The Icelandic horse – the key to Icelandic nature, culture and history
History of the Icelandic horse
When the first settlers sailed from Norway to Iceland in the 10th century, they could only bring about two horses per ship, so they selected the best and strongest horses. The horses were of Scandinavian origin, mostly from Norway. The settlers often made a stop-over in Ireland, Scotland or the Shetland Islands, in this way different breeds could have found their way to Iceland. The horse was necessary for the colonization of Iceland, even a long time after cars were common, the highlands and other parts of Iceland did not have roads so the horse was still important.
As early as in the 10th century the Icelanders decided to stop importing horses and and since then it has been totally forbidden to import horses to Iceland. This means that the horses have been very isolated, and the different breeds blended together and formed the Icelandic horse of today. The strongest and most well-acclimated horses survived and through this “Survival of the fittest”, the Icelandic horse of today is extremely well adapted to Icelandic conditions. Still today, it is strictly forbidden to import horses. A horse that has left Iceland can never return, so horses that take part in competitions in other countries must be sold after the competition.
One of the greatest characteristics of the Icelandic horse is that it has five different gaits: In addition to normal walk, trot and canter/gallop there is also tölt and skeið (flying pace).
The horses that were brought to Iceland by the settlers had all these gaits. On old greek vases pictures of tölting horses can be found, for example. The tölt and the pace disappeared when people started to breed horses for example for the army. The army needed horses which the not very experienced soldiers could learn to ride very fast, horses which all moved the same way (same gait, same speed). For this reason a three gaited horse was better. Also, with the extended use of horse pulled carriages for travelling, the need for a soft and comfortable riding gait decreased.
The tölt is a four-beated gait, very soft and comfortable for the rider. A horse can tölt in different speed from walking tempo to galopp tempo. We still can find other horse breeds with gaits similar to the tölt in America and Mongolia. But these horses do not have the high speed of tölt as the icelandic horse has.
When riding tölt, the rider needs to encourage the horse to go forward but keep the energy in him with the seat (keep a positive tension in the body, not stiff) and with the rein. If the rider gets too relaxed and has too loose reins the horse will go to trot but if he gets too stiff and pulls the reins too much the horse will go to piggy pace (a slow two-beated gait which is not desirable).
The pace is a two-beated gait (in slow-motion you can see a slight change to four-beat) with a flying moment in every second step. It is very fast and very comfortable. This gait is unique for the Icelandic horse and is only used for short, straight distances on even ground.
The other gaits walk, trot and canter are the same as for other horses but they get influenced by the horse´s individual gait distribution.
The Icelandic horse has a very individual character. It is patient, adaptable, uncomplicated and sometimes very spirited, it has a friendly personality and a special affinity for people. Bred as a riding and working horse for the Icelandic farmer it also is an excellent family horse. With no natural predators in its home country, the horse has shed much of its natural “fight or flight” instinct. The easy going, friendly disposition of many Icelandic horses make them an ideal family horses. At the same time, the diversity within the breed is enormous. You can both find the safest children’s horses, and the hottest pace race horses within this breed, so take care not to think all Icelandic horses are alike.
The Icelandic horses height ranges between 128 cm and 148 cm on stick. It is thought as an insult on Iceland to call it a pony, and all over the world they are called Icelandic horses. Many riders returned from their first ride on an Icelandic “pony” saying “This is truly a Horse”, such is the feeling of power and personality glowing from the horse.
There are about as many Icelandic horses in other countries as in Iceland. The Icelandic horse is especially popular in Germany, Sweden and Denmark, but the popularity is increasing all over the world.