The Icelandic Horse-Gift from the Vikings

Icelandic Horse History

© Roberta Kyle 2008, all rights reserved

Norse Vikings came to Iceland in the ninth century not to plunder but to settle. They arrived with families and animals in tow, ready to farm, fish, fight with each other, and form a republic. For those early settlers the horse was indispensible. He plowed the fields, carried cargo and crops, forded glacial rivers and picked his surefooted way over treacherous mountain trails, sharing the often short and brutish life of his master as an equal partner and beloved friend. That partnership, between man and horse, forged over a thousand years ago, endures today with a love and loyalty that is hard to describe. If you have the good fortune to visit Iceland and to see these marvelous horses in their native habitat, you will understand. Foraging in the fields there, against a backdrop of volcanic mountains, glaciers and waterfalls, they seem almost organically connected to the land in some mystical way.

The relationship between Icelanders and their horses is intense. Almost every Icelander learns to ride in childhood, the way kids in other places learn to ride a bicycle, and riding is popular among Icelanders of all ages as a form of sport and recreation. Of course, out in the countryside, horses still work hard on the farm. But everywhere in Iceland, people, horses, and land are almost palpably connected. There are numerous herds of Icelandic horses in other countries, but whenever I encounter them ,even if they are three or four generations removed, they look a bit out of place. Iceland is their home, even if they have never seen it.

Since medieval times it has been illegal to bring foreign horses to Iceland. The ban was put in place in the twelfth century because of the Black Plague and has never been lifted. Even today, any Icelandic horse that leaves the country, can never return but must remain abroad the rest of its life. The reason is concern that foreign equine diseases to which Icelandics have no immunity could be brought back to Iceland and decimate the herd. A practical result has been to keep the bloodlines of this ancient breed pure. This truly is the horse of the Vikings.

Icelanders and their horses out for a winter ride
Icelanders and their horses out for a winter ride | Source
Icelandic horses in their native land
Icelandic horses in their native land | Source
Icelandic horses in the wind
Icelandic horses in the wind | Source

A Bit About the Breed

As horses go, Icelandics are small (12 to 14 hands) and stocky. They look a bit like large Shetland ponies. (Do not ever call them ponies in front of any Icelander, anywhere. To do so is to deeply offend.) They are strong too; capable of carrying a 200 pound Viking for miles without breaking a sweat. In addition, their endurance is awesome and generations of picking their way over lava strewn mountains has made them extremely sure-footed..

But the most interesting and unique thing about the Icelandic horse is it’s gates. In addition to the usual walk, trot, cantor and gallop, the Icelandic horse possesses the tölt and the skeiđ or flying pace. Ancient breeds of horses often had these or similar gates which were of great use to nomadic peoples crossing vast distances on horseback. One can see why. The feeling is one of flying across the ground. The horse seems to be running on air and the rider is as comfortable as in the back seat of a limousine. Check out the video below to see what I mean. The first group of horses that you see are tolting-- notice the riders do not bounce or post -- they just float along. Notice the way horses, riders, and landscape all sort of blend together in a wonderful, unique way.

Putting an Icelandic Through Its Paces

The video below shows a championship Icelandic horse being put through its paces in a show ring in Iceland. It will give you a close up look at the tölt and the skeiđ\, gates that are unique to the Icelandic horse. Notice the horse's high stepping form and beautiful conformation. The best Icelandic horses never leave Iceland, because once they have traveled abroad, they have to stay there and can never come home again.

A Demonstration of tölt and the skeiđ

The Last Word

Like the country it comes from, the Icelandic horse is a small package that packs a big wallop. Strong, steady, and sure-footed it makes an excellent mount for children and for the mature rider as well. Experienced riders too will find plenty in this animal to keep them challenged.

This ancient breed offers something for everybody. Herds and riding opportunities can be found in Europe and North America, but the best place to get to know this wonderful animal is the country it comes from—Iceland. Once you’ve made the acquaintance of this gift from the Vikings, you may never think about horses quite the same way again.

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Comments 63 comments

amy jane profile image

amy jane 8 years ago from Connecticut

Robie, I love those little horses! My 4-year-old daughter rides a "pony" that looks suspiciously like an Icelandic, and he did look very out of place here in Connecticut until he had a very extensive trim! She loves him, of course, and wants to bring him home to live in our house. He is not much taller than our oversized Labrador and is quiet the spirited and strong little guy. This was so fun to read. :)

John Chancellor profile image

John Chancellor 8 years ago from Tennessee

Well I certainly learned something interesting from this HUB.

