comfort.  This
“gait of the gods” is preferred for trekking, pleasure rides, or competitions.  Three
recognized speeds for the tölt are “slow tölt,” “working tölt,” and “fast tölt.”  Fast tölt
can reach speeds of 25 mph.  Many Icelandic horses also demonstrate a fifth gait
called Flying Pace.  The flying pace is a two-beat lateral gait used for racing short
stretches at high speeds, up to 36 mph.  Pace is most often used in races and
competitions.

In the 1100 AD, fear of disease prompted Iceland to close its borders to importing
animals.  The ban on importing horses and many other animals has never been
lifted.  This, and a great deal of pride in the purebred Icelandic horse, has led to a
perfectly preserved pure breed of horse.  Even today, once a horse leaves Iceland,
it can never return.  Breeding guidelines were established early on, and all breeding
horses are registered and evaluated for conformation and riding ability.  Icelanders
take great pride in the quality of their horses, and exclude sub-standard horses from
the breeding programs.

Today the Icelandic horse is virtually identical to those brought over by the Vikings.  
There are as many as 45,000 horses in Iceland, many running free in the
mountains.  The culture has evolved to keep the horse a national treasure.  As
many as 80% of Icelanders own horses today.  Riding roads can be found across
the country, and horse houses speckle the outskirts of towns and cities.  Cars were
unavailable in Iceland until about 40 years ago, so horses were a major source of
transportation.  Festivals, competitions, round-ups, and shows remain a constant
source of serious recreation for Icelanders, young and old.  

In 1955 the Icelandic horse was imported to Germany, and since then a large
Icelandic horse community has grown there and spread throughout Europe.  There
are over 30,000 Icelandic horses in Europe today.  World Championship
competitions and evaluations are held annually.

Importation to North America began about 30 years ago.  There are approximately
1800 registered Icelandic horses in the US today, with many more in Canada or
unregistered in the US.  Icelandic horses are traditionally ridden “English,” but are
very versatile.  They can ride western, drive carts and do many traditional farm
duties such as pull logs and hay fields. Due in part to their smooth gaits, but also to
their calm character, they are often used in therapeutic riding.  We’ve often seen
horses adjust their behavior to be especially gentle toward children.

The Icelandic horse is a gentle, powerful and beautiful animal.  Pure for over 900
years, this breed is truly unique, rare, and exotic.

(Article from Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America Winter 2004 Newsletter)
Icelandic Horses
Fast Tolt.  
Photo by Bonnie Swenson at
Landsmot,  1998
Flying Pace.  
Photo by Bonnie Swenson at
Landsmot, 1998