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Icelandic Horse: The Pure and Powerful Viking Steed

icelandic horse

As one of the original Viking steeds, Icelandic horses are powerful, beautiful, and dependable despite their small statures. You can trace the Icelandic horse’s history back to the 9th century, making them one of the world’s oldest breeds. They are also famed for their pure lineage, which is not frequently seen nowadays.


Icelandic horses are an integral part of Iceland’s culture and history. The breed has gained massive popularity around the world for its temperament and smooth riding experience. Read on to learn everything there is to know and love about the Icelandic horse!



Icelandic Horse Characteristics

Icelandic horses are small but have impressive strength for their size. They are built with strong, muscular shoulders and a broad chest, capable of pulling heavy loads. Their thick, stocky legs give them even more power.


Many Icelandic horses may not be as big as normal-sized equines, but they’re certainly as strong! One of the features that give Icelandic horses their beauty and grace is their long, flowing manes and tails. They have coarse hair that allows them to endure the elements.



icelandic horse with colt in field




One of the first things you notice when you ride an Icelandic horse is how smooth and even they move. They are one of the few breeds in the world with five gaits. The four basic gaits every horse has are the walk, trot, canter, and gallop.


The Icelandic horse’s two unique gaits are the “flying pace” and their specialty, the tölt. The tölt is a four-beat lateral gait similar to a fast or running walk, and riders will immediately feel the steadiness of this unique stride.


The tölt is the Icelandic horse’s natural walk that they display from birth. It is so smooth that many horse shows or demonstrations in Iceland will feature a rider holding a full glass of beer, never spilling a single drop. The tölt is also extremely handy when it comes to navigating the rough terrains of the Icelandic countryside.


The flying pace is a racing, two-beat gait. While these horses are adept at the flying pace, they are not born with the gait, and it must be taught. It is a complicated movement that requires both legs on one side of the horse to move simultaneously. Icelandic horses that can learn this gait are highly valued and allow them to reach their maximum speeds.


The breed’s smooth strides allow them to run up to 30 mph (48 kph). Their speed makes them one of the fastest small horse breeds in the world. Most equines around the Icelandic horse’s size can only run up to 18 mph.


Icelandic Horse Size

Male and female Icelandic horses don’t differ much in size. They stand roughly about 12-14 hands tall, or about 48-56 inches, and can weigh anywhere from 730-840 pounds.


Though Icelandic horses have a pony’s size and stockiness (under 14.2 hands), they are considered purebred horses and not ponies. Calling them ponies might offend a few Icelanders, so be careful!



Icelandic Horse Personality

Icelandic horses are known as a “cold-blooded” breed. This doesn’t mean they are actually cold-blooded animals, but that they have gentle and calm dispositions. Warmblood and hot-blood are the other two types of horses, usually leaner and more athletic than cold-bloods. However, warm and hot-blooded horses can also be more energetic and harder to train.


Other cold-blooded breeds include the Shire, Clydesdale, and Belgian horses. Icelandic horses are great for casual riding and are easy to handle. Many young riders start with a cold-blooded horse to get a feel for riding.


Icelandic horses also rarely feel threatened, scared, or agitated. There are few predators in Iceland, so the horse doesn’t easily resort to kicking or biting. As a result, they can make an excellent family horse because they pose almost no risk for children.


Icelandic horses’ calm temperaments make them ideal for pulling carriages or wagons. When these steeds first arrived in Iceland with the Vikings, they were critical for plowing the fields and transporting supplies. Without their sturdiness and endurance, the first Icelanders may have perished altogether.



Icelandic Horse History

The first settlers to reach the vast, unknown land of Iceland were Norsemen that came by ship in the late 9th century. With limited space on their ships, these Vikings could only bring the essential items, their possessions, and livestock. Among the livestock were the first Icelandic horses who would become vital to their survival.


Without their Icelandic horses to lead them through the cold, icy lands, the first settlers may not have been able to establish a new home. The horses quickly became an icon of the culture and created an everlasting bond between man and horse that continues today.


In the late 10th century, attempts were made to cross this breed with other horses. However, this many of the offspring were unable to reproduce. In the year 982, the Icelandic parliament prohibited any further crossbreeding and banned foreign breeds from entering the country.


Since then, Icelandic horses have been untainted by other breeds. For over a thousand years, they have remained one of the purest breeds in existence.


Rise of the Automobile

In the early 1900s, the first automobiles arrived in Iceland, replacing horses as the primary transportation method. Some farmers still use them to help round up sheep and other livestock, but the majority of Icelandic horse owners now use them for shows, competitions, and leisure.


There are an estimated 180,000 of these horses worldwide today, with over 80,000 of them in Iceland. This is an impressive population considering the entire population of Iceland is only about 270,000 people. The number of Icelandic horses worldwide continues to grow, representing a significant portion of Iceland’s exports.



light brown equine in snow



How to Care for an Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horses are known as easy keepers, which means they don’t require a lot of attention beyond basic grooming care. They get along with other horses very well and love having time to themselves in the pastures. They also do very well living in stalls, in close quarters with other animals.


