Icelandic Horse

  • HEIGHT: 12.2–14.3 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Iceland, with genetic contributions from the horses of the ancient Celts
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: A small gaited breed with the strength and stamina to carry adults; known for its very fast and extremely smooth gait, the tolt
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Trail, trekking, and endurance

The first act of the first Alting, the Icelandic parliament, in the year 930 CE, was to ban all further importation of horses to Iceland. That law still stands. Vikings arrived in Iceland about 770 CE and had established several colonies by 847 CE. By the time of the first Alting, the human population was about 50,000. The first settlers brought tough, smooth-gaited little horses along with other livestock. Farmers were able to grow hay and several kinds of grain. Dairy cattle, sheep, and horses prospered. The horses did so well that by 930, concern about horse overpopulation resulted in the law banning additional importation.

The first Viking horses from western Norway and the British Isles trace their ancestry back to the ancient Celtic ponies, which were known to be smooth-gaited. Because there has been absolutely no admixture of other breeds for more than 1,000 years, the present-day Icelandic horse is virtually the same horse that arrived with the Vikings. From 874 to 1300, strict rules governed horse breeding, and individuals were selected for color, conformation, and friendliness.

The horses in Iceland today are nearly unchanged from the horses the Vikings rode.

Between about 1300 and 1900, a period now known as the Little Ice Age, scant attention was paid to selective horse breeding, because all human efforts focused on survival. Climatic conditions became exceptionally harsh across all of northern Europe, particularly in Iceland. It was so cold that the North Atlantic froze, stopping shipments of food and goods, and even cold-water codfish, a major food source, moved south to warmer waters. No hay could be grown, and barley, with its short growing season, was the only harvestable grain. In addition, between 1782 and 1784, nearly 70 percent of the remaining horses died of starvation or poisoning from volcanic ash. Somehow, a few of the tough little horses survived.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, as the climate eased a bit, horse breeding in Iceland resumed its importance. In 1920, organized breeding efforts began. The first exports of riding horses were initiated in 1950, and since 1959 breeders have sought to upgrade the quality and appearance of the breed without losing any of the original characteristics. In 1969, an international association of friends of the Icelandic Horse (FEIF) was formed by several Icelandic societies in Europe. The FEIF now has nineteen member countries, made up of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Faeroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

The tolt is an extremely smooth, fast gait performed naturally by Icelandic Horses. Some can also do a flying pace, which is even faster.

The breed has become extremely popular in continental Europe, which has between 80,000 and 100,000 Icelandics. Germany alone has close to 50,000. Iceland itself has about 100,000 of the horses — impressive in a country with a human population of 270,000, half of whom live in a single city.

Breed Characteristics

The Icelandic breed is five-gaited, though not all individuals perform all five. In addition to the usual four-beat walk and the two-beat trot, which is used most during the training of young horses, there is a correct three-beat canter and a natural tolt, which is a smooth, fast, four-beat amble. The tolt is a gait without suspension. In it the horse always has one or two feet on the ground and can reach speeds as fast as a fully extended trot or a canter. Many Icelandics also exhibit a flying pace, a very fast two-beat gait in which the legs on the same side move in unison. In Iceland there are under-saddle races run at this flying pace, which can be as fast as a gallop.

Because Icelandic Horses mature slowly, training is not started until the horses are four, and even then there is only light riding. Without exception, all breeders and riders in Iceland believe that horses should not be trained at an earlier age. At five, real training and work begin for most horses. Icelandics usually live twenty-five or thirty years, and it is not unusual for them to be ridden well into their twenties.

Forty-two colors and patterns are recognized in the breed. Various shades of dun are common.

Island isolation has fostered some unique character traits. Because there are no natural equine predators, Icelandics are calm and not inclined to spook. They are exceptionally friendly toward people, making them ideal companions. They have virtually no immunity to most horse diseases, however, because no horses are ever imported and horses that leave Iceland are never allowed to return.

In the United States, the breed continues to gain popularity. Icelandics make excellent mounts for children and riders with a painful neck or back. They are superb trail, trekking, and endurance horses and are sometimes used for lower-level dressage and jumping.

Conformation

Although these horses are small, usually between 12.3 and 14 hands, owners traditionally refer to them as horses rather than ponies because of their energy, attitude, and impressive strength. These horses routinely carry adults over long distances.

An Icelandic Horse should be rectangular and well proportioned. The head is clean-cut and expressive, with a straight profile. The neck is long, supple, and well set. The shoulders are long and sloping with good muscling. The back is flexible, leading to a wide, muscular croup. The legs are strong with well-defined joints and hard, strong hooves.

Color

Icelandics come in all colors and color patterns known to horses as well as some that are rarely seen in other horse breeds. One Web site mentions forty-two distinct colors or color patterns, all of them with Icelandic names that are difficult to translate into English. In winter the horses have extremely dense, heavy coats. In summer they are sleek but always have an abundant mane and tail.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the United States Icelandic Congress (established in 1987):

• The association is the North American representative to the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.

• The U.S. registry was started in 1988.

• There are about 2,000 horses in the North American registry.

• About 50 new foals are registered each year.

• The Icelandic Horse is the only breed that has a single breed standard, one set of competition rules, and one set of registry rules in all countries in which it is resident.