The Icelandic Horse has a thousand year history. Purebred since the 10th century, the Icelandic Horse is renowned for being hardy, athletic, independent, spirited, friendly, adaptable, and sure-footed, with five natural gaits. These are the Walk, Trot, Canter, Tölt, and Pace. Averaging 13 to 14 hands tall, the Icelandic Horse is a versatile family riding horse, bred to carry adults at a fast pleasing gait over long distances.
It is distinctive for its thick and often double-sided mane and long tail, and remarkable for its wide range of colors. In addition to formal horse shows and competitions, Icelandic Horses are widely used for cross-country rides and long-distance trekking. They have also competed in dressage, jumping, and endurance races.
If you are considering purchasing an Icelandic Horse, we have prepared a buyer's checklist that might be helpful.
The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official publication of the US Icelandic Horse Congress, contains a wide range of information about the breed and its uses. The most current year's issues are available online for active USIHC members.
Gaits of the Icelandic Horse
The Icelandic Horse is renowned for its five natural gaits. While most other breeds have only three or four gaits, the Icelandic Horse can Walk, Tölt, Trot, Pace, and Canter or Gallop.
The Tölt is similar to the running walk or rack of a Tennessee Walking Horse or Paso Fino. In the Icelandic Horse, Tölt is a very smooth four-beat gait which, while reaching speeds similar to fast trotting, is much less jolting to the rider. The Tölt is an excellent gait for trail-riding or horse-trekking.
In the Pace, the hooves on the same side touch the ground together. Often called the Flying Pace, this gait can equal the speed of a full gallop and is used in Iceland for racing. To Icelanders, riding at the Flying Pace is considered the crown of horsemanship.
1,000 Years of History
The first horses came to Iceland in the ninth century with Viking settlers from Norway and the British Isles, and horses remained the main form of land transportation in the country until the first roads for wheeled vehicles were built in the 1870s. Since approximately 1100, import of horses to Iceland has been forbidden by law, so the breed has remained pure.
The Icelandic Horse is renowned for being hardy, athletic, independent, spirited, friendly, adaptable, and sure-footed, with five natural gaits. Averaging 13 to 14 hands tall, the Icelandic Horse is a versatile family riding horse, bred to carry adults at a fast pleasing gait over long distances. It is distinctive for its thick and often double-sided mane and long tail, and remarkable for its wide range of colors.
In Icelandic mythology, Loki the Trickster god, once became a breeding mare to lure away a giant's stallion and so prevent the giant from winning the hand of Freyja, goddess of beauty. The result of that union was Sleipnir, the supreme god Odin's eight-legged steed. "Amongst gods and men, that horse is the best," says the 13th-century Prose Edda written by Snorri Sturluson. Sleipnir is shown in one famous image with its eight legs extended in the ultimate flying pace. Other gods also owned horses. The goddess Gna the messenger had a horse that ran "through the air and over the sea." Called Hoof Flourisher, it was sired by Breaker-of-Fences on Skinny Sides.
The Gods of Day and Night
The gods of Day and Night drove chariots drawn by Shining Mane and Frosty Mane: The brightness of the sun was the glowing of the day-horse's mane, while dew was the saliva dripping from Frosty Mane's bit. Horses were also associated with Freyr, god of plenty, and sacrificed in his honor.
Other medieval Icelandic works depict racehorses, saddlehorses, packhorses, and fighting horses. The first Icelandic Horse known by name, the mare Skalm, appears in the 12th-century Book of Settlements. The chieftain Seal-Thorir settled where Skalm lay down under her load. Horses play key roles in some of the most famous Icelandic Sagas, including Hrafnkel's Saga, Njal's Saga, and Grettir's Saga. The sagas, written anonymously in the 13th century, look back as far as the early 800s. In these stories, horses were first of all riding horses and beasts of burden. But the sagas also tell of horse races and horse fights, both of which often led to violence, and of horses given as gifts to stop or avert a feud. A fine horse was often a medieval Icelander's most prized possession.
In Iceland today, horses are seen as one way of preserving the country's agricultural tradition while improving its economy. Long distance horse trekking is popular among Icelanders as well as among tourists, as are horse shows, horse races, horse trading, and pleasure riding. Exports of Icelandic Horses have increased since the first were sent to Germany in the 1940s. Currently there are some 70,000 Icelandic Horses in other countries (as compared to 80,000 in Iceland), spread unevenly among the 19 member countries of the Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF).
100+ Colors of the Icelandic Horse
The Icelandic language has more than a hundred names for the shades and patterns of horses; its wide range of colors is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Icelandic Horse. While the majority of Icelandic Horses are brown, black, bay, or chestnut, there are many other colors, introduced by dun, cream, silver, and pinto. Gray is also common, fading any color over time to white. Roans are rare, but efforts are being made to keep them from disappearing.