15 Incredible & Fascinating Facts About The Icelandic Horse

You might not have heard of the Icelandic Horse before but the more you know about them the more you’ll love these little horses. There really is no other breed quite like them, what they lack in height they certainly make up for in personality and courage. Read on to find out just how amazing these horses are.

Height: The average height is between 13hh (52 inches) and 14hh (56 inches) although horses can stand anywhere from 12hh (48 inches) to 14.2hh (58 inches).
Color: Most colors are allowed (in fact there are over 40 official colors) although chestnut, brown, gray, and dun are the most common.
Personality: The Icelandic Horse is extremely friendly and loves people but they are also independent. They have a lively temperament but are patient and easy-going too.
Country of Origin: Iceland
Registry: Horses of Iceland or International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations

Very early beginnings

Nobody knows exactly when the first horses arrived in Iceland or how those horses were selected but it’s believed that they arrived in the country sometime around the 8th and 10th centuries, although many records indicate that it was between 860 and 935AD.

While it’s clear that these horses were introduced by Norse settlers, what isn’t known for sure is how they selected which horses to take with them. Some people argue that, due to the small size of the boats they were only able to take two horses so picked the strongest examples. Other people, however, insist that, again due to the limited space, they selected only the smallest and most surefooted examples, that way they could take more horses and those that did travel would be able to keep their footing on the journey.

Whichever of those stories is true one thing is for sure and that is the fact the horses were obviously strong, tough hardy animals.

One of the world’s purest breeds

It wasn’t long after the first horses set foot on Icelandic soil that, in 982AD, Alþingi (the Icelandic parliament) passed a law banning the importation of horses into the country.

This has meant that, once the breed was established, it was allowed to evolve on its own without any outside influence from other breeds. This has resulted in probably the oldest and purest breed in the world, having been left alone for over a thousand years.

The Icelandic Horse is one of the world's oldest and purest breeds

No need for vaccines

The ban on importing horses into the country has also had a positive effect on the breed’s susceptibility to disease but the ban goes further than just not allowing other breeds into the country. In fact, once a horse has left the country for whatever reason, it’s never allowed back again. While this may seem extreme it does help to keep the breed free of virtually all diseases.

The desire to keep the Icelandic Horse free from disease also affects someone’s ability to bring any riding gear (regardless of whether it’s saddlery, riding helmets, boots, or anything else). While you are allowed to take riding gear to Iceland it either has to be brand new or thoroughly disinfected before being allowed into the country.

Perfectly suited to subzero temperatures

Over the centuries the Icelandic Horse has been able to adapt perfectly to the cold wintery conditions of the volcanic island they call home and are now more than happy living outside without a blanket in all but the most extreme of temperatures. 

Not only can they happily wade through icy glacial rivers without any problems, but they also have narrower windpipes compared to other breeds. This means that their lungs are better protected from the freezing winter weather.

In the winter they also grow thick, double-layered coats that can be as long as 15cm (5.9 inches) around their legs, necks, and flanks, with the rest of the coat growing up to 10cm (3.9 inches). This super warm wintery coat is quickly shed as soon as the temperature rises.

Icelandic Horses have thick double-layered coats that help to keep them warm in the winter

A lifeline for many Icelanders (literally in some cases)

Having been allowed to evolve naturally, the Icelandic Horse has developed into a surefooted horse that is self-assured and great at navigating the country’s rough terrain. These characteristics have meant that they can safely find their own way around the island which is great if the rider is lost, injured so simply can’t see through the snow.

The Icelandic Horse also has incredible homing instincts that have seen them carry their drunk or injured riders home safely. Something that I’m sure you’d agree has almost definitely helped to save the rider’s life.

Just don’t call them ponies

Many people believe that the main difference between a horse and a pony is purely one of height, with horses being anything over 14.2hh (58 inches) and ponies being anything under that but the Icelandic Horse is certainly an exception to this rule.

Yes, their sub 14.2hh height would put them firmly in the category of pony, but it’s their bone structure that actually makes them horses, albeit smaller ones. That said though they do also have the intelligence, courage, and strength (often said to be the strongest breed, pound for pound) of a pony.

Just don’t ask an Icelander if they’re horses or ponies, not only would they be offended they would also tell you that they are categorically not ponies.

They have five gaits instead of three

Along with most other breeds, the Icelandic Horse is able to walk, trot and canter but in addition to that, they also have two natural gaits that are unique to the breed, the tölt (or tølt) and the skeið (which is also known as the flying pace). Both gaits are inherited and are prized for the speed and the comfort they offer the rider.

The tölt is a four-beat ambling gait that has a lot of power and speed whilst still being extremely smooth and comfortable. Its smoothness is regularly put to the test at an event known as the beer tölt, this is a competition where each rider is given a glass full of beer, the winner is the rider who has the most amount of beer left at the end.

