The Icelandic horse is unique in many ways, from its unique color variations, five gaits and status as the only breed in Iceland, this friendly and sturdy small horse has been an inseparable part of Icelandic life from the very beginning, playing a big part in the old Norse mythology as well as the famous Icelandic Sagas.
Brought over by the Norwegian settlers between 860 and 935 AD the ancestors of the Icelandic horse likely mixed with the ancestors of Shetland, Highland and Connemara ponies to form the breed unique to Iceland. Early attempts to breed the horses with eastern breeds failed and led to the ancient Alþingi to ban import of horses altogether in 982 AD. This means that the Icelandic horse has been purebred for over 1000 years. Icelandic horses are small, around 132 – 142 cm, but are not classified as ponies (and we take this very seriously so never refer to them as ponies around Icelanders!) because of their strength, weight carrying abilities and huge personalities. There are many color variations found in the horses’ coats, and the Icelandic language has over 100 words for the various colors and color patterns.
Another singular feature is the horse’s five different gaits. The common gaits all horses have are called walk, trot, and canter, but the Icelandic horse can also pace and do what is called tölt. Tölt is the Icelandic word for the walk, and also the only word for it since no other horse in the world can do it. Tölt seems purposefully made for the often uneven ground of Iceland, providing a smooth and steady ride. Tölt is like a faster version of walking, but much more impressive as the horses lift their front legs up high, and only one foot touches the ground at any time. This high knee run might be familiar to runners as an excellent way to strengthen your legs and make you a better runner. Horses, they’re just like us! However, not all Icelandic horses can do the tölt, and those who have the ability usually need to be trained to do it properly. So if you want to experience the tölt on a riding tour, be sure to ask for a horse that can do it.
As previously mentioned the Icelandic horse is famous for its friendly character and big personality. Experts aren’t sure whether this is solely because of genetics, or if the way we treat them plays a large part as well. Icelandic horses are often treated very much as members of the family. The Icelandic horse is usually friendly, adventurous, smart, and quick to learn, very easy to handle, cooperative both on the ground and while ridden, yet also powerful and very willing to work. These qualities aren’t so surprising given the long distances and hard terrain they had to cover back in the days of the settlers, but the aforementioned import restrictions the breed has retained all these wonderful qualities even though they are now usually only used for light farm work and leisure. The import restrictions also mean that livestock diseases are exceptionally uncommon. They also mean that once an Icelandic horse has left the country it can never come back. Therefore the best horses are kept in Iceland to compete and breed, and riders never take them abroad for competitions since they will likely have to sell the horse afterwards. Luckily Icelandic horses have become very popular internationally. The Icelandic breed has gradually developed into several strains. The biggest of these are the Svaðastaðir and the Hornafjörður strain. Horses descendant of Svaðastaðir are considered to have a more attractive gait and to be more dainty and frisky; while those from Hornafjörður are larger, and have greater endurance and courage. But they are all an integral part of our culture and the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet.