What are Icelandic Horses?

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A Horse Bred in Iceland

Icelandic horses are a compact, strong horse bred in Iceland, uniquely adapted for the long northern winters of their island home. They are renowned for their natural ability to perform five gaits: the walk, trot and canter/gallop standard to all horses, and in addition, the four-beat tolt and the two-beat flying pace.

Raised in Iceland since the ninth century, they were probably first brought there from Scandinavia by the Vikings. Horses have been valued throughout Norse history, where they have been associated with the Scandinavian gods and symbolized fertility.

Their compact stature allows them to conserve body heat in the damp, stormy winters and cool summers on the North Atlantic island whose maritiime climate is moderated by the warm North Atlantic drift flowing north along the east coast, and the cold Arctic current flowing south along the west coast.

The horses' thick, furry coats conserve body heat, while their long outer guard hairs help shed water and provide a second layer of insulation. They stand about 13-14 hands high, and weigh between 300 and 400 kg (700-850 lbs). They are used in Iceland today for farm work, recreational riding, showing, racing and breeding.

The foals are not ridden until their fourth year, and continue growing until the age of seven, when they reach sexual maturity. They can live 40 to 50 years, and continue to breed until late in their twenties.

The breed has stayed pure because Iceland does not allow hourses to be imported, a measure aimed to protect the island herds from diseases. Once an Icelandic horse leaves the country, it may not return, so the horses in international competitions are exclusively horses that have been sold or bred abroad.



Icelandic horses are compact, powerful equines.
Icelandic horses are compact, powerful equines. | Source
Herd of Icelandic horses seek shade on Celista Vineyard Estate in British Columbia.
Herd of Icelandic horses seek shade on Celista Vineyard Estate in British Columbia. | Source

Icelandic Horse at Tolt

Tolt and Flying Pace on Ice

A Gaited Horse


Icelandic horses are one of the gaited horses, which means they naturally perform additional gaits to the common walk, trot, and canter/gallop. The tolt is a fast, smooth gait, comfortable to ride, in which the horse's feet move in the pattern left hind, left front, right hind, then right front. The movement pattern of the tolt is like that of the walk, but the horse can do it at different speeds.

The fifth gait is the flying pace, a very fast racing pace that moves the horse at speeds up to 48 km/hr (30 mph). This is a two-beat gait, in which both feet on one side are off the ground at once, moving in a pattern of left hind and left front together, then right hind and right front together.


Like other horses, the Icelandic horses are social animals and need a herd.


Celista Estates Winery

A markerCelista -
Celista, BC V0E, Canada
[get directions]

The Shuswap region at the north end of the Okanagan Valley is a developing hub for British Columbia wines and family wineries.

The Herd of Icelandic Horses at Celista Estate Winery

Celista Estate Winery is a 160-acre property on the north shore of Shuswap Lake in the interior of British Columbia that has begun producing prize-winning wines in the family winery owned by Marg and Jake Ootes. Since the first vines were planted in 2002, the winery has begun to shine among the niche wineries of British Columbia producing grapes that are suited for the northern climate and sometimes harsh winters of the latitude north of 50.

In addition to growing grapes, the land is home to a small herd of Icelandic horses, shown in the pictures below. The herd roams the paddocks and fields fenced off from the vineyards, and overwinters in the barn fed on hay cut from summer hayfields. Family friends come to ride the horses on a network of trails in the forests and fields that slope down to Shuswap Lake near the village of Celista.

Icelandic horses are gaited horses, with five natural gaits.
Icelandic horses are gaited horses, with five natural gaits. | Source
Icelandic foals are playful and social.
Icelandic foals are playful and social. | Source
Icelandic foals groom and nuzzles each other in the shade at Celista Vineyard Estates, on the North shore of Shuswap Lake in British Columbia.
Icelandic foals groom and nuzzles each other in the shade at Celista Vineyard Estates, on the North shore of Shuswap Lake in British Columbia. | Source
These Iceland foals are too young for riding, but are being socialized and handled when the rider comes to ride the lead mare.
These Iceland foals are too young for riding, but are being socialized and handled when the rider comes to ride the lead mare. | Source
Adult Icelandic horses groom each other and nip necks.
Adult Icelandic horses groom each other and nip necks. | Source
The lead mare leaves the herd of Icelandic horses in the paddock, and heads for the tack room for saddling.
The lead mare leaves the herd of Icelandic horses in the paddock, and heads for the tack room for saddling. | Source
Icelandic horses are small and long-lived.  They are a good match in size for a child rider, but strong enough to carry an adult.
Icelandic horses are small and long-lived. They are a good match in size for a child rider, but strong enough to carry an adult. | Source
This Icelandic horse is walking to the forest trail for exercise and training.
This Icelandic horse is walking to the forest trail for exercise and training. | Source

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Comments 6 comments

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

Well, aren't they just adorable! They look similar to Shetland ponies, to my untrained eyes at least. Thanks for a great hub, very interesting and wonderful photos.


jellygator profile image

jellygator 4 years ago from USA

That's what I thought, too - both on the Shetlands and the pictures of the foals.


Janis Goad profile image

Janis Goad 4 years ago Author

Iceland and Shetland are so close together geographically, I am sure the ponies must be related.


Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I'd never heard of an Icelandic horse before. Thanks for introducing me to them. Very interesting and loved all of your hub pictures.


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

What a wonderful animal and thanks for lovely photos. I'm not a horse person (my sisters were), in fact they always throw me off or bite me, so we don't get on. I appreciate how beautiful they are from a distance and love this Hub. It's a thrill to read about something new.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Horses, in general, are simply one of the most exquisite animals. These "icelandic" are cute....remind me of ponies. My sister and I would go riding often when we were kids and we truly enjoyed it. I have not been in so long, but always think about doing so. There are several riding stables nearby and I'd like to take my grandsons, just to let them experience the activity..... Great hub........UP+++

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