The skeið, on the other hand, is a lateral gait where both legs on each side move forward at the same time. This makes the gait super smooth which is why it’s also known as the flying pace and is lovingly referred to as a rhythmic gallop. It’s also incredibly fast with horses regularly reaching a top speed of 30mph (48 km/h).

Growing in popularity (Internationally too)

While it’s no surprise that the Icelandic Horse is extremely popular in its native Iceland, what might surprise you though is the sheer number of horses the country boasts. Only being around 64,000 sq miles (103,000 sq km), which is approximately 1% of the size of the United States, Iceland has over 80,000 mature horses. That equates to just over 1 horse for every 4 people on the island.

The breed’s popularity isn’t just confined to Iceland though with around 100,000 horses living around the world, 50,000 of which are in Germany alone. 

There are over 40 official colors

Icelandic Horses can be found in practically every shade of the rainbow with 42 color combinations being officially recognized. On top of this, there are hundreds of different variations to each with their own name. For example horses with a black mane and tail may be called kolfaxi (mean black-maned) while horses with a red coat can be classed as a variety of different colors depending on the intensity of the red, names such as Bleikálóttur (which is a pinkish color), Ljósrauð (meaning light red), Rauðgló (describes an intense red glow) or even Rauðlitförótt (which is used in reference to a reddish red).

The Icelandic Horse has over 40 official colors

Late developers

Unlike the vast majority of other breeds, Icelandic Horses don’t start their training until they’re at least four years old. The reason for this though is that they mature later than other horses, it’s only at the age of seven that they finally stop developing and growing.

While you might think this narrows the time you can ride them for you’ll be pleased to know this isn’t the case because horses are regularly ridden well into their 30’s and when you consider that they live to around 40 it’s easy to see why this is the case.

The oldest ever known horse was a mare called Tulle, she spent most of her life in Denmark and lived to the ripe old age of 57.

Very sensible horses that won’t spook

Iceland has no natural predators at all which means that the Icelandic Horse won’t run as soon as he sees a black sack blowing in the wind. 

While Iceland doesn’t have any predators it does have a lot of quicksand and volcanic ash instead. At first, this might not seem at all relevant but what it does mean though is that these sensible horses will stop and assess the situation if they’re not sure about anything. This makes them perfect for first-time owners and novice riders.

There’s an official naming committee

While you may already know there’s an official naming committee for Icelanders, what you might not know though is that there’s also a committee for horse names too. To us, this seems a little bit extreme but it’s designed to protect the Icelandic language as well as to protect the history of the breed. This means you’ll never get an Icelandic Horse with a name like Buttercup or Snowy.

Icelandic Horse names, in part, also reflect a horse’s personality which is one of the reasons they say you should never ride a horse without knowing its name. If you find yourself riding a horse called Háski or Prakkari you should be careful as they can indicate a horse’s daredevil or prankster nature. On the other hand, a horse called Ljúfur (which means dear) is likely to have a sweet, kind temperament.

Icelandic Horses are very hardy

Versatile horses that can do anything 

Once the horses had settled on the island they were widely used as farm horses and would often be seen pulling a plow or herding sheep. Even today many farmers still use them for shepherding but they are also popular for riding, showing, and even for racing.

It’s often said that the best way to see Iceland is from the back of a horse which, as you can imagine, makes them very popular as trekking horses too, and unsurprisingly also makes them great for trails.

Considered a local delicacy

I know a lot of people (me included) won’t be pleased about this but their meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland and can be found on the menu of many restaurants. Many Icelanders often say that there’s no difference between eating a cow and a horse, but while I can see their logic I could never consider eating any of my horses (or anybody else’s for that matter either).

This wasn’t always the case though, it was once illegal to eat these beautiful horses and, despite many people starving, most people would rather have died than eaten them. This changed though when the country converted to Christianity around the 10th century, as part of the agreement they were allowed to eat horse meat again. 

Famous Icelandic Horses

Like most Scandinavian countries, Iceland has a strong connection with Norse mythology. While this mythology has been replaced with Christianity many of the tales still hold a special place in the hearts of many Icelanders with horses playing a strong role in this. As such, stories have been told for centuries of various horses and the roles they’ve played (and continue to play) in Norse culture.

Dagur (day) and Nótt (night) are said to be pulled by two Icelandic horses known ass Skinfaxi and Hrímfaxi. Skinfaxi, which means mane of light pulls Dagur’s chariot every day to light up the sky and the earth below while Hrímfaxi which means mane of frost pulls Nótt’s chariot every night.

The Norse god of everything, Odin, was also said to ride an eight-legged Icelandic Horse called Sleipnir who was the king of all horses. It’s said that Sleipnir left a visible print on earth when he stepped one of his legs down from heaven. The imprint he made is still visible today and forms the Ásbyrgi Canyon in northern Iceland.

Ásbyrgi Canyon was said to have been created when Sleipnir stepped down from heaven

Further reading

Recommended products 

Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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