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.
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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.