Icelandic Horses: An Unmissable Part Of Any Trip To Iceland

Icelandic Horses, Iceland
Icelandic Horses, Iceland

The Icelandic horse has been an integral part of the island nation’s history, culture, and landscape for centuries. Loved equally by Icelanders and travelers to Iceland, the tough and independent yet intelligent and friendly nature of these diminutive creatures has become symbolic of the nation as a whole.

Icelanders are rightly proud of their horses, to the extent each horse has its own social security number. Nor is it unusual to see a usually resilient Icelander go misty eyed thinking about their horse. Enduring incredibly harsh winter conditions, Icelandic horses are an unmissable part of any trip to Iceland. Learn more about them right here.

History of Icelandic Horses

Horses weren’t always native to Iceland. However, for a thousand years now Icelandic horses have roamed the valleys, mountains, and fertile lowlands of a country rightly called the land of fire and ice.

Horses first placed their hooves on Icelandic soil alongside early Norse Viking arrivals to the island during the period known as the ‘Age of Settlement’. The Íslendingabók, or ‘Book of Icelanders,’ was written in 1130 AD, and suggests the initial settlers arrived around 200 years before, 30 years either side of 900 AD.

The Norse Vikings brought their horses with them because they knew they would need them for transport and farming, meaning that the Icelandic horse we know today has been a purebred species for close to a millennium. In fact, their horses were so important to Icelandic settlers, that the importation of other breeds of horse was banned by Iceland’s Althing parliament (the oldest surviving national parliament in the world) in 982 AD.

The ban remains in place to this day to preserve the purity of the Icelandic horse. If an Icelandic horse is exported, it can never return, and no other horse is permitted to land on Icelandic territory either. Interestingly, an attempt to widen the gene pool 900 years ago almost devastated the breed, and Icelanders learnt from this error.

Ancestors of the Icelandic Horse

Almost a thousand years of selective breeding has created an animal perfectly suited to Iceland’s tough conditions. For example, the Icelandic horse has a double coat, growing thick each winter to help them endure snow and wind. This thick coat then molts each spring. Animals can live up to 40 years of age, compared to the average lifespan of horses elsewhere in the world of 25-30. The oldest Icelandic horse ever is thought to have lived for 59 years.

Genetic analysis of Icelandic horses shows that their ancestry is shared between Norwegian Fjord Horses, Nordlandshest horses (again from Norway), Connemara Ponies (from Ireland) and Shetland Ponies.

Although the Shetland Islands are now part of Scotland, they belonged to the Norwegian crown for centuries. Gifted to Scotland’s King James III on his marriage to Margaret, princess of Norway in the 1400s, islanders still celebrate their own Viking heritage with the annual Up Helly Aa festival. There are also some genetic links between horses from the Faroe Islands, and as far afield as Mongolia and Siberia’s yakut ponies. The Vikings travelled far and wide.

What unites all these breeds of horse and pony is that they are known for their short, sturdy stature – all the better for dealing with the harsh winds and limited vegetation of their homelands. This is probably why they were chosen for the long journey from Scandinavia to Iceland, a sea voyage which is thought to have taken at least three days and was rife with dangers.

Odin Rides to Hel
Illustration of “Odin Rides to Hel” (1908)

Icelandic Horse in Island Mythology

Iceland’s sagas (ancient written histories and mythology) are filled with references to the Icelandic horse to the extent the island’s mythology would be severely lacking without them. One obvious example is how the North Iceland canyon of Ásbyrgi was formed. According to island legend, the canyon was carved out by a hoof of Sleipnir, the god Odin’s flying eight-legged steed. Horses were also believed to pull the sun across the sky each day, highlighting the importance of Icelandic horses to the culture of the island.

Horses in Iceland aren’t only the good guys however. A water demon called Nykur is prominent in Icelandic folklore and took the form of a horse, except for the fact its ears and hoofs were backward facing. Living below the surface of lakes and rivers, Nykur would tempt passersby by pretending to be a standard Icelandic horse.

He would then lure them to a watery death – a warning to children perhaps of the dangers of open water. The sound of ice cracking in the winter was said to be Nykur neighing – another warning if one was needed.

Iceland Horse and Rider
Iceland Horse and Rider

What Makes Them Unique?

We’ve already hinted at some of what makes the Icelandic horse unique, but here we go into more detail on why these creatures should be celebrated.

To begin with, Icelandic horses are not one uniform color. In fact, the Icelandic horse can be any one of 40 distinct colors and a multitude of patterns too, resulting in around one hundred variations overall.