Icelandic Horse Training

Icelandic horses are very intelligent and easy to train. Usually, they have minimal human contact for the first 3-5 years of their lives as they mature and grow. Once they are large enough to ride, trainers will often use the hand-horse riding method to train the young horse.


Hand-horse riding, or ponying, involves leading a young horse alongside an older steed. Ponying is a great way to introduce new horses to the outside environment and teach them how to adapt to difficult situations, work with other horses, and eventually carry riders.


Many trainers will also use dressage techniques to improve the balance and agility of this breed’s gait. Dressage is a popular riding competition that showcases the elegance and coordination of a horse. By using methods that keep tempo and beat, trainers can perfect the horse’s gait and create the ultimate smooth-riding experience.


Nutrition and Feeding for an Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horses thrive on high-quality hay. Did you know that Iceland is home to about 30 active volcanoes? While this can be a potential threat to Icelanders, it’s actually excellent news for horses. Iceland’s volcanic activity has resulted in nutrient-rich forage for its native horse breed.


After generations of being spoiled by delicious natural forage, this breed requires high-quality feed. They’ll also enjoy foods with added benefits, like HolistaPet’s CBD horse pellets. In the Northern parts of Iceland, people release their Icelandic horses into the wild for a few months to graze and run freely. The people find that the wild grass and herbs help diversify the horse’s diets and help foals’ mental development.


Icelandic horses can also store extra fat for the winter. They build up fat reserves during the summer and can live off less food during the winter. Check out our feeding article if you’re curious about what horses eat.


Coat Color And Grooming

Icelandic horses have thick double coats to protect them from the cold. Their coats grow longer during the winter and shorter in the summer to adapt to the weather. Regular grooming is needed to keep their coats shiny and healthy.


The most common coat colors for Icelandic horses are chestnut, red, brown, and black. The rarest coat colors that have been seen are silver and the color-changing roan coat. The color-changing coat adapts to the seasons and has different shades all year round.


Overall, there are over 40 different identified shades and 100 different color combinations. There is no established breed standard for color. Breeders encourage the mixing of various naturally occurring coat colors to create more variety.


Grooming Tips

As with thicker coats, more careful and consistent grooming is recommended. Use coat and mane combs with equine shampoo to carefully wash out any dirt or sweat collected in the coat. A horse shedding blade may also help remove any dead or loose hair.


Grooming is also a great time to check for any cuts and scratches on their bodies and legs. Remember to check their hooves regularly for any infections and use a hoof pick to clean out the dirt.



mix of horses out in country



Icelandic Horse Health Problems

Icelandic horses are one of the healthiest breeds in the world. By banning the importation of outside horses, they have been able to avoid many equine ailments. In fact, these horses don’t get vaccinations in Iceland because there is such little risk of catching a disease.


Icelandic tourism also heavily protects the breed. The tourism board goes to great lengths to ensure no foreign contaminants affect the horses. Gear and clothing must be disinfected before coming into contact with Icelandic horses. Leather riding equipment can’t be adequately sanitized, so it is forbidden in Iceland.


Because this breed is so isolated, it’s crucial to continue upholding strict regulations to ensure its safety. A single case of a foreign disease could lead to an outbreak and potentially wipe out the entire population. For this reason, any exported Icelandic horse is not allowed back into the country.


Icelandic horses have an average life span of about 25-30 years. However, many many of these steeds are in good health and live to almost 40 years of age. Most horses stop carrying riders when they are about 20-25 years old, but due to their hardiness, many Icelandic horses continue riding into their late 20s.



How to Get An Icelandic Horse

This breed is more popular in European countries and may be harder to find in the US. Some sites like EquineNow have an average price of about $10,000-$15,000 for an Icelandic horse. It may be worth even more if it has a purer pedigree and complete health certifications.


You can find geldings for less than $10,000, and some horse owners offer stud services as well. It is possible to order a horse of this breed from Iceland for about $5000, but shipping and import fees may cost another $5000 on top.


Breed Organizations

The International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF) is the official international organization for Icelandic horses. FEIF sets the official breed standard, competition regulations, and registry rules. All national breed organizations must meet FEIF standards to be recognized.


Under FEIF rules, only one breed organization is allowed per country. The United States Icelandic Horse Congress represents the USA under FEIF and dedicates itself to the breed’s protection and promotion. It is a great place to find show events, the newsletter, detailed information on the breed, and find trainers and breeders.



More About This Horse Breed

The Icelandic horse is a beautiful breed that has stood the test of time and maintained its purity. Few breeds can challenge its hardiness and calm temperaments. It won’t be long before the Icelandic horse catches on in the US!

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