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The Icelandic Horse: A Comprehensive Guide

The Icelandic horse, often regarded as one of Iceland’s most beautiful and resilient natural treasures, holds a unique place not just in the hearts of the Icelandic people, but also among horse enthusiasts around the world. This guide delves into the fascinating world of Icelandic horses, providing valuable insights for anyone interested in these magnificent creatures.

Icelandic horses in Icelandic mountains

History and origin of Icelandic horse

The Icelandic horse is a breed that was brought to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Over the centuries, due to Iceland's remote location, the breed has remained relatively pure. The ancestors of these horses played a vital role in the daily life and survival of the Icelandic people, making them more than just animals but true partners in the colonization and cultivation of the Icelandic landscape.

Characteristics and traits

Standing on average at about 142 cm (56 inches) at the withers, Icelandic horses are often mistaken for ponies. However, their strength, personality, and endurance are anything but pony-like. Known for their incredible sturdiness and longevity, these horses often live well into their twenties and beyond. They exhibit a variety of coat colors, and the Icelandic language includes over 100 terms for the various colors and patterns.

A tourist with Icelandic horses befre the riding tour

One of the most distinctive features of the Icelandic horse is its gait. Besides the common walk, trot, and canter/gallop, Icelandic horses have two additional gaits - the tölt and the flying pace. The tölt is a smooth, four-beat gait that offers a comfortable ride even over rough terrain, making it ideal for long rides across the Icelandic countryside. The flying pace, or skeið, is a fast and smooth gait used primarily in racing, capable of speeds up to 30 mph (48 km/h), though it is not suited for long distances.

The Icelandic horse in culture

Icelandic horses are not merely riding animals; they are deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture. They have been immortalized in ancient sagas, celebrated in festivals like the Landsmót—a biennial event that is the largest gathering of Icelandic horses and showcases their beauty, skills, and unique characteristics—and featured prominently in traditional roundups like the Réttir, where communities come together to herd their animals back from summer pastures.

Horse riding in Iceland

Exploring Iceland on horseback is an authentic way to experience the nation’s breathtaking landscapes. Numerous farms and tour operators across Iceland offer horse riding tours suitable for all levels of experience, from beginners to seasoned riders.

These tours can vary in duration from short rides to multi-day adventures, providing an intimate glimpse of Iceland's rugged terrain, volcanic fields, and lush valleys.

International popularity

Today, the Icelandic horse is beloved worldwide, with active breeding and riding communities across Europe and North America.

Due to its friendly demeanor and unique gait, the breed is particularly popular for therapeutic riding programs, providing comfort and support to individuals with disabilities.

Tourists in Iceland on their riding tour with Icelandic horses

Are Icelandic horses ponies?

Icelandic horses are often compared and named as ponies. Their size does match the size of a pony, which is around 130-145cm. They are formally, however, registered as horses, and we do not recommend you to refer to them as ponies in front of any Icelander! Try to avoid this word when speaking with some locals, if you still want to make some friends here. There is no word like pony in the Icelandic language, which can give you an idea of what a great insult it is for Icelanders.

They look incredibly charming, which makes you want to squeeze them, but they are also sturdy and able to survive even in very harsh winters. That is why you should as well show them more respect and do not treat them as ponies. Meeting them while traveling around the well known Ring Road is common. They are very friendly and gentle, so there is nothing to be afraid of when approaching them. If you happen to meet them, you will see how soon they will come close to you! They are known as curious animals and will take a chance to meet new people. You can go ahead and touch them and pet them. However, do not pass the fence and do not feed them as it can only harm them. Do not miss the chance of taking a selfie with them. They are incredibly photogenic! Their character was shaped in that way due to a lack of natural predators in their environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is so special about Icelandic horses?

Icelandic horses are not only revered for their unique gaits—the tölt and the flying pace—but also for their remarkable temperament, hardiness, and strong bond with humans, making them exceptional both as work animals and companions.

Are there any Icelandic horses in the US?

Yes, there are several Icelandic horses in the United States. They were first imported in the mid-20th century and have since gained a following, with many breed registries and associations across the country dedicated to their preservation and promotion.

Can Icelandic horses be ridden?

Absolutely! Icelandic horses are known for their strength and durability, making them ideal for riding. They are used in a variety of equestrian activities in Iceland and abroad, famed for their ability to navigate rough terrain with ease.

Why do Icelandic horses tölt?

The tölt is a natural gait possessed by Icelandic horses that allows for swift, smooth movement across the challenging landscapes of Iceland. This gait is comfortable for both the horse and rider, making it possible to cover long distances without tiring quickly.



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