The Icelandic horse is a special animal. Since the time of the settlement, Icelanders have had this unique breed by their sides, providing transportation and farm labour and inspiring the sagas and folklore. Celebrate these beautiful animals on May 1 – International Day of the Icelandic Horse – and learn more about them below.
First things first: It’s not a pony!
Yes, Icelandic horses stand, on average, 140 cm to their withers. And, yes, that’s well within the parameters of a “pony” (read, anything shorter than 147 cm). But they’re horses, plain and simple, because, well, Icelanders say so.
Squat, muscular, and built to withstand the elements, the Icelandic horse is the embodiment of how Iceland likes to view itself: small but mighty.
They’re very friendly
The Icelandic horse has earned a reputation at home and abroad for being easy-going and friendly. Like well-trained dogs. Which is funny considering how impolite some Icelanders can be – the language doesn’t even have a word for “please.”
Their temperaments can be attributed to nature, since their genetics are so protected (more on that later), or nurture since Icelanders tend to treat their beloved horses like members of the family. So their relaxed attitudes may be a result of the horses’ relaxed lifestyles.
They have a fancy walk
The Icelandic horse is also unique for being one of only a few breeds in the world that can perform five gaits (ways of walking). Other breeds can only perform three or four.
The three common horse gaits are walk, trot, and canter, but the Icelandic horse can also pace and tölt. Tölt is a four-beat lateral gait that’s unique to the Icelandic horse. It’s a sped-up version of walking but much more impressive as the horses lift their front legs up high, with only one hoof touching the ground at any time.
Tölt is a very useful gait for Iceland’s often uneven ground, providing a steady ride. It was presumably the gentlest on the riders’ backside back when horses were the primary mode of transportation.
That said, not all Icelandic horses can tölt, and those that can are usually trained to do it properly. So when you take a riding tour – through the Reykjanes nature preserve, perhaps – be sure to ask for a horse that can tölt so you get to experience a truly unique trait of the Icelandic horse.
They’re guaranteed purebred
Following an unsatisfactory attempt to crossbreed Icelandic and oriental breeds, Iceland’s Viking parliament moved to prevent the degradation of their horses’ genes by forbidding horse imports to Iceland as far back as the year 982. This is the kind of thing you can do when you live on an island.
That means Iceland’s horses have been purebred for over 1000 years. As a result, there are also remarkably few livestock diseases in the country – and authorities keep it that way by even prohibiting riders from bringing their own saddles or riding boots with them to Iceland.
The Icelandic horse’s ancestors first arrived with Viking settlers from the British Isles between 860 and 935 AD. While they’re known ancestors of Shetland, Highland and Connemara ponies, they also have genetic similarities to the Mongolian horse, which arrived in Scandinavia through Russia.
They can never come home again
No, Icelandic horses don’t spend their days reading Thomas Wolfe; rather those same restrictions that prevent the import of other breeds from abroad also apply to any Icelandic horse that leaves the island. They can’t return to Iceland.
As a result, Icelanders participating in international riding competitions never take their best horse along since they will likely sell it before heading home. The crème de la crème of Icelandic horses are kept in Iceland to compete domestically or breed.
They’re part of Iceland’s heritage
Icelandic horses feature heavily throughout the country’s history books. In the Book of Settlement of Iceland, chieftain Sela-Þórir established his settlement at the place where his mare Skálm decided to rest. Meanwhile, in Hrafnkel’s Saga, Njál’s Saga, Grettir’s Saga, and others, horses play important roles in fights, as status symbols, and as plot devices. For example, when the epic hero Gunnar á Hlíðarenda falls to the ground when his horse trips, he looks at his beautiful country and decides to stay rather than be outlawed, which ultimately leads to his death.
In Norse mythology, the most famous equine is, of course, Óðinn’s eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Icelandic horses have the standard four legs, but they can look like eight when they’re zipping along at a flying pace.
You can ride one any time
Possibly the best thing about the Icelandic horse from a visitor’s perspective is that you can ride one just about any time. There are riding centres all over the country offering riding tours so visitors can experience Iceland’s uniquely beautiful nature from the back of Iceland’s uniquely wonderful horses.
Thanks to their aforementioned temperament and size, the Icelandic horse is ideal for inexperienced riders taking a shorter tour, and their smooth gaits make them comfortable for more experienced riders looking to spend a whole day in the saddle.