The Icelandic Horse

The Icelandic Horse

Photo: Kathy Whittington

By Melanie Huggett

A land of volcanoes, tundra, and rough terrain, Iceland sits in the north Atlantic, 287 kilometres off the coast of the nearest landmass, Greenland. Only 23 percent of the island, which is dotted with fjords, lakes, and glaciers, is vegetated, consisting mostly of grasslands. It is on these grasses that many of Iceland’s unique livestock species forage: the Icelandic sheep, cow, and horse. Guarded for centuries by isolation and strict importation laws, these species, along with the Icelandic sheepdog, are some of the world’s oldest and purest breeds.

A Thousand Year History
The Icelandic horse is much like its homeland: rugged and wild looking. Over 80,000 of the small, sturdy horses dot the valleys and hillsides of Iceland, where they have lived, mostly undisturbed, since they first arrived with the Vikings more than 1000 years ago. These Vikings brought with them their best stock, which adapted to Iceland’s harsh environment, becoming strong, hardy, and intelligent, with thick hair to guard them from the cold and wind. The Icelandic horse was extremely important to the new Viking settlers and remained key to their survival for hundreds of years.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto courtesy of Kathy Whittington

The Icelandic horse is one of the purest breeds in the world, having been isolated since their ancestors were first brought to Iceland over 1000 years ago. Shown is stallion Bjartur fra Flying C Ranch from Bonaventure Farms in South River, Ontario.


“They were used for everything, from transportation, to rounding up sheep and horses in the rough highlands, packing hay and other goods, and also providing meat,” explains Lisi Ohm, who breeds Icelandics at her Vinsdalur Icelandic Horse Farm in Vanderhoof, BC. Without these horses, Ohm says, settling the island would not have been possible, as the land was too rough for roads to be built. The first road for wheeled vehicles was not constructed until 1870.

The importance of these horses is shown in ancient Icelandic mythology and stories. Odin, the chief god in Norse mythology, rides an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Many other gods also had horses, including Gna the messenger, the gods of day and night, and Freyr, god of plenty. In the famous Icelandic Sagas, written in the 13th century, horses play an important role and are depicted not only as riding horses and beasts of burden, but also as racehorses, war horses, and prized possessions. Good riding horses were highly valued by Viking chieftains and given as special gifts.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland Viking

The tolt, considered a travelling gait, can be ridden slowly or at great speed. Tomas Orn Snorrason demonstrates both versions of the tolt on Alki fra Akrakoti.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland Viking

Photos courtesy of Valdimar Snorrason

In 930 AD the importation of horses was banned in Iceland, and this rule remains in place today. Even Icelandic horses, once exported to another country, may never return. This has kept the breed extremely pure with the Icelandic as the country’s only breed of horse. However, “Icelanders are very proud of their horses and cannot imagine riding a different kind,” says Ohm.

Fit for Flying
Icelandic Horses are not only ancient and pure, but they are also unique. In addition to the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, the Icelandic has two additional gaits: the tolt and the flying pace.

The tolt is the Icelandic’s signature gait. An even, four beat gait known for its smoothness, it can be ridden slowly or at great speed — up to 35 kilometres an hour.

“Since the horse maintains contact with one foot on the ground at all times, the gait does not have the jarring movement of the trot,” says Phil Pretty, owner of Icelandic Horse Farm in Vernon, BC.

“A beautiful action (of the tolt) is high and wide with the forelegs, as well as collected, with good head carriage,” says Susan Bunge of Woodlawn, Ontario, secretary of the Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation (CIHF).

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto: Iris Marenbach, Tolt Away Farm

While known for the tolt and flying pace, Icelandic horses can also walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Each individual prefers certain gaits and can be three, four, or five gaited.

“A good tolter feels like your favourite couch in motion, with the power of a Hot Rod in the mix,” says Ohm with delight.

“I tell people who ride tolt for the first to be careful — it’s addictive!”

The tolt is considered a traveling gait, while the flying pace is a racing gait.

The pace is a lateral, two beat gait with parallel legs travelling together, creating a smooth ride that is also incredibly fast.

