The Icelandic horse: a small but mighty but undoubtedly magnificent creature.
A horse breed with historical background, there are around 80,000 of these horses still in Iceland today.
What makes the Icelandic horse so special? How big are they? What speeds can they reach?
Keep reading to find out everything you want to know about this beautiful creature.
History of the Icelandic Horse
These animals were brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries.
They are related to the Mongolian horse and are cousins of the Shetland, Exmoor, and Norwegian Fjord ponies.
Almost a millennia ago, there were attempts to crossbreed the Icelandic horse, but this lead to a degeneration in its traits. For this reason, a law was introduced to ban the import of horses to Iceland. To this day, the Icelandic horse remains a pure breed.
Norse mythology is closely connected to the Icelandic horse; many of the gods had horses. Horses were well respected and were a sign of power. They were an essential means of transport and important in warfare.
Many famous horses play important roles in Norse myths. For example, Skalm and Sleipner are two horses who feature by name in the myths. Horses were so well respected they were often buried next to their warrior.
Many modern riding schools and horse clubs in Iceland take their names from the Icelandic horse names in the Norse legends.
Icelandic horses are tough; they have to withstand the harsh winter conditions in the country. This has led them to become hardy and strong. Many other characteristics make them unique.
On average, an Icelandic horse is a tiny 52 to 56 inches tall (which is 13 to 14 hands). It weighs between 700 and 800lbs.
Their small size should put them in the pony category. But this small creature is mighty with a dense bone structure and immense strength. For this reason, they are referred to as horses rather than ponies.
There are 40 different colors of the Icelandic horse; these include brown, grey, palomino, white, bay, dun, and chestnut. There are more than 100 words for the colors and various markings of the horse in the Icelandic language.
Physical Attributes and Ability
These are tough creatures who can wade through icy rivers and survive extreme temperatures. Their thick coat keeps them warm in winter, and they can navigate the rough landscapes of their homeland.
Their thick winter coats malts in summer to give them lighter fur for the warmer months.
Their stocky, hardy strength is one of the many attributes that make these animals special. The oldest recorded Icelandic horse was 56 years old, but the average lifespan is 40.
They have coarse hair for their mane and tail and a stocky build. The horse’s shoulders are strong and wide; their legs are short but strong.
Icelandic horses are also extremely fertile, which is why there are so many of them on such a small island! They very rarely suffer from birth complications.
One of the most famous attributes of this little horse is its five gaits. Most horses only have 3 gaits (speeds): walking, trotting, and cantering/galloping.
The Icelandic horse tölt is the fourth Icelandic horse gait, a four-beat gait that is speedy and explosive. When riding this gait, you can cover a lot of ground. The horse’s feet move in the same rhythm as when it walks, and it is a smooth gait considering the speed.
The other extra Icelandic horst gait is the skeið, or flying speed. This is a two-beat gait in which both feet on the same side land at the same time. It may not be quite as smooth as the tölt, but the speeds can be up to 30 miles an hour!
Would you try riding the Icelandic horse flying speed?
The Icelandic horse has the tölt and flying speed; it’s not something that needs to be trained. Not every horse can use all five gaits, though.
The Icelandic horse temperament is gentle and soft. These animals are well-loved as they are unlikely to spook or buck. They have no natural predators in their environment, so they aren’t scared.
Icelandic horses are easy to take care of. They don’t need any special diet and be fed a regular feed. Their years of roaming outside and eating the grass have served them well when it comes to digestion.
Due to the purity of their breed, Icelandic horses suffer from next to no known health issues. They tend to live long and happy lives.
The Icelandic law prohibiting other breeds from being imported has positively impacted the health of the breed. Even horse equipment coming from abroad needs to be brand new or disinfected to avoid contamination with the Icelandic horses.
The positive impact of these strict rules is that the horses remain disease-free. However, were a disease to make it to the Island, it would be catastrophic for the breed. None of them are immune to common diseases.
Uses and Competitions
Modern-day farmers still sometimes use horses on the land to herd sheep in the highlands of the Island.
However, their main use is in shows, races, and competitions. They are also used for leisure riding, cross country, and trekking for long distances. These horses won’t be trained for competing until they are at least 4 years old.
Where Can You Find Icelandic Horses?
Outside of Iceland, there are approximately 100,000 Icelandic horses. About 50,000 are in Germany; the rest are in other European countries, the USA and Canada.
You can join many societies and clubs if you want to ride Icelandic horses, such as The United States Icelandic Horse Congress.
Want to learn more about horse behavior and how to train them? Check out some of our other guides.