Icelandic horse winter

5 Facts About The Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horse is a unique breed, brought to the island by Norse settlers and haven’t changed much since. What is so fascinating about the Icelandic horse? Is it its gait, its history and place in Icelandic culture? Read on to learn 5 facts about this creature. 

Icelandic horses

When were they brought to Iceland?

First brought animals to Iceland

It is believed that the Icelandic horse was brought to the island by Vikings around 860 and 935 AD. However, only the best horses were chosen for further breeding; they had been picked according to specific characteristics, such as color and equine conformation. And thus, the modern Icelandic horse was created as the result of many centuries of selective breeding. Interesting research was done, it revealed that there is a link between the Icelandic horse and the Mongolian horse.  

Almost a century ago, Icelanders tried to introduce some eastern blood to the breed. It caused degeneration of the stock, and in 982 AD the law with Alþingi (Icelandic Parliament) was passed to prohibit horses import to Iceland to avoid crossbreeding. This isolation benefited the Icelandic horse, as it is one of the purest horse breeds in the world now. However, the sad side of this law is that any individual animal that is exported, is never allowed to return to Iceland. 

Viking horses

Where to see the Icelandic Horse?

All-year around outside animals

While travelling in Iceland you might see a lot of farms and stables with horses roaming free. Animals are kept mostly outside, even when the weather is nasty. The horse is undaunted by high winds and snowstorms and capable of crossing rough glacier rivers.  

To this day, Icelandic farmers use horses for sheep herding, riding, participating in the gait performances and race competitions. You can read more about sheep herding yearly celebration here. 

Please consider the following recommendations approaching these cute animals 

  • Do not stop in the middle of the road at the first sight of horses. Please, park where it will be visible and safe. 
  • Pet horses when and where it is suitable – on a horse-riding tour, or on a farm asking the owner beforehand. 
  • Do not feed horses – they are well fed, and any wrong food might affect their health. 
  • Never trespass onto private property. Remember most of the Icelandic horses are kept on private land. 

Because these creatures have never had any predators in their natural environment, they are not easily spooked, making them very approachable and friendly. However, keep in mind that they are wild animals capable of biting and kicking.  

Icelandic horse

How long do they live?

Fluffy and long-living

Icelandic horse is well-known by its friendly behavior, gentle temper, and stoic spirit. In Medieval times horses were considered the most valuable possession, war horses were even buried alongside their fallen riders, and they were celebrated in songs and sagas.  

The Icelandic horse is a free spirited, strong animal that provides challenging opportunities for competitive riders, while remaining docile and patient enough for beginner riders too. The Icelandic horse is one of many long-living animals, their average lifetime span is for up to 40 years, with the oldest age of 59. 

Another fascinating fact about the breed is that during winter its coat becomes thicker and sheds when spring comes.  

Icelandic horse winter

God's horses

Old tales about the Icelandic horse

When Norse people came to inhabit Iceland along with horses, they brought their culture and beliefs. In Norse mythology horses are magical, strong, and sometimes evil creatures. First, you might remember the eight-footed pacer Sleipnir, owned by Odin. And in fact, it is a creature born by Loki, being a mare. Twisted and exciting Norse mythology! It is also believed that the infamous horseshoe-shaped canyon Ásbyrgi was created by Sleipnir, who placed one of his feet on the ground and left a deep imprint on the earth. And if you have never seen this magical place, here is another tale to make it even more fascinating. Ásbyrgi is believed to be the capital city of Icelandic hidden people or elves, or Huldufólk as Icelanders call them.  

The first documented horse is Skalm, it is a mare who appeared in the Book of Settlement in the 12th century. You could also meet horses playing significant roles in Hrafnkel’s Saga, Njal’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga. And nowadays many modern riding clubs and horse herds are keeping those mythological names. 

Icelandic horse

Two more gaits

Most of horses perform three general gaits (walk, trot, and canter/gallop), while the Icelandic horse possesses the two additional, called tölt and skeið, or flying pace. The tölt gate is a four-beat lateral ambling gait, known for its speed and riding comfort. As Icelanders joke, this gate was created to drink beer while riding and not spilling it. While skeið is a very rhythmic gallop, a two-beat lateral gait where each side of the horse’s feet moves simultaneously. It is used in pacing races, is fast, and smooth. Some horses can reach up to 30 miles per hour (48 km/h). 

Not all Icelandic horses can perform this gait; those who perform both in addition to the traditional gaits are considered the best of the breed and have a remarkably high market price.  

Icelandic horse gait

There is so much more to learn about the Icelandic horse, like what are the colors, how to name them and when is it best to book a horse- riding tour. If you want to learn more about it, visit the website.

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