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The strong Icelandic horse culture has an extreme purity of stock as it has received no outside blood for over 800 years. There was an attempt to add eastern blood but it proved so disastrous that the Althing, the world’s oldest parliament, prohibited the import of horses in A. D. 930.
Although the Icelandic Horse stands no more than 13.2 hands in height, it is never referred to as a pony by the Icelanders. The horses came to the volcanic island in the longboats of the Norsemen, who settled there between A. D. 860 and 935 and has occupied a central place in the lives of the Icelanders for over 1,000 years.
Selective breeding was practiced, using fights between stallions as a basis for selection. Selective breeding on a modern scale began in 1879 in the most famous breeding area, Skagafjordur in northern Iceland.
The programs were largely based on the quality of the five gaits preformed by the Icelandic Horse. Many studs breed strictly to a specific color, of which there are 15 basic types and combinations.
Although small, the Icelandic Horse is able to carry full grown men at speed over long distances and difficult terrain.
Icelandic Horses are often kept in semi-feral conditions, without much supplementary feed. Occasionally though, the horses are given the highly nutritious herring, with which the Icelandic seas abound.
This horse is used for every sort of work. Sport is equally important. Competitive events are held frequently and include racing, cross-country and even dressage.
As Cattle cannot be wintered out in Iceland and the Icelandic Horse can, horse herds are also kept for meat as horse flesh has always been a staple of Icelandic diet.
The head of the Icelandic horse is distinctive and a bit plain and heavy in proportion to the short, stocky body. The shoulders appear to be relatively straight with a short neck carried well, thick through the jowl. The girth is always deep and the back is short. The quarters are wedge shaped and sloping but are very strong and muscular. This horse has a notable ability to engage the hind legs well under the body
The hooves of the Icelandic horse are exemplary and the breed is noted for its agility and sure-footedness over rough country. Its compact body is carried on strong limbs, notable for their short cannon and strong hocks. Both mane and tail are full and abundant.
The famous gait of the Icelandic, the tolt, is the specialized four beat running walk used by the Icelandic Horse to cross broken ground swiftly. It is a gait which with unaltered footfall can escalate its swiftness from a mere stop to great speed.
The five Icelandic gaits are: fetgangur (walk) used under pack; brokk (trot) for crossing rough country; stokk (gallop) and the ancient extra gaits, the skeid (pace) which covers short distances at speed and the tolt, the famous running walk.
Color is a feature of the Icelandic breed and there are 15 recognized combinations. Chestnut with flaxen mane and ail are popular, but there are also duns, bays, grays and blacks. Sometimes palomino and albino are found as well as piebald and skewbald.
The popularity of the tolt and the ability to carry a full adult with ease, coupled with the temperament that allows young riders, plus the easy-keeping nature of the animal has achieved a popularity that has spread the Icelandic Horse right across the world. Many countries have breed associations and there are many Icelandic competitions and clubs.