The Icelandic horse is just how Iceland likes to perceive itself: little but strong. They are squat and muscular and in winter they have long shaggy fur.
Icelandic horses tend to be around 140 cm tall. Internationally, most horse breeds shorter than 1.47 metres are dubbed “ponies” but there are also some other characteristics that make a horse a pony. The Icelandic horse is right on the limit but all our horses are horses because we say they are.
In fact, the Icelandic horse’s closest relative is the Shetland pony, who gets called a pony to its face because apparently, Shetland isn’t looking out for its equine friends the way we do ours.
The Icelandic horse has become popular outside of Iceland for being easy-going and friendly. In fact, they are famous for their temperament and I’ve personally been shocked when I meet international horses, how temperamental they can be. Which is funny considering how impolite we Icelanders can be; our language doesn’t even have a word for “please.”
I once talked with an expert who wondered if this was due to genetics, or to the way we treat them. Icelandic horses are often treated very much as members of the family and are not generally subjected to the strict riding form and discipline I’ve seen put on foreign horses. So it may just be that they have a more relaxed life.
The Icelandic Horse is also unique as it is the only horse breed in the world that can perform five gaits (ways of walking), while other, horse breeds can only perform three or four.
The common gaits are called walk, trot, and canter, but Icelandic horses 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 basically, only the Icelandic horse can do it.
Tölt is a sped up 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.
Tölt is very useful for the often uneven ground of Iceland, providing a steady ride, and was presumably especially needed back in the day when there weren’t many roads in Iceland.
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 when you take a riding tour, be sure to ask for a horse which can do the tölt.
Following an unsatisfying attempt to crossbreed the Icelandic horse with oriental breeds, the Viking parliament Althing forbade horse imports to Iceland as far back as 982 AD, to prevent the degeneration of the stock. This is the kind of thing you can do when you live on an island.
As a result, our horse has been purebred for over 1000 years and we have remarkably few livestock diseases, as well as very strict regulations about even bringing saddles or riding boots with you to Iceland.
Due to the aforementioned import restrictions, once an Icelandic horse leaves the country, it can never return to Iceland. This means that Icelanders going to riding competitions abroad never take their best horse with them since they will probably sell it after some competitions. The best horses are kept in Iceland to compete or breed.
The ancestors of the Icelandic Horse first arrived with Viking settlers from the British Isles, between 860 and 935 AD. These same horses are also the ancestors of Shetland, Highland and Connemara ponies. Genetically, these show some similarities to the Mongolian horse, which arrived in Scandinavia through Russia.
Recent studies show that descendants of these ambling horses gradually spread all over the world with Viking seafarers, presumably because they are more comfortable to ride.
Historically, a quality Icelandic horse was a highly desired prize, both for practical purposes and as a status symbol. They have a place in Norse mythology, most notably in Sleipnir, Óðinn’s eight-legged horse.
They follow us from our very earliest history, for instance in the book of settlements, where the chieftain Sela-Þórir set up his settlement at the place where his mare Skálm decided to rest. In the Icelandic Sagas, e.g. in Hrafnkel’s Saga, Njál’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga, horses play important roles, for instance in horse fights, as status symbols, and not least as plot devices. For instance, the epic hero Gunnar á Hlíðarenda falls off when his horse trips, looks at his beautiful country and decides to stay rather than be outlawed, which ultimately leads to his death.
To this day, horse breeding and competing are associated with status and wealth – breeding a good horse can generate a lot of wealth and because some wealthy people spend a lot of money on their horses.
When the whole world was horrified to hear they’d been fed horse meat in disguise a few years ago, some (insensitive) Icelanders shared a hearty chuckle, since horsemeat is no big deal in our society. In fact, one of the conditions we had when we converted to Christianity in 1000 AD was that we could still eat horse (another was that we could still pray to the old gods, just not in public).
It’s not something most of us eat all the time, but you will see it on your menu from time to time, and it’s not bad food at all if you’re into that kind of thing.
There are so many tours you can choose from to ride an Icelandic horse in its natural habitat when you visit Iceland. Even if you’ve never sat on a horse before, not only are the Icelandic horses renowned for their pleasant temperament, they’re also much shorter than other horses – if you fall off, it won’t be far! If you’re a more experienced rider, we recommend taking a whole day tour, or even some longer trips if you’ve got the time. The Icelandic highlands are stunning and really, exploring them on horseback, just like the original settlers did, is the only way to go.