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Icelandic Horses

Updated on March 29, 2009

Photo by Gróa Valgerður Ingimundardóttir


When I first saw an Icelandic horse, it was a bay gelding and oh, so handsome. I liked the long, thick  mane and tail. I was compelled to get  a closer look. Then (it happened) he affectionately placed his head on my chest to greet me and I was hooked. His big soft brown eyes are so expressive and gentle. I have come to respect the Icelandic breed and have a great affection for them. This is my tribute to them.


To find the origins of the Icelandic horse you must go back in history to the age of the Vikings. They settled in Iceland between 870-930 AD bringing with them a small number of excellent quality horses of various kinds. During the 10th Century the Icelandic government, the Althingi, restricted importation of horses for fear of bringing in diseases. A thousand years of isolation since then has developed the characteristics that the Icelanders prize in the Icelandic horse. Today, they are considered the purest breed in the world.

Icelandic horse with winter coat
Icelandic horse with winter coat

What is hh?

hh = hands high

It is a unit of measurement originally based on the breadth of a man's hand.- about 4 inches. hh is used to describe the height of horses, ponies and other equine.

Example: A horse 15 hh is 60 inches (152 cm)

Physical Attributes

Icelandics are a stocky breed with long, thick mane and tails, and a thick generous forelock as well. They are a small horse typically 12.3 to 14.2 hh, but many are taller up to 15.3 hh. American height standards place them as ponies but Icelandic breeders consider them to be a true horse. Unlike ponies they can carry 1.6 times more weight than a large horse. Which means that an 800 lb Icelandic can pull as much weight as a 1250 lb large horse.

Terrain in Iceland is quite rugged- formed by active volanoes and earthquakes. The Icelandic horse is steadfast and strudy. They are well adapted to harsh winters; developing a dense coat with long guard hairs that shed the rain and deflect the wind. In addition, they grow an extra seasonal coat and store fat for the winter. Icelandic horses are capable of remaining outside during winter in Iceland, when the cattle and sheep must be housed. People say they look similar to furry teddy bears in their winter coat.


Anyone I know who has ridden an Icelandic will say they are a fun ride. They are endowed with great stamina and having an adult on their back is comfortable for them. They are surefooted horses that handle changes in terrain with ease. Whether it is rough mountain trails, crossing a stream or walking through very tall grass- they are steady and don't miss a beat.

The Icelandic horse is a gated horse. It has two unique gates in addition to the usual walk, trot, and canter: the tolt and flying pace. For an Icelandic Horse enthusiast there is probably no greater pleasure than to enjoy a good tolter. Tolt is a four-beat gait without a moment of suspension. The tolt can be at various speeds; from a working speed up to racing speed and a fast tolting horse can reach speeds similar as in a gallop. The horse gives a very smooth ride, allowing the rider to cover long distances without tiring. It is said that the rider seems to be floating.

In Iceland, flying pace is held in high regard. Good pacers are racehorses: highly strung, eagerly awaiting the start. A pacer is more than just a horse-he is a reliable friend and willing to give his all. He is a star. Flying pace is a two-beat gait, the lateral pairs of legs move together and there is a moment of suspension. Those that have felt it will agree it is exhilarating , often indescribable.

While every Icelandic horse should be able to tolt, not all have the genetic ability to pace.


Traditionally, the Icelandic horse is raised free range as opposed to being kept in a stall. The first 4-5 years of their lives are spent becoming an integrated member of a herd. They first learn to be a horse among horses; developing physical strength, emotional and mental stability while in the herd. The four year mark is when they usually begin their training. It is believed this method is part of the reason Icelandics are noted for their soundness and lack of "spookiness" that characterizes most horses.

Icelandic at Tolt and Flying Pace

What's in a Name?

Another tradition is the naming of the Icelandic horse. They have two parts to their name. For example: I have a horse whose name is . Sörli frá Strond. First comes the given name, then where  the horse comes from. Sörli ( frá ) from the farm, Strond. The accent in the word frá rhymes with cow and how. Most Americans don't know what comes after the frá without looking at their horses registration papers. This is truly sad because the after-frá is not only where the horse was bred, but also where their horse probably spent the first four or so years of its life and where it started its training. Moreover, it is where the very special qualities that made it "Icelandic" took place.

Icelandics Come in Many Colors


The Icelandic is a versatile breed. There are individuals suitable for dressage, jumping, endurance, trekking, pleasure trail, and competition trail. They are known for being willing, very responsive as well as taking new stimuli in stride. There is a lot of power in these small packages and some may not be suitable for beginners. However, I have seen a 5 year old on a stallion that was easy going and attentive. So you'll find a wide range of personalities as well.

Overall, the Icelandic horse is one to consider as part of the family. I don't consider myself a "horsey person" nor did I dream of having a horse as a child. But this breed of horse has captured my heart and I feel enriched for having the privilege of knowing them.


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