Iceland is known for many things. One of them is the Icelandic horse, which is known for its sturdy frame, good nature, and ability to survive in Iceland's harsh conditions with minimal help.
Four Icelandic Horses on a beach feeding on some grass
Traits of the Icelandic Horse
Icelandic horses are small. They are not, however, considered to be a "pony" breed despite their small size. They are also perfectly capable of carrying grown adults for extended periods.
Traits of the Icelandic horse include small size, sturdy build, a good but lively temperament, and a good character. They come in every horse color but do not have Appaloosa-type markings (small spots or blankets). Chestnut (orange-red) is the most common, but a herd of Icelandic horses will show a lot of variation in coloration. They have long manes and tails and a thick, double winter coat.
They are well known for being extremely tough and well able to survive Iceland's harsh winters. Also, as Iceland has no large predators other than humans, these horses tend to be less reactive and "spooky" than most breeds.
A key trait of the Icelandic horse is that in addition to the standard horse gaits of walk, trot, and canter, they perform the tolt, which is similar to the running walk of the Tennessee Walker. This gait is extremely comfortable for the rider and the horse can keep it up for an extended period. Some also perform the skold or flying pace, a much faster version. These horses are used for racing over short distances.
The breed is genetically distinct from other northern European horses and may represent a relict population of an ancient Scandinavian breed.
The Icelandic horse was a vital means of transportation until the arrival of the motor car. While it was made rapidly redundant by automobiles, the horses were preserved as part of the culture, to use in rounding up sheep, and of course, as a tourist attraction. Iceland also has no taboo against the slaughter of horses for human consumption, and unwanted or low-quality horses are often slaughtered, with much of the meat being exported to Japan.
A heard of Icelandic Horses
History of the Icelandic Horse
Settlers from Scandinavia brought horses with them in the 9th century. They no doubt chose small and sturdy horses because of the limited room on their ships, although these horses would have come from a variety of places. At the time, "breeds" were not really a thing.
The harsh environment would have selected the horses for certain traits and in the 10th century, importing horses was supposedly banned (it is unclear whether this is true or whether imports simply stopped because of the expense of transporting horses). This means that the Icelandic horse has not only been bred purely for over 1,000 years but is also the only horse breed on the island. This resulted in the preservation of traits that were valuable to the island horses, but also the preservation of the tolt gait. Modern European horses do not have extra gaits, although some North American breeds do.
The breed was a multi-purpose breed, thus, used for work, transportation, and war as well as as a food animal. According to the sagas, horse fighting was also a thing. They would tie up a mare in heat and set two stallions on each other, with bets on the result. This does not happen today!
In 1882, the import of horses to Iceland was formally banned for biosecurity reasons; having been isolated for so long, while very tough, Icelandic horses became incredibly vulnerable to contagious disease. This ban remains in place, and any Icelandic horse that is taken overseas, even for a competition, cannot return to the island. Icelandic horses are fairly frequently exported, however, with fairly large populations in Germany and the United States, where they are popular for their gaits, small size, and general ease of care. In fact, the majority of the 300,000 Icelandic horses registered today are not registered in Iceland.
How Icelandic Horses are Used Today
There are still 80,000 horses in Iceland, for a human population of over 370,000. This is a pretty high number, and Icelandic horses are still used for a variety of purposes today.
In Iceland's highlands, horses remain more efficient than alternatives, such as ATVs, for handling large-scale sheep roundups. These horses may do other work around the farm.
However, most Icelandic horses are used as trail horses for leisure riding. Because of their small size, they are suitable for riders of all ages, and their comfortable gaits make them fantastic trail horses.
Icelandic horses are also shown both under saddle and in hand, with particular consideration for the quality of their gaits. Horses are raced at the flying pace. In winter, these races are often held on frozen bodies of water. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in accidents when the ice is not as thick as the race organizers thought.
But the primary purpose of the Icelandic horse remains as a means of personal transportation. While they are no longer vital to the country's economy, many people in Iceland enjoy going out for a ride and horseback riding tours are an important part of Iceland's history.
A Icelandic horse on a meadow. Another Icelandic horse can bee seen in the background.
How to See and Meet Icelandic Horses
You may see a field full of horses as you drive past, especially in Iceland's green valleys. This results in a large temptation to stop and pet the horses.
First of all, if you do choose to stop and photograph the horses, make sure that you stop in a safe location where your vehicle will not be in the way. Do not under any circumstances feed the horses. They have enough food and some of the things you might be tempted to feed them, such as bread crusts, are bad for them. It's also a bad idea to pet a strange horse, especially if there are foals in the field. Horses can and do bite people who annoy them and a mare who is protecting her foal can get nasty with strangers.
The best way to actually meet and interact with Icelandic horses is to take a horseback riding tour. Tours of lengths ranging from an hour to several days are available in all parts of the country, including ones suitable for people who have never ridden before. The experience of riding one of these wonderful horses is a great addition to your Iceland vacation.
Note that the style of riding in Iceland is similar to English style riding but different. Because the horses are gaited, you sit a little bit further back to free up their shoulders to gait correctly. Your stirrups will also be longer, closer to a western saddle, and a little further back. All of this will help you sit in a position that supports the horse's gaits. Most horses used in tours go in simple snaffle bits and you are supposed to ride these horses on contact to help them balance their gait. Traditionally, Icelandic bridles have detachable, clip-on reins. The saddles are specially made for the breed but are very comfortable to ride in for long distances and often have quilted or padded seats.
Close-up shot of an Icelandic horses face.
Import Restrictions and the Icelandic Horse
Because the Icelandic horse has been isolated for so long, they are not exposed to the typical diseases that most horses in Europe and North America might carry.
Not only is it illegal to import horses to Iceland, but it is also illegal to import used riding equipment This means saddles, bridles, rugs, bits, etc. It also includes riding gloves, so if you want to ride with gloves you should buy a completely new pair. You must wash and tumble dry any clothes you plan on riding in. If you have riding boots (or any footwear that has been in the presence of horses), they need to be rinsed with detergent, dried, and sprayed with 1% Virkon S, which is a veterinary disinfectant. Ordinary household disinfectant is not considered sufficient. You need to do this at least five days before riding in Iceland and store your boots carefully, separate from anything else, and well away from animals in the interim. While they do not say you should do this to helmets, we do recommend disinfecting helmets (or using one you can rent in Iceland).
This might seem like a lot, but many horse viruses do spread on surfaces and a single infection could wipe out a significant amount of the equine population. None of this is intended to put you off from interacting with these horses! They are worth the extra effort. However, getting your riding boots confiscated in customs would not be a good start to your trip.
The best way to see and interact with Icelandic horses in Iceland is to take a horseback riding tour. You don't have to have any experience to have fun with these horses. If you are booking one of our self-drive tours, talk to us about adding a suitable horseback riding tour to your itinerary. Horseback riding tours are available throughout Iceland including the area around Reykjavik. Contact Tour.is if you need more information about horseback riding in Iceland or our wonderful self-drive tours.