The Icelandic is an important part of Iceland’s history and culture. Learn about the origins of the Icelandic and the special qualities preserved in this unique breed.
Hardy, willing, friendly, versatile and sure-footed – these are just a few characteristics that puts the Icelandic horse in a category all its own. It’s no wonder that this unique breed, which remained isolated for almost 1,000 years, is quickly growing in popularity around the globe. But how did the Icelandic get its start?
The Icelandic’s origins
DNA evidence shows that Icelandic horses are genetically linked to the Mongolian horse, the Norwegian Lyng horse and the Shetland pony. How did they all get to Iceland? Archaeologists believe humans from Central Asia (including Mongolia) likely brought their horses with them when they migrated to Northern Europe. These animals bred with the local horses, and their progeny traveled with the Norwegian Vikings when they explored Iceland during the 9th century. The Shetland ponies likely arrived with Celtic monks in the 7th century, or came directly from the Shetland Islands after the Vikings conquered these areas in 800 AD. Logic dictates that only the strongest and best of their stock would have survived these difficult journeys. No equine breeding stock has been permitted to enter Iceland for almost 1,000 years, so the purity and unique characteristics of the Icelandic horse remain perfectly preserved.
Living a natural life
In its native country, the Icelandic lives a very natural lifestyle. Iceland is rugged and has highly variegated terrain, with many volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and inland waterways. The summer grass is lush and nutritious for horses, but in the winter, forage is thin and winds can reach gale force intensity. Horses have traditionally lived outside, left to hone their survival instincts within a herd. The Icelandic 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!
Why the “tölt” is the “gait of the gods”
The Icelandic has five natural gaits
: walk, trot, tölt, canter and pace. Not all horses exhibit five gaits, but most have walk, trot, canter and tölt. Riders prize the tölt above all the others, and even refer to this exceptionally smooth four-beat trot as the “gait of the gods”. A natural tölter is an absolute 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!
The Icelandic work ethic
Until the late nineteenth century, Icelandic 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 one 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.org.