Genetic testing has revealed a common heritage between the horses of Iceland, the Shetland Islands, and the Faroe Islands between the two. All of them are linked to the horses of Norway. Undoubtedly, Viking travelers and settlers carried their native ponies with them wherever they went.
Isolation later shaped each breed into a unique entity, and thus it was that the Icelandic Horse became distinctive. Life in an environment cursed with a harsh climate yet blessed with an absence of predators produced a horse that was tough but fearless. Human intervention was always present, as well. The early residents of Iceland revered the horse, and their hardy little breed became a favorite subject of legends and sagas.
Even though disputes on the island were commonly settled by organized stallion fights, the breeders of Icelandic Horses regarded their animals as friends. They selected them for good temperament, and also propagated a variety of unique colors. Experiments with crossbreeding to horses from other parts of the world resulted in disaster, however; the new foals were rarely suited for their demanding climate. Accordingly, further imports were banned by the First Icelandic Parliament, a law that is still in effect today. The Icelandic Horse would continue for over a thousand years as one of the purest of horse breeds.
Those next years were gruelingly difficult. A large-scale shift in the world climate known as the Little Ice Age began around 1300. Raising crops on Iceland was nearly impossible, and the horses were largely left to feed themselves. Volcanic eruptions in the 1780s poisoned or starved the majority of the horse population, but the tough little Icelandic Horse survived nevertheless.
The Little Ice Age gradually came to an end as the 20th century approached. When the struggle for survival finished, people were free to spend more time breeding and enjoying horses. The introduction of the automobile to the island in 1913 may actually have helped the breed somewhat. The Icelandic Horse, while it still played a role in farm work and transportation, became primarily a companion and recreational mount.
Breeders were able to place emphasis on the Icelandic Horse’s unique gaits to produce an excellent saddle horse suitable for export. In addition to the walk, the trot, and a somewhat awkward canter, the breed boasts the tölt and the skeið. The first is a running walk, brisk and very smooth. The second is a variation on the pace, a gait in which both legs on one side of the horse move in tandem. Icelandic Horses can travel about 30 miles per hour at the skeið, about as fast as the average horse can gallop.
Since the 1950s, the export market and the use of Icelandic Horses in the tourism industry have driven much of the island nation’s economy. Not surprisingly, this interesting little horse met with a warm reception in the United States, where it is still rising in popularity. Today, the breed is fairly well distributed across our country.
The Icelandic Horse is highly versatile, making it an excellent family horse and companion. It can provide hours of pleasure and trail riding under either an English or a Western saddle, its smooth gaits making the ride enjoyable even for a rider with a bad back. It can be fairly competitive in endurance riding, and can even take on the lower levels of dressage and show jumping. In its native home, the Icelandic Horse is used to herd sheep and other horses.
This useful breed also makes a good harness horse. It can be driven for pleasure or tackle some light farm work.
Finally, the Icelandic Horse is an excellent pack animal.
There are a wide range of personalities within the Icelandic breed. Some individual horses are more calm and cooperative, while others are more independent and energetic.
As a whole, however, the Icelandic Horse tends to be smart and resourceful, needing a kind but firm and consistent rider to earn its respect. To such a rider this horse can become incredibly loyal, willingly performing whatever is asked of it. It generally loves all people, but forms special bonds with some.
Coming from an island with no natural predators, the Icelandic Horse appears to have little or no fear instinct. This makes it very calm and safe to handle, even in busy areas or when nursing a foal. It tends to think its way out of problems rather than panic. It also tends to refrain from biting and kicking. Even fighting Icelandic Horses prefer a less violent approach—the two horses stand rump to rump shoving each other. This habit seems to surprise horses of other breeds.
The Icelandic Horse has a strong need for equine companionship, more so than other breeds. It can become somewhat irritable when kept alone. Some owners recommend group housing, preferably with horses of the same breed, as other breeds may not appreciate being kept in such close quarters.
The Icelandic Horse is an incredibly tough little horse. Its eyesight is reputed to be superb.
Animals imported from the breed’s native homeland have limited immunity to most horse diseases because they are essentially raised in quarantine from the rest of the world. This problem is not inherent in the breed, however, and will not cause difficulties in American-raised horses.
Bony growths and inflammation, such as splints and spavin, are hereditary problems in native Icelandic horses. American breeders have taken steps to eliminate this condition, so it is not as common on our shores.
Finally, some Icelandic Horses seem to be prone to sweet itch, an allergic reaction to midge bites.
- Ease of handling.
- Extreme cold tolerance.
- Low maintenance requirements.
- Ability to live outdoors all year.
- Foraging ability.
- Extreme hardiness.
- Easy foaling.
- Natural foal vigor.
- Ability to carry adults in spite of small size.
- Extremely smooth gait.
- Impressive strength.
- Slow maturity; should not be ridden or bred until four or five years old.
- Need for special training to coordinate faster gaits.