Very well written with intesting information and history about the Icelandic horses,

Kscharles 8 years ago

Robie, your story and the video about these Icelandic horses (of which I knew nothing!) is beautiful, mesmerizing, and touched me with an almost-prehistoric sense of reverance and beauty. Thank you for giving us this special gift!

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Amyjane-John and KCharles. Thanks so much for your wonderful comments. The horses are only one of many very special wonderful things about Iceland. I'm not much of a rider, but they are so easy and dependable and small, that even I can manage LOL

stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

They are amazing and beautiful horses! Thank you for putting this together - it is fascinating to read about their history and protection. I would love to visit Iceland someday and see one of these breeds in their (now) native country.

pgrundy 8 years ago

What a great hub--I love those little horses. What I really want though is a burro. Good to see you back by the way! Long time no hubs! I would love to go to Iceland someday, it sounds so beautiful. Thanks for this, it was a pleasure to read.

CennyWenny profile image

CennyWenny 8 years ago from Washington

I deeply enjoyed this hub, it made me miss riding which I haven't done since I was about 12. Great job! It was especially fascinating to learn about and watch the "tolt". Who knew?

CJStone profile image

CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

What beautiful horses robie2, and a delightful hub.

In The Doghouse profile image

In The Doghouse 8 years ago from California


Such cute stocky animals. Icelandic Horses look like they would be fun to ride! Interesting facts about not allowing them to return once they have left the country, disease prevention is probably a must.

solarshingles profile image

solarshingles 8 years ago from london

Dear Robie, thank you for reminding me on those days, when I was regularly riding Icelandic horses with my little kids far away from their native land of Iceland, surrounded by high alpine mountains. These horses really have so very kind character, which doesn't remind me to wild Vikings, at all):

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hello all--glad you stopped by.

Steph--Iceland is definitely worth a visit and a horsebackride

PG--good to see you. I have been awaay and doing other stuff and just haven't had time to hub, but it feels good to be back and thanks for the welcome. Iceland is wonderful and I know you would like it. I hope you get there one day.

CennyWenny-- the tolt is just amazing. You lean back in the saddle and away the horse goes--feels nothing like a trot.

CJ--thanks for your comment. I look forward to catching up a bit with your wonderful work on Hubpages

Doghouse--good to see you too. Yep--they can't return and other breeds can't come in and if you bring your own riding boots and stuff with you to ride in Iceland, it all has to be disinfected before you use it. They really are careful but the result has been the preservation of a really ancient and wonderful breed of horse.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Solarshingles--I guess we crossed posts:-) I'm glad you have known Icelandics and know what great hearts these little beasts have. They are so gentle and good with children. I think they had the Viking wildness bred out of them generations ago. Those with bad tempers ended up on the dinner table LOL.

Johanna 8 years ago

Takk Roberta. vid elskum hestana okkar!

Thank you for this wonderful hub, obviously written by someone who knows the Icelandic culture - and our horses. We have been lucky enough to preservate our more than 1100 years old breeds of domestic animals which all have some ancient and special way about them.

With love to all horse lovers,- from Iceland

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Robie, you really MUST share more of your extensive knowledge of Iceland! (And your photos too.) Didn't you do a piece about the "little people" (or whatever they're called)? They define Iceland as much as the breathtaking scenery and keeping the equine bloodline pure. Great hub. Glad to see you, here, even briefly. =)

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Wow, Johanna, it's really you! We must've been writing our comments at the same time! So nice to see you've been in my thoughts a lot lately.

BaliMermaid profile image

BaliMermaid 8 years ago from Ubud Bali

In 1965 my father helped an Icelandic Mare in foal deliver the first Icelandic horse that had been imported into the United States. He even got his picture in the paper and last week he showed me the clipping. He loved Icelandic horses and at one time he and his father owned 10 of them. They also had the first set of twin Icelandic horses born in the United States - that happened in Eagle colorado.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Sael Johanna--gaman ad sja thig ( oh darn--I can't make the Icelandic letters, sorry) But thank you for reading and commenting. I love your horses too and I have a lot of respect for your country as well-- and watch out, next I just may write about your dogs and chickens:-)

JamaGenee--I think you mean "hidden people" . They are another topic for another day and I'm glad to see you too It's a long way from Kansas to Iceland but both are places that produce tough, independent people Both are special places in my book.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Balimermaid-- that is really interesting. Didn't an Icelandic horse win a cross country endurance race back in the 60's? Was that your father's horse? Thanks for sharing that lovely bit of information about him.

Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

I grew up around horses and never heard of these. This was a real treat to read. (I confess to actually liking the song in the video too LOL).

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Glad you liked it, Shadesbreath. The song is a well known Icelandic folksong about riding at night and keeping away from ghosts and spirits. Here's a link to a better version on Youtube done by an Icelandic male choir. There's an English translation of the lyrics there too.

Jeanette M 8 years ago

Robie2, this is a great tribute to Iceland and their horses both. Thank you for sharing this with us


Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

Wow, very cool. TY

VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 8 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

Robie: There is always something new to learn everyday. I had no idea that in Iceland almost everyone rides a horse and have an intense relationship with this beautiful animal. Thanks for writing this and missed you!  

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Jeanette, glad you stopped by. Enjoy, Shadesbreath, and VS thanks for the welcome, nice to be back and to see you too:-)

monitor profile image

monitor 8 years ago from The world.

This was a very interesting hub about the history of the Icelandic horse, robie2. Although it is rather small and stocky, as you pointed out, it does indeed look like a horse to be reckoned with. Keeping this breed pure is definitely the way to go. Great hub!

Your fan.


cgull8m profile image

cgull8m 8 years ago from North Carolina

Great Hub, I saw one travel show recently that showed these horses, they ride so well without any bumbs for the rider. Amazing. Would love to visit Iceland some day.

iceryder profile image

iceryder 8 years ago

I love my Icelandic Horses. And they ARE ponies!

We like to see the horses ridden more naturally rather than heavy contact on the mouth forcing them into a hollow frame. Natural gaits are so much more... natural! and easier on the horse.

Pictures of my Icelandic Horses here:

desert blondie profile image

desert blondie 8 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

There's really nothing I can add to the great comments already here, but do want to say I AGREE re: how fascinating this is...I too know nothing about Iceland! Thanks again!

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Monitor, cgull,iceryder and deserblondie-- thanks for all your wonderful comments.I'm gonna check out your blog, iceryder--looks interesting.

joe strummer profile image

joe strummer 8 years ago from berlin-babylon

thank you vey much, well written and again I learned something new today.

keep up the good work!



sixtyorso profile image

sixtyorso 8 years ago from South Africa

Always nice to learn something new. For me Iceland is about wild nature, steam baths in Ice, reindeer (at least perceptually) and lovely people. I was not aware of the horse culture there. Thanks for the hub and opening my eyes.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hello joestrummer and sixtyorso-- thank you for stopping by. Glad you liked it, joe and sixtyorso--Iceland is about all those things you mention--especially the lovely people:-)

Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Absolutely beautiful hub, Robie. Full of the grace and elegance you bring to our language, as usual, and also full of deep respect and love for a people and their country. I was mesmerized by the story and images.

As you know, I am not the horsewoman, although my daughter is, and I know she will be here soon to enjoy as I have. I will not speak for her, but I do believe she may say this little horse is the perfect mount for me, as I want to sit still at all times while on a horse, and the tolt and skeid look like the perfect gaits. We can fly and I don't have to move!

Thanks for the wonderful eye on Iceland.

solarshingles profile image

solarshingles 8 years ago from london

Robie, I've noticed a great potential problem in one of your comments. Would you please tell us something more about how an Icelandic horse must never be called a pony in the presence of an Icelander to prevent a 'straight offence'): lol

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Sally's Trove and Solarshingles--so good to see you both here.

Sally--thank you for the compliment--you are quite the wordsmith yourself, I must say:-) and Icelandic horses really are easy to ride. You could do it. I know you could and besides they are small so you don't fall too far:-)

Solarshingles--ahhh yes well you see Icelanders can be very touchy about their horses and even though technically, at 12-14 hands they probably are ponies, Icelanders always call them horses and can get quite huffy if you don't. Actually, the Icelandic word for horse is "hestur" and there is no word for pony in their language, and since this is the only breed of horse in Iceland, I guess they can call them whatever they want --so they call them horses and if you want to be invited home for coffee, you better call them horses too LOL

New Day profile image

New Day 8 years ago from Western United States

Fascinating! I did not know anything about the Icelandic horses (nor will I ever call them ponies). Robie, you are quite amazing with your language skills too. I find myself wanting to learn more about both Iceland and horses! New Day.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi New Day--Iceland is a fascinating place. Hope you have a chance to visit one day.

SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

Icelandic horses are beautiful. Thanks for the informative hub.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

glad you liked it,Sweetie Pie-- always a pleasure to see you

DougsHub profile image

DougsHub 8 years ago from Australia

"..truly the horse of the Vikings." It is quite a mental image.

I am really enjoying reading and "surfing" through your hubs.

Thanks robie2.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thank you for reading and commentng Doug-- and welcome to Hubpages

MacGillivray 8 years ago from Helensburgh, Argyll, Scotland

Hi, Robie - I really enjoyed this hub. I visited Iceland with my mom many years ago. Unfortunately we were only there for a week and hardly strayed outside of Reykjavik. Visiting this hub makes me realise I really, really want to go back.


robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hello MacGillvray-- glad you liked reading about the icelandic horse. Hope you do get to make a return visit to iceland soon. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

Thanks Robie2 for this very informative hub. I loved watching the video and the smoothness of the horse's gait almost made it seem like they were skimming just above the earth on a cushion of air. Plan to email this link to some horse loving friends of mine whom will surely be interested in this. From your newest fan...

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks Peggy and welcome to Hubpages. I'm honored to have you in my fan club and certainly will soon be in yours:-)

MindField profile image

MindField 7 years ago from Portland, Oregon

Oh, I needed this. Absolute magic. Although a horse lover all my life, I can add my name to those who never knew about Icelandic horses. To me, watching them seemed like a fairytale come alive. Thank you so much.

robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

They really are lovely creatures, Mindfield. Glad to have been able to introduce you to them and hope you will see them in the flesh one of these days. Thanks for dropping by:-)

k@ri profile image

k@ri 7 years ago from Sunny Southern California

These are beautiful horses. I loved the video, their gaits are amazing. I've never seen anything like it. They look like an extremely smooth ride!

robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thank you so much k@ri. They really are very special as is the land they come from and its people. Thanks for reading and commenting:-)

Raven King profile image

Raven King 7 years ago from Cabin Fever

Do you kow that Icelanders don't have last names?

Happy Easter?

robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Yes Raven I did-- they use patronymics and if you want to look someone up in the phonebook you look by first name not last.... it used to be that way in Norway and Sweden too and I think in Russia as well, but I guess when population reaches a critical mass the use of patronymics doesn't work so well== thanks for mentioning it and Happy Easter to you too:-)

KimmiJ profile image

KimmiJ 7 years ago from Earth

Robie2, your hub and the comments, too, have been a pure joy to read! Thank you ALL so much!

robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Well thanks Kimmi for taking the time to read it all and to leave such a nice comment:-)

Natural Horsemanship 6 years ago

Thanks for sharing a great content.. Nice hub.. :)

robie2 profile image

robie2 6 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

thanks for stopping by and reading, Natural Horsemanship-- glad you liked it:-)

K34 6 years ago

hey, Robie, do you know if they wold be okay around small children, children riding them?

robie2 profile image

robie2 6 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

K34-- I know they are quite gentle and that small children ride them in Iceland-- more than that I cannot say:-)

Iceland Quest profile image

Iceland Quest 6 years ago from Coeur D Alene, Idaho

Such amazing creatures one of the things that made me love Iceland to begin with.

robie2 profile image

robie2 6 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Iceland Quest. It's always a pleasure to meet another Icelandophile. It is a unique and wonderful place, isn't it?

yenajeon profile image

yenajeon 6 years ago from California

Gorgeous gorgeous! I want to ride one right now! Preferably through gorgeous Iceland!

robie2 profile image

robie2 6 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

they really are something special. Hope you get to ride one one of these days and especially hope you get to go to Iceland.

marshacanada profile image

marshacanada 5 years ago from Vancouver BC

I love this informative and beautiful hub.They are great little horses. One of my friends really wants to go to Iceland and has been bugging me to go with her.

Now I can see another reason to go.

robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

You should definitely go, marsha. The place has a wonderful, indescribable energy and riding these little horses through their native landscape is quite a thrill.

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