Man's best friend

History and characteristics of Icelandic horses

source: Wendy Findlay
Country Smallholding December 2003
starts p36, 2 pages long

Icelandic horses were once the main mode of transport, and they are now popular for riding and trekking tours. They are typically between 12.2 and 13.2 hands high, stocky and deep-chested. Any colour is acceptable, except for appaloosa. Their manes and tails are bushy and long, and they have double coats in winter.

An unusual characteristic of Icelandic horses is that they can do five gaits, two more than the usual walking, trotting and cantering. The first extra gait is the tolt, with four paces, also called a running walk. The order that the legs move in the tolt is like a walk, but the back legs move forwards more, and the forelages are lifted high. The tolt is a smooth gait, which is comfortable for riders. The second extra gait is the skeid, with two beats, similar to a trot, but the legs at one side are moved together, unlike a trot, where the legs move as diagonals. The best Icelandic horses are able to do these five gaits, though not all individuals of this breed can perform them.

The origin of these horses in Iceland is believed to be through Viking imports, and they may have previously been descended from Celtic ponies, so be related to Exmoors and Shetland ponies, or they may have come from Scandinavia. There was a ban on imports of new horses from 982 AD, and horses leaving Iceland could not go back. This ban holds true for modern times, and there is also strict control of the import of used harness and tack. The result is an almost disease-free Icelandic breed. The demanding environment means that these are versatile and strong horses. They also lack natural predators, so are less likely to flee from living creatures, and are not as spooky as most horses, The hazards they face are rock slides, quicksand, steep tracks, and other environmental hazards, and they tend to assess potential dangers, instead of fleeing.

Other characteristic of the breed include a tendency to anaemia, which does not appear to cause them harm. They also have a higher level of red muscle fibre, and higher fat levels in their muscle fibre, and are reportedly more efficient at digesting cellulose. These characteristics may account for their great stamina.

There are some 80,000 Icelandic horses, many in free-ranging herds. Foals are usually left with their natal herd up to the age of four. This practice, and the wide ranges of the herds, are said to create fit, spirited, and sure-footed horses.