The Vikings first settled Iceland over 1000 years ago, bringing with them horses from the British Isles and Western Norway. Research proves that the Icelandic horse of today is virtually identical to those original Viking horses. Importation of horses was stopped in 1100 A.D. to keep Iceland disease free; once a horse leaves Iceland it can never return. This makes the Icelandic horse the only breed without outside blood for the past 900 years. Pure breeding and natural selection in the extreme climate and harsh environment of Iceland have kept the breed robust, easy keepers. These measures have also kept the gaits, tolt and pace, which other breeds have lost.
There are approximately 45,000 horses in Iceland, the majority running wild. Only the fittest survive, with rough winters and volcanic eruptions taking the biggest toll. Volcanos do not kill directly, but the ash and lava destroy the already sparse areas of grass, causing starvation. In 1874, one year after the largest eruption, only 3,500 of 32,000 horses were left in southern Iceland.
Export to Europe, especially Germany, started in 1955. With breeding and importation, there are now over 30,000 Icelandic horses in Europe. Thirty years ago the first Icelandic horses were imported into North America, where there are now well over 1000 of the breed.
At one time the Icelandic horses were the only means of transportation and thus played a very important role in the daily lives of the people. On trips across the country the horses and riders often had to cross deep rivers. The Icelanders used to call their horses the "bridges of Iceland."
Although the Icelandic horses stand 13-14 hands tall and are technically ponies by our standards, they are referred to as horses in Iceland and Europe. They weigh from 800-1000 pounds and have been bred to carry adults.
The horse should be somewhat rectangular and well-proportioned. The head must be clean cut and expressive, the neck supple and well set, so that the horse carries itself well-balanced when ridden.
The shoulder should be comparatively long and well angled, the back flexible, and the croup sloping, wide and well muscled.
The horse must give an impression of courage and power, with a proud and attentive expression, especially when ridden.
Icelandic horses are slow to mature, and are known for their longevity and stamina. They should not be ridden until the age of 4 years. Their period of greatest strength is from 8 to 18 years, and it is not unusual to ride them until the age of 30. To preserve their natural spirit and vigor, it is best to raise the foals free on pasture and rough ground.
All colors and markings are allowed, some of which include chestnut, bay, black, palomino, buckskin, gray and pinto.
Breeding is carefully controlled by a breed association in Iceland, and all stallions and mares used pass special tests for conformation, character, temperament, and proficiency in their five natural gaits - walk, trot, canter, pace and tolt.
"Tolt" is the Icelandic word for the running walk or rack and is a four beat lateral gait, attaining speeds of up to 20 mph. One hears the tolt distinctly as a constant four-beat staccato and sees the tolt with the horse proudly erect, carrying the tail in a typically undulating movement. The rider feels the tolt as he sits conditioned by the even four-beat rhythm, perfectly still in his/her saddle, without the tossing movement of the trot. This is a natural gait for the Icelandic horse and comes without the use of heavy shoes or other artificial aids. A "magic carpet smooth" dream come true!
Depending on the breeding, some Icelandics also do the "flying pace." The flying pace is a two-beat lateral gait used for racing short stretches - 150 meters to 250 meters - at speeds of up to 30 mph. Icelandic horses are ridden at the pace rather than driven as are Standardbreds in North America.
The Icelandic horse has a very individual character. The Icelandic horse is patient, adaptable, uncomplicated and sometimes very spirited. It has a friendly personality and a special affinity for people. Bred as a riding and working horse for the Icelandic farmer makes it an excellent family horse. With no natural predators in its home country, the horse has shed much of its natural "fight or flight" instinct.
The Icelandic horse is bred for use, not show. Highest priority is given to its rideability. It must be courageous and resourceful, cooperative and willing, with good forward action. Its typical robustness must always be preserved. It is easy to keep and should be of flawless disposition.
We'd like to thank Christine Schwartz for supplying information for this page.
Karen Brotzman, Alfasaga Farms, 214
Centerville, Wa. 98613 Phone (509) 773-4383 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org