The friendly and self-assured Icelandic horse is pony-size but regarded as a horse nevertheless. Physically the Icelandic is similar to the Northlands pony of Norway. It is Iceland's only native breed. Ponies were brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. Only the best of the Vikings' horses were chosen to make the journey.
During its history, Icelandic stallions were pitted against each other in fights. These contests were viewed as entertainment but also served as a guide to choosing the best animals for breeding purposes.
Later settlers arrived with ponies which would become the ancestors of the Connemara, Highland and Shetland ponies. Horses remained the only form of land transport until the mid 1900s. Following a failed attempt at improving the breed by the introduction of oriental blood, the parliament prohibited the importation of horses. Icelandic horses have now been bred in a pure state for over 1000 years.
Selective breeding as well as natural selection has brought about an extremely tough, resilient horse. Many have died through cold and starvation and many were wiped out by volcanic ash poisoning and starvation when Lakagigar erupted in 1783. Over the ensuing eight months, hundreds of square miles were covered with lava and rivers were re-routed or dried up.
In 1904, the first breed society was created. This was followed in 1923 by the first breed registry. There are now breed organisations in almost 20 different nations. The parent organisation is called the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations. The first Icelandics taken to Britain worked in the coal mines but there is little evidence of this now. The first official importations were in 1956.
Icelandic horses are 'gaited' so that as well as walk, trot and canter, many individuals have another two paces.
Breeders focus on different characteristics of the Icelandic depending on the animal's intended use. Some breed for pack and draught work, others for gaited work under saddle and some horses are bred for meat. Still others breed for a particular colour. The Icelandic is not normally ridden or bred until four years old and is not considered mature until seven years of age. They are at their best between 8 and 18 but are still strong and productive into their twenties. Although they develop late, they have good longevity and are a very tough breed. They are small, rugged, versatile and highly fertile.
They have no natural predators and are relatively fearless. Apart from internal parasites their isolation from other horses has kept them free of disease. This has its downside as they have little natural immunity when taken from their homelands. Once an animal has left the country it is not allowed back. In its native country, the Icelandic is used for farm work, showing and racing. The Icelandic is ridden by children and adults alike. They are frugal and low maintenance.
The breed varies between 13hh and 14hh. All colours of the rainbow can be found and the Icelandic language has over 100 names for the various colour patterns. The overall impression is of a stocky, compact animal with short, strong limbs and a thick, fuzzy winter coat. They are naturally curious, very sensible and amenable to training.
The head is well proportioned with a straight profile and wide forehead. The neck is short and muscular. Broad, low withers lead to a long back and broad but short croup which slopes slightly. Strong, short legs have relatively long cannon bones and short pasterns. The mane and tail are full. The mane is often double sided. The tail is set low. The coat is double giving extra insulation in cold weather.
The Icelandic is very sure-footed and adept at covering rough country. Its speciality is the tolt which is a comfortable, four-beat, lateral ambling gait. The tolt can be performed at slow or fast speeds. Good exponents of the tolt have explosive acceleration and speed. Variations occur within individuals and the tolt has been likened to the rack (American Saddlebred), the paso largo (Paso Fino) and the running walk (Tennessee Walking Horse).
The tolt is an inherited gait which is evident in young foals much as the Peruvian Paso passes on its gaits to its progeny. The footfall pattern of the tolt is left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore (same as the walk) but the speed can be anything from a walking pace to the speed of a canter. Two variations are not considered correct. The 'pig's pace' is closer to a two-beat pace and the 'valhopp' is a tolt/canter mix sometimes seen in untrained horses. Both the pig's pace and valhopp are uncomfortable for the rider.
The fifth gait is the skeio or 'flying pace'. This gait is used in racing with speeds of 30 mph being reached. It is a two-beat lateral gait like that of a Standardbred. It is not used for long distance travel. This gait is not performed by all horses with only the best of the breed performing all five gaits. Racing is done under saddle rather than in sulkies.
Horse trekking in Iceland has become a very popular pastime for tourists and there are now sizeable populations in Europe and North America. Today Western Europe, North America and Scandinavia have embraced the Icelandic horse and its popularity is spreading further afield.