“The pace is exhilarating to ride,” says Pretty.

“We normally only ride (the pace) for shorter distances (200 to 250 metres) in pace races,” says Erhard Marenbach, president of the CIHF and owner of Tolt Away Farm in Enderby, BC.

Not all Icelandics have all five gaits.

Some only have the basic three (walk, trot, and canter), some four (walk, trot, canter, and tolt), and some five (walk, trot, canter, tolt, and pace), though four and five gaited are preferred, with four being the most common.

“Every horse has a different ‘gait distribution’ (which gaits are strong and which are weak), and training aims to develop all four or five gaits evenly — not an easy task but for me a big part of the fun!” says Ohm.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto courtesy of Phil Pretty

Icelandic horses are traditionally raised in large herds to help their physical and mental development. A slowly maturing breed, training does not begin until four or five years of age. This fine herd of Icelandics belongs to the Icelandic Horse Farm in Vernon, BC.

“The horse that can demonstrate all five gaits with action, energy, and suspension is known as Gæðdinger or ‘dream horse’,” says Bunge.

Not maturing until six or seven years of age, the training of Icelandics traditionally begins much later than with most breeds. In Iceland, young horses are raised in large, roaming herds until they are four or five years of age, when they are brought in to be trained. Many breeders in Canada have maintained the traditional Icelandic way of raising young horses in herds, as it is seen as important to their mental and physical development.

The ideal Icelandic shares many of the conformation traits of a good riding horse, but in a small and sturdy package. They should have a high set, elegant neck, with good flexion at the poll. A long, sloping shoulder, well-muscled back, strong croup, and strong legs allow them to carry themselves properly from behind. The neck and shoulder are considered important as this gives them the ability to move more freely in the front. They should also have good sized hooves. Long, thick manes, tails, and forelocks, which are never cut, garnish their well-proportioned, compact bodies.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto: Kordula Reinhartz

Icelandic horse conformation focuses on riding horse qualities, such as having a sloping shoulder, elegant neck, and strong back and croup which will allow the horse to carry himself correctly with the weight on the hindquarters. Three-year-old Skvetta fra Clear Lake Farm, shows a lovely floating trot.

Icelandics come in every colour imaginable, from chestnuts, blacks, and bays, to pintos, duns, creams, and silvers. The Icelandic language has more than 100 names for the shades and patterns of its horses.

Sure-footed, strong, and hardy, Icelandic horses are well known for their weight carrying abilities. Though typically standing only 13 to 14 hands high and weighing 800 to 900 pounds, the Icelandic’s sturdy, compact build makes them able to carry proportionally more weight than other breeds. “An Icelandic can carry approximately 25 percent of their bodyweight,” says Marenbach, who believes this strength is due to the breed’s heritage. “Vikings could only take small horses on the ships, but the Vikings were not small or lightweight. So only the strongest survived the trip.”

Icelandics also have great stamina, with the ability to tolt for hours if properly conditioned. “A big problem is people just take them out of the field and hop on and say ‘oh yeah, now he can carry me for three hours.’ Well, no, they have to be conditioned for that,” warns Marenbach.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto courtesy of Kathy Whittington

Due to Iceland’s lack of natural predators and rough ground, Icelandics tend to think rather than react when faced with something new.

Traditionally, Icelanders bring multiple horses on long trips, changing their mount throughout the ride as necessary.

In modern times, horses both in Iceland and abroad are judged in evaluations for both conformation and gaits. “Icelandics have had standardized breeding evaluations for over 50 years,” says Pretty.

“They have to show all gaits and they get scores for this,” explains Marenbach. “From those scores... they calculate the total score (out of ten). Forty percent of the total score is conformation and 60 percent is for gaits.” A total score over 7.5 is considered above average.

A millennium of isolation without any natural predators has also given the Icelandic a wonderful temperament and great spirit.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto courtesy of Phil Pretty

Icelandics make wonderful trail mounts due to their intelligence, sure-footedness, and strength.

“Icelandics have a very low fight and flight instinct. The danger in Iceland is loose rock and rough or boggy ground, all of which are not handled well by a panicked horse, so the breed has evolved to think rather than react,” says Pretty.

