The Icelandic Horse
The Icelandic Horse
The horses of Iceland are the original Viking horses and one of the purest horse breeds in the world. The breed has been isolated on the rugged island in the North-Atlantic since the settlement, or over 1000 years ago, without any genetic input from other breeds.
As the first settlers came to Iceland they could only bring a limited number of livestock with them, and most probably chose their very best animals. Thus, the Icelandic horse has its origin in a herd of pre-selected, high quality individuals who had to survive the rough trip on a Viking longship across the Atlantic, before taking on their role as “the most indispensable servant” for the first Icelanders in this vast, wild, and entirely unknown country.
Due to the geographical isolation of Iceland, very few horse diseases occur here, and no vaccinations are needed. However, this also means that no horse can enter the country at all. Once a horse leaves Iceland it can never return. Anybody travelling to Iceland is also kindly requested not to bring any used leather equipment such as gloves, chaps or riding boots, and to disinfect all gear (particularly helmets).
The Icelandic horse is an extremely versatile breed. These strong, intelligent and smooth horses are successful in endurance racing and very well suitable for therapeutic riding.
Some are excellent jumpers and many are trained to quite a high level in dressage. Carriage pulling, polo and barrel racing are also activities where the horses of Iceland do well. Today, the most common use for the Icelandic horse is as a general riding horse. A horse that the whole family can enjoy as a trustworthy and loved companion, but also out on long or short rides through the woods of Germany, along the beaches of Denmark or mountains of Iceland.
Icelandic horses can be found all over the world. Over 250,000 Icelandic horses are registered around the world, thereof approximately 40% in Iceland. They have amazing adaptation skills and do well in the ice-cold climates of Greenland and Alaska, but also down under in Australia and New Zealand. They can even be found in Hawaii.
Quite the characters
The Icelandic horse is known worldwide for its genuine and welcoming character. The horses are friendly, adventurous, smart, and quick to learn. They are usually very easy to handle, cooperative both on the ground and while ridden, yet also powerful and with a great will to work.
Icelanders traditionally favour horses with great spirit, power and stamina which is no wonder when taking into consideration what kind of long distances on hard terrain these horses needed to travel. However, the horses should always be reliable and treasured companions, ready to give their all in full speed when required, but also stand still for hours and shelter the humans from a snow storm if needed. There are many stories of how horses have saved their rider’s life, by outsmarting them, refusing to go where the path was too dangerous, or finding the way home when the rider was completely lost.
A friend for life
Often the same horse can be used for competitions at the highest level, as well as to safely carry the youngest family member on a ride out. The horses seem to adapt to each task given, knowing when it is time for full power or to tune down. They are an easy-going mount when a youngster or an unstable rider comes along. This versatility is highly treasured among Icelandic horse lovers, and is one of the most important breeding goals. Icelandic horses will reward mutual respect and fair handling with life-long loyalty and friendship.
The horses of Iceland have been the most indispensable servants since the island was first settled and have served that role faithfully through the ages. With no roads, vast distances and rough terrain, the horses were used for anything from carrying goods, transporting the doctor and postman, bringing people to church and to their loved ones across glacial rivers, as well as providing meat, horse hair and even milk.
Although their role has changed quite dramatically in the last 100 years, the horses remain an important part of Icelandic culture, bringing people together, both within the country as well as across borders.
The official breeding goal of Icelandic horses is to produce a healthy, fertile, and durable riding horse, a robust and yet elegant and versatile horse with five excellent gaits. The conformation should offer optimal natural balance, and the movements should be supple, high and ground covering in all gaits, giving an elegant and powerful image.
Small but not a pony
The size of Icelandic horses can vary considerably, from just about 130 cm on highest point of withers, to over 150 cm. The average size of horses shown in breeding evaluation is just under 140 cm to the withers which is considerably taller than 30 years ago. The reason for horses growing taller is due partly to better feed, but also selected breeding.
Colors and genetics
The Icelandic horse is one of the most colourful breeds in the world. It has over 40 colours and up to 100 variations and, with only few exceptions, most of the known horse colours can be found within the breed. This fact adds both to the charming look of the Icelandic horse and to variation within the breed. Not only are all colours allowed in the studbook, but variety is encouraged, as the official breeding goal is simply to preserve all colours naturally occurring in the breed.
Although the commonly known statement “a good horse has no colour” is true to a degree, people often have their favourites and will discuss the range of characteristics of colours to much depth.
The rarest colour found in Icelandic horses is the colour-changing roan. The most common are red (chestnut) and black (brown). All horses have one of the three basic colours, black, red/chestnut or bay. Black horses can be either heterozygote – containing both the red and black genes – or fully black, where red offspring would be impossible. The red base colour comes when both parents give the red gene, but it is not a dominant gene, meaning it only shows as red when in homozygote state, that is, when inherited from both parents. Therefore, if both parents are red, the foal can only be red.
Variations of colors
On top of these base colours come all the variations, like skewbald, dun, palomino, grey, silver dapple, splash-skewbald and roan. These can often also be combined so the same horse can have a black base colour, but have both the dun gene and the silver dapple gene, making the outcome much lighter than the base colour prescribes. Grey can come on top of all colours and basically means that the horses turn white with age.
The silver dapple gene is hidden in the red base colour, so although not shown, it can be present and inheritable. In bay and black base colours, it lightens the mane and tail as well as the body to some degree, causing the famous “chocolate colour” when the base colour is black. A link has been found between a specific eye disease and this gene, sometimes causing trouble, especially when in homozygote state.
Icelandic roans are often called colour-changers, because the horses with this gene show their “real” colour in summer coat as well as in full winter coat, but in spring and autumn the middle layer in their coat has no colour, and is, in other words, white.
On top of all this, multiple add-ons such as a blaze, star, snip, white leg or other marks can also be found, making each horse as unique on the outside as on the inside.
The Five Gaits
The horses of Iceland are a so-called gaited horse breed. This means that most Icelandic horses have two extra gaits to offer besides walk, trot and canter/gallop. All horse breeds have these three natural gaits and can perform them without training. The extra gaits that set the Icelandic horse apart from other breeds are called tölt and flying pace.
The extra gaits are natural and new-born foals frequently show them right from the start. Most Icelandic horses are five-gaited, meaning they possess all five gaits, while some are considered four-gaited, and lack the flying pace. There is a genetic variation that all gaited horse breeds have in common, which allows them to reach high speeds in a given gait without breaking into canter and gives them the smooth lateral movements. Five-gaited Icelandic horses always have this gene from both parents, as do some of the four-gaited horses. Some only have the gene from one parent, making them a pure four-gaiter which does not offer flying pace.
Tölt is the unique four-beat lateral gait, that the breed is best known for. The horse’s hind legs should move well under the body and carry more of the weight on the hind end, allowing the front to rise and be free and loose. Tölt is very smooth to ride since there is no suspension between strides, as is the case in trot or canter, and it can be ridden very slowly up to a very fast speed, depending on the horse.
The flying pace is the “fifth gear”, offering a two-beat lateral movement with suspension. This gait is ridden very fast, even used for racing and only for short distances, 100-200 meters usually. Not all Icelandic horses can pace, but those that manage all five gaits well are considered the best of the breed.
All information retrieved from : (2020)