The Icelandic – “Horse of the Gods”

Hardy, willing, friendly, versatile, sure-footed – the long list of positive breed characteristics puts the Icelandic Horse in a category of its own. Isolated for almost a thousand years, this unique creature is quickly growing in popularity around the globe. DNA evidence shows that Icelandic Horses are genetically linked to the Shetland Pony, the Norwegian Lyng Horse and the Mongolian Horse. Archeologists believe that Viking explorers and brought their horses from Norway, and the recently conquered Shetland Islands, to Iceland in the late ninth century.  Logic dictates that only the strongest and best of their stock would have survived the difficult journey. No equine breeding stock has been permitted to enter Iceland for almost a thousand years, preserving the “purity” and unique characteristics of the breed.

Icelandic Horse at the Iowa Horse Fair
Figure 1.  Icelandic Horse at the Iowa Horse Fair

The Icelandic has five natural gaits: walk, trot, tölt, canter and pace. Not all horses have five gaits, but most have walk, trot, canter and tölt, which is prized above others. Tölt, the “gait of the gods,” is a four beat trot, which is exceptionally smooth. A natural tölter is a joy to ride! Skeið, or “flying pace” is a very lateral gait with suspension. Horses can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour in pace. It feels like you are flying!

Icelandic Horse
Figure 2.  Icelandic Horse Galloping

Iceland is a county of rugged and highly variegated terrain. Volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and inland waterways are all prevalent. The summertime grass is lush and nutritious for horses, but in the wintertime, forage is thin and winds can be gale force and biting. Horses have traditionally lived outside- left to hone their survival instincts within a herd. The horse has no natural predators in Iceland, which likely contributes to its friendly and trusting temperament. After weaning, horses are left to mature within a herd in the mountains; in other words, to “be a horse.” Young horses are not handled at all until training begins at the age of four. Icelanders believe that growing up in a natural environment; struggling for food, and walking long distances on difficult terrain in harsh weather creates strong, willing and respectful horses. My experience only confirms this theory.

Until the late nineteenth century, horses were used for transport and work on the farm as well as pleasure riding; Iceland simply could not have been settled without the horse. With such an important historical role, horses are a national treasure and an important part of the country’s culture. There is a horse for every fourth person in Iceland! Icelandic mares are very fertile, maintaining their estrus cycle throughout the entire year. In order to preserve its special qualities, breeding is now closely monitored by the world governing association. To learn more, visit Icelandics Horse Association.

By Virginia Lauridsen, Harmony Icelandics and Carla Clark, Iowa Horse Council Breed Coordinator