“Icelandics are well known for their very nice disposition,” says Marenbach. “You have a friendly horse, but not a boring horse.”

“This is a sensible but spirited horse who will give with energy,” says Bunge. “The Icelandic Horse is rather like an exuberant child. It will cheerfully challenge the boundaries set by the rider but will rarely persist in arguing. This challenge is to make rather than break the spirit of the Icelandic Horse.”

“They basically have two temperaments,” explains Ohm. “On the ground they are well mannered, friendly, cooperative, and very easy going. Under saddle they show power, light reaction to aids, and speed and willingness. To me this is the perfect mixture.” Icelandics are also people-orientated and trustworthy.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto: Iris Marenbach, Tolt Away Farm

Icelandics are fun horses for the whole family, able to be enjoyed and ridden by both children and adults.

“Icelandics have a tendency to bond strongly with their people,” says Pretty. “Having grown up with a lot of freedom in Iceland, they are sure-footed and trustworthy horses that can handle themselves in difficult situations.

“There are countless stories of Icelandics safely bringing their riders home in white-out blizzards or balking to go somewhere that later proved to be dangerous. They are loyal and curious and can be your best friends if you give them half a chance.”

A Family Favourite
With their rideability and willing temperament, the Icelandic remains as popular a riding horse today as it was with the Viking chieftains of the past. Primarily a pleasure horse, they are used for multiple disciplines.

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto: Iris Marenbach, Tolt Away Farm

Though most prized as a trail and long distance riding mount, the Icelandic is versatile and able to do most disciplines well at the lower levels. Here, Skorpa from Tolt Away Farm shows excellent form while jumping.

“You name it, they can do it,” says Pretty. Icelandics can jump, perform basic dressage, drive, and plow, and also make wonderful therapeutic riding horses due to their smooth gait and short stature. However, they are perhaps most valued as trail horses for pleasure and long distance competition.

“They are highly treasured as trail horses being sure-footed and smart when it comes to challenging terrain,” explains Pretty. “In recent years an Icelandic horse, Remington, was one of the top ten most successful endurance horses in the US.”

One of the best things about Icelandics, say breeders, is that it is impossible to outgrow them, as they are suitable for either children or adults. “You never grow out of them,” says Marenbach. “With an Icelandic horse, you get one, and you can stay with him.”

“The Icelandic Horse is a versatile horse that can suit the whole family,” concurs Bunge. “It is pony size with tall horse power.”

Icelandic Horse Equine Breed Pure Ancient Iceland VikingPhoto: Kordula Reinhartz

Icelandics have kind, people-orientated temperaments while being sensitive and spirited under saddle. This mare is six-year-old Elja fra Clear Lake Farm of Clear Lake Farm in Magnetawan, Ontario.

And with their longevity the family can ride them for years. “It’s not uncommon to see 30-year-old horses under saddle,” says Marenbach.

In short, the Icelandic horse is an ancient, friendly, willing, and enjoyable horse for a variety of uses.

“Icelandics are like an all terrain sport car: fun, zippy, go-anywhere, and with a five-speed transmission,” says Pretty.

Icelandics in Canada
Though the first Icelandics were imported into Canada in the 1950s, the first larger importation of Icelandic Horses to North America occurred in 1960 when 80 horses were transported to Saskatchewan and Colorado. Major importation did not begin until the 1970s.

On July 5, 1979, the Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation (CIHF) was created by a group of breeders and enthusiasts who came together in Calgary, Alberta along with Gunnar Bjarnarsson, a representative of Iceland who became the honourary president. The Canadian National Livestock Records Corporation officially recognized the CIHF in 1983, creating a secure registry for Icelandics in Canada. A year later, the CIHF joined the Federation of European Friends of the Icelandic Horse (FEIF), allowing them to participate in World Championships.

As of 2008 there were over 2000 registered Icelandic horses in Canada, with the majority in BC and Ontario.

Main article photo: Courtesy of Kathy Whittington - Due to Iceland’s harsh environment, Icelandics evolved to have thick manes and tails, which are never cut, and dense winter coats.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

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