From a mysterious past, "with proud head carriage, vibrating nostrils and whirling hooves", come the Icelandic Horses. Vikings, settling in Iceland, brought with them their best horses of various origin. Today’s Icelandic Horse is the direct descendant of those horses first brought to the land of fire and ice over one thousand years ago. In 930 A.D. the further importation of horses to Iceland was prohibited by law. This law is still in effect - which means that once a horse has left the island it can never return and that there is no other breed of horses in Iceland. A horse can only be called an "Icelandic Horse" if all its ancestors can be traced back to Iceland.
For centuries the horse was the only means of transportation, and the most important beast of burden in Iceland. Riders had to trust their mounts completely on long journeys, in bad weather or when crossing fast-flowing glacial rivers. Hence they bred a horse whose smooth gaits were comfortable and whose reliability, good character, quick wits and strength have saved many lives in dangerous situations - a real partner.
The rough climate of Iceland and over ten centuries of pure breeding developed a strong, powerful horse, tough and independent. Additionally, it has retained all the gaits of the ancient European horses, including tölt and pace. Therefore the Icelandic Horse falls into the category of “Gaited Horses”.
There are around 80,000 horses in Iceland, no small number for a country in the Northern Atlantic with 270,000 inhabitants living on 103 100 km² ! The Icelandic Horse is also popular world wide, especially in Europe and Scandinavia. The growing popularity of the Icelandic Horse does not exclude North America. But the expansion here takes a little longer because of the size of the countries involved.
Icelandic Horses are usually between 128 cm and 145 cm when measured with a stick at the highest point of the withers. They are stocky but elegant, with good strong legs. Their beautiful heads, with large eyes, show trust and character. Conformation may vary considerably but a typical Icelandic Horse is rectangular, compact in shape, and has a sloping croup. Manes and tails are thick year round and never cut or plaited. Icelandics are one of the few breeds which exhibit nearly all equine colours possible! Icelandic Horses mature late. Depending on physical maturity they are only broken to ride as four or five-year-olds. They are not fully grown until the age of 6 or 7. Icelandics are known for their long active life span. It is not unusual for a horse in his late twenties to still be in work condition. Icelandic Horses have a robust constitution and incredible stamina. They are popular mainly due to their natural tölt and pace, which they show in addition to walk, trot, canter and gallop.
Tölt has the same foot fall as the walk, making it a four-beat gait without a moment of suspension. The horse has always either one or two feet on the ground. Tölt is not considered a lateral gait. In tölt the horse carries itself proudly and gives a very smooth ride, enabling the rider to cover long distances without tiring. A tölting horse can be ridden from a leisurely “working” speed up to a racing speed. A fast tölter can reach speeds close to 20mph. Icelandics have gained most of their popularity due to their ability to tölt. For an Icelandic Horse enthusiast there is probably no greater pleasure than to enjoy nature while riding a good tölter.
The fifth gait of the Icelandic Horse is called “pace”. This is a lateral gait with a moment of suspension – therefore also referred to as “flying pace”. It is only ridden at racing speed and only over short stretches of several hundred metres. The horse shows an enormous amount of power. Good pacers are racehorses: highly strung, vibrating with energy, and eagerly awaiting the start. Slow pace without suspension is called "piggy pace" and is regarded a faulty gait.
Icelandics are a hardy, healthy breed. Fertility is high, and both sexes can be fit for reproduction up to 25 – 28 years of age. Horses born in Iceland, however, may be prone to sweet itch - also called summer eczema. The horses rub their manes, tails and bellies, and suffer from terrible itching. The ability to perform special gaits does not make the Icelandic Horse prone to suffer from arthritis, founder, or any related illnesses.
A good saddle is the basis for good teamwork between horse and rider. This is why there are special saddles for Icelandics. These saddles make it easier for the rider to adopt the correct seat in tölt, while sitting comfortably. There are a wide variety of styles available. A good quality saddle will last a life time, and is money well spent. Regular cob- or pony-sized bridles will fit an Icelandic. A single-jointed or double-jointed snaffle bit of good quality works for most horses. It is important that the bit fits correctly. Special bridles for Icelandic Horses usually consist of only the headstall with a dropped noseband and reins. There is no brow-band or throat lash.
Icelandic Horses which are ridden on a regular basis for longer periods of time must be shod, since the hooves experience more than the natural wear and tear. Remember, while tölting, on every second beat the horse carries its own and your weight on just one foot. One wants to make sure that it can do so without any pain or discomfort.
The style for riding Icelandic Horses is based on English Riding. All aids used in riding ponies / horses the English way are used in riding Icelandics. A solid basic education in dressage is of great benefit if you want to learn how to ride Icelandic Horses.
Riding Icelandics often appears to be easy because the horses are so willing to please. However riding the different gaits especially the tölt and pace properly in clear beat requires a skilled and sensitive rider.
Competitions/shows for Icelandic Horses are held world-wide and have their own rules and classes. World Championships are held bi-annually and are judged on the basis of the International Regulations for testing Icelandic Horses – called FIPO. At the World Championships the main focus is the evaluation of the gaits in different classes for 4- and 5-gaited horses, and the pace races. On national and regional levels one may see Icelandics performing in dressage tests, cross country courses, obstacle courses, jumping classes, and all sorts of fun classes and games. It is also not uncommon to see Icelandic Horses in endurance rides and driving classes. It becomes obvious that one of the attractive features of the Icelandic Horse is its versatility.
Icelandic Horses in Iceland have traditionally been kept in big herds. They are good doers and able to deal with extreme weather conditions. Many of the Icelandics' positive characteristics are due to this traditional way of being kept.
Although it is impossible to completely copy an "Icelandic lifestyle" for horses living outside of Iceland, horses should be kept as close to their natural state as possible. This should include:
Keeping horses out all year does not mean leaving them to their own devices. They need regular care and checks.
Kept according to the guidelines above, Icelandic Horses will be friendly, well-adjusted and happy riding horses which stay sound and healthy well into their thirties.
Apart from the joy of riding a fit, happy and healthy horse, it is also fun to watch the horse's behaviour in the herd. It is amazing how much one can learn about its character (and about horses in general) this way. Do your horse a favour - keep it naturally, you'll both enjoy it!