Before reading more about Icelandics, beware! They´re like Belgian chocolates – you can´t stop with only one. Countless people have bought “just one” Icelandic and then, a couple of years later, find themselves with ten (and increasing…). The trouble is, they´re just so good to be around.
Horses are not indigenous to Iceland and the first horses were carried to Iceland by the Vikings on their longships. As space was limited, they took only their best breeding stock. The Dole horse of Norway and the Celtic pony of Britain were the ancestors of today’s Icelandic horse.
In 982AD the Icelandic parliament made a law that no other horses could be brought into Iceland. This was to prevent disease, and the law is still in place today so any horse which leaves Iceland can never return. This means that the horse we see today is a direct descendant of the Viking horses. No other breed has had this isolation, and no other breed is so pure-bred.
Not surprisingly, Icelandics are very tough and hardy. Over the years natural selection in the form of famine, volcanic eruptions, harsh winters and difficult terrain, has weeded out any lesser specimens, and even today the Icelanders eat their culls, resulting in a strong, healthy breeding pool. The horses are late maturing and cannot carry a rider until at least four years of age, but they live a very long time and are commonly still in work at 25 or 30. The oldest horse known was an Icelandic and died at the age of 56.
Icelandics were bred to carry the Vikings, and although they are not very tall (between about 12.2 and 14.2hh) they are exceptionally strong with very dense bone. They are always called “horses” in spite of their height – there is no Icelandic word for “pony”. They can carry an adult rider in speed and comfort over the roughest countryside.
As you would expect, in winter they have very thick coats and they love cold weather. However, in the summer they grow a fine summer coat and rarely find the heat a problem. Horses imported from Iceland can have a problem with sweet itch as they are not exposed to Culicoides midges in Iceland, but it´s no more common in homebred Icelandics than in any other equine.
One of the attractions of the breed is the wide variety of colours. Icelandics can be any colour – dun, skewbald, black, chestnut, palomino or grey are easily found, and there are also rare colours such as silver dapple (almost black with a silver mane and tail) and silver bay (bay with white mane and tail). Here at Tresais Farm, we like the rare colours, and do our best to preserve them (though of course not at the expense of conformation, character or gaits).
To ride, nothing´s quite like an Icelandic horse. In addition to the usual gaits, walk, trot and canter, all Icelandics should tölt. Tölt is a four-beat lateral gait which can be done at any speed – from walk to canter. It’s amazingly smooth and comfortable for the rider and great fun to experience.
Some Icelandics also have a fifth gait, flying pace, an exciting two-beat lateral gait used for racing. An Icelandic in flying pace can go at 30 mph. Again, it’s really smooth to ride and extremely exhilarating.
These gaits are natural to the breed, and even young foals can be seen tölting and pacing around the fields after their mothers.
Icelandics are powerful, willing, forward-going horses, but they are also usually innately sensible, rarely bucking, rearing or shying. They go forward – not up, down and sideways like all too many other breeds! If the horse trusts his rider he will go through hell and back. Icelandics are footsure over rocks and mountains, and have been called the Bridges of Iceland for their swimming ability. They can be used successfully in almost any equine discipline – long distance, driving, hacking, riding club events, gymkhana, western riding, horse football or dressage. They are renowned for their wonderful dispositions.
Icelandic horses are really special – they are very easy to ride, but take a lifetime to learn to ride well. They are the original horses of the Vikings, and these days we would never choose any other horse or pony breed.