Many horses are given names linked to their color, including Bleikur (the pink), Gráni (the grey), and Kolfaxi (the black-maned). Others are named after their temperament, for example Háski (the daredevil), and others after figures from mythology, such as the trickster god Loki, who was also the father of Sleipnir. Needless to say, Nykur isn’t an acceptable name for an Icelandic horse.

A lot of visitors mistakenly first call Icelandic horses ponies because of their small stature. But they are very definitely horses according to Icelanders, and have been called horses inside and outside of the country for generations.

What makes Icelandic horses truly unique is their gaits. Most horses have just three modes of movement, the walk, trot, and canter or gallop (the latter two are sometimes considered separate gaits, but not in Iceland).

Icelandic horses boast a further two gaits. Scientists think these additional gaits developed after a certain gene mutation. In other words, these gaits can never be learned by other breeds of horse.

Tölt defines an ‘ambling’ movement somewhere between a walk and a canter, where one hoof is always in contact with the ground, which helps to smooth out the ride. Skeið or flugskeið (flying pace) is a racing gait allowing Icelandic horses to hit speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. It is typified by both hoofs on either the left or right-hand side of the animal touching the ground at the same time. Despite this, Icelandic horses are docile enough to be welcoming to learner riders.

Not all Icelandic horses have all five gaits in their repertoire. Those that do are considered the best Icelandic horses around. They command the highest prices and insurance valuations, and are sought out for breeding. Other Icelandic horses are bred for their meat, which continues to be enjoyed across the country without issue.

Icelandic Horses, Iceland
Icelandic Horses, Countryside, Iceland

How and Where do They Live?

There are around 80,000 Icelandic horses in the country, meaning there’s one horse for every four human inhabitants of Iceland. A further 100,000 Icelandic horses live elsewhere in the world, primarily in Germany and North America.

In Iceland, Icelandic horses continue to be used as working animals for traditional functions such as sheepherding, so tend to be located in Iceland’s lowlands where the majority of its farms are located. They are now also used for trekking activities, shown at horse fairs, and even raced.

Although Icelandic horses may look like wild animals living off the land, almost every one is owned by an individual, who leave them to forage for themselves at certain times of year (keeping track of them using dedicated smartphone apps).

For instance, during the spring lambing season, many owners will allow their horses to roam into the mountains so they can eat the nutritious plant life found in the country’s highlands. It’s thought there are just 100 indisputably wild horses in Iceland.

Best Places to See Them

Icelandic Horses can regularly be seen when exploring the country, even feeding alongside the Ring Road (Route 1), the country’s main road.

Although it’s generally acceptable to approach and even pet horses seen here (Icelandic horses don’t spook easily), it’s worth remembering that these animals do have owners, so you shouldn’t feed them or encroach on private property. Only ever ride an Icelandic horse with permission.

Given their hardy nature, you might encounter an Icelandic horse in almost any of the country’s landscapes. A phenomenal addition to any photograph, they can add both scale and personality to Iceland’s epic vistas.

Landsmot, The National Icelandic Horse Competition
Landsmot, The National Icelandic Horse Competition (Source: Facebook)

How to Experience Them for Yourself

If you don’t manage to encounter an Icelandic horse in passing, on the Ring Road or in the Icelandic highlands during the spring, there are plenty of events which will get you up close and personal with these lovable animals.

To start, there’s Icelandic Horse Day on May 1 of each year. A celebratory atmosphere rolls across Iceland (and many destinations internationally), with people coming together to show their horses after days of preparation. Many farms and stables also open their doors to the public for the day so even the city dwellers of Reykjavik can go back to their roots and connect with a thousand years of history and culture.

Perhaps even grander than Icelandic Horse Day is the National Icelandic Horse Competition. Known as Landsmót in Icelandic, it has been held within Thingvellir National Park 50 minutes from Reykjavik since 1950. A family-friendly event, the day includes live performances and a great deal of Icelandic cuisine. The main event, however, is a competition called Gæðingakeppni. It’s open to all ages of horsemen and horsewomen to display their riding skill as their horses perform the five gaits that have made Icelandic horses famous around the world.

Finally, there’s the rettir horse round up. Usually taking place in September, when Iceland’s summer turns towards winter, rettir sees the country’s horses and sheep herds rounded up from the mountains and brought to lower altitudes. Not only are Icelandic horses rounded up, but also play an important role in rettir, since horses which remained on farms during the summer are used in the round up. There are around 200 individual rettir events across the country, meaning there is ample opportunity to observe this once-a-year phenomenon.

Icelandic horses are as much a part of the country’s culture as its love of literature and the arts. They are as much a part of the landscape as Iceland’s mix of glaciers, waterfalls, lowlands, geysers, and volcanoes. In many ways, Icelandic horses typify the country they are named after. Resolutely independent yet friendly to outsiders, unique in appearance, and utterly unmissable.

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