There are few animals in Iceland. And even fewer that have managed to thrive. The Icelandic horse, however, is one of them, having mastered life on the island since the Age of the Settlement. The harsh climate; the fast-changing weather, with its strong winds; and the rough landscape have selected for a robust and hardy horse, capable of withstanding the harshest of weather conditions.
In this article, we briefly review the history of the Icelandic horse – when it first arrived on the island and why it became so popular.
When did the Icelandic horse first arrive in Iceland?
Between the years 860 and 935 AD, Vikings, fleeing the Norwegian king, brought horses with them to Iceland. Although there is no agreement among scholars regarding the exact origin of the Icelandic horse, many of its traits are believed to evolved as the Vikings endeavoured to find new land.
While searching for new territory, the Vikings lost some of their horses and were forced to replace them during raids in northern Scotland. And so it is believed that the ancestors of today’s Icelandic horses were Germanic ponies (small stature, powerful, expressive) that the Vikings crossed with Celtic ponies (lighter body, more elegant), which they also transported to Iceland.
With more than 40 different colours and 100 colour variations, the Icelandic horse is the most colourful breed in the world.
Because of the high humidity in the south, the descendants of the Celtic ponies could only survive on the northern half of the island (North and East Iceland are more influenced by the weather in Greenland), where the climate is colder and more oceanic, translating to cool summers and comparatively mild winters relative to the latitude. In addition to the ocean currents – i.e. the warm Irminger current in the south and the cold Greenland current in the North and East – Iceland’s massive glaciers also exercise a significant impact on the climate. The Vatnajökull glacier, for example, is the reason for the warm, humid air in North Iceland.
The role of the Icelandic horse during the settlement
The settlement of Iceland would not have been possible without horses, and the history of the island is inextricably linked to these hardy animals.
Few northern countries feature landscapes as difficult to traverse as Iceland. Over the centuries, the Icelanders relied on the aid of the loyal and brave horse to travel over rugged areas, such as glaciers and lava fields, and sparse settlements were connected with the help of this vigorous animal. Survival was a matter of collaboration: when herding sheep in spring and autumn; when transporting hay, grass, or wood – the farmer could never have survived without his four-legged friend.
Furthermore, the Sleipnirs and Odinns – or whatever they named their horses – accompanied the farmers on their visits to neighbours; carried them to the sanctuary of the church; served to transport the sick; and carried the dead on their way to their final resting place.
Through the years, before the advent of the automobile, the Icelandic horse was the only way to traverse long distances in extremely difficult terrain.
The horse’s purity
According to legend, Althing, the Icelandic parliament, banned the import of horses to Iceland as early as 930. Therefore, the Icelandic horse evolved in isolation without the introduction of foreign diseases.
This makes the Icelandic horse the only breed that has been kept pure for over 1,000 years (i.e. the oldest known pure breed in the world).
The ban on importing horses has only been enforced since 1909.
To this day, Icelandic farmers continue to breed horses and sheep. The horses have always been bred for meat, with only about 40% of horses being used in breeding or as riding horses. While grassy South Iceland has always bred horses for meat, farmers in other regions have specialised in the breeding of riding horses (especially in North Iceland, which has placed greater emphasis on horse riding and competing).
The official breeding goal for Icelandic horses is to produce a healthy, fertile, and long-lasting riding horse: a robust, yet elegant, and versatile horse with five excellent gaits (walk, trot, tölt, gallop, racing pass). The figure of the horse should be conducive to optimal natural balance, and the horse’s movements should be smooth, high, and space-consuming in all gaits, resulting in an elegant and powerful appearance.
The size of the Icelandic horse can vary considerably, namely from just over 1.30 cm at the highest point of the withers up to more than 1.50 cm in height. The average height of the horses according to breeding shows is just under 1.40 cm at the withers.
Icelandic horses have unique colours, being one of the most colourful breeds in the world. Indeed, with more than 40 colours in almost 100 variations, colour is among the Icelandic horse’s most valuable traits. The most common colours are red (chestnut) and black (brown), and there is a tendency among breeders to select for these colours.
The horses are robust and weather-hardy, as they develop a particularly dense winter coat that enables them to spend the winter outdoors in their Icelandic home.
The fascination with the Icelandic horse
Owing to their friendly nature, their intelligence, and their remarkable sure-footedness – along with their keen sense of orientation – the Iceland horse has become a well-regarded and beloved animal.
However, the Icelanders’ fascination with their native horses underwent a period of decline during the advent of automobiles, with many locals believing that the horses had outlived their usefulness. This could have spelt the end of these incredible animals, given that they had traditionally served as riding, (sheep herding), draft, or pack horses (to pull cars out of rivers and swamps). With a few exceptions, the Icelanders became slightly indifferent to their horses and their many admirable qualities.
In fact, the whole breed was in danger throughout the age of industrialisation; in 1940, the Icelandic state considered giving up horse breeding and slaughtering the horses. Fortunately, a few vocal advocates opposed such proposals and remained committed to the conservation of the Icelandic horse. In 1950, the Icelandic equestrian Gunnar Bjarnason developed the idea of a nationwide breeding and competition meet to salvage the reputation of the horse (to this day, the event attracts an international audience).
The so-called Landsmót was a great success, with riders flocking to the meet from all parts of the country (even from the North, from Akureyri, 25 riders travelled with 100 horses). Since then, the meeting has become a permanent fixture. It takes place every four years, alternating between North and South Iceland.
With the advent of the Icelandic horses, a new attitude toward the horse as a leisure partner was adopted, new ways of riding became widespread, and new concepts for species-appropriate horse-keeping prevailed.
Soon the rest of the world learned about the unusual characteristics of the Icelandic horse. When the tourist industry in Iceland exploded, a new success story began with an ever-growing fascination with horseback riding tours in Iceland.
Today, there are many riding clubs on the island, comprising around 7,000 riders. The stables of the Club Fákur in Reykjavik alone houses over a thousand riding horses. The Icelandic Riding Clubs are united in the “National Riding Club Association.”
Exploring Iceland by 4×4 vehicle is a fantastic adventure, but there is nothing quite like discovering the beauty of Iceland on the back of an Icelandic horse; anyone who has tried it, will want to do it again and again.