The Icelandic Horses
Icelandic horses is a breed of horse developed in Iceland. Although the horses are small, at times pony-sized, most registries for the Icelandic refer to it as a horse. Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy. In their native country they have few diseases. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return. The Icelandic displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly displayed by other breeds. The only breed of horse in Iceland, they are also popular internationally.
Developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, the breed is mentioned in literature and historical records throughout Icelandic history; the first reference to a named horse appears in the 12th century. Horses were venerated in Norse mythology, a custom brought to Iceland by the country’s earliest settlers. Selective breeding over the centuries has developed the breed into its current form. Natural selection has also played a role, as the harsh Icelandic climate eliminated many horses through cold and starvation. In the 1780s, much of the breed was wiped out in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.
The first breed society for the Icelandic horse was created in Iceland in 1904. Today the breed is represented by organizations in 19 different nations. It is organized under a parent association, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.
Icelandic horses weigh between 330 and 380 kilograms (730 and 840 lb) and stand an average of 13 and 14 hands (52 and 56 inches, 132 and 142 cm) high, which is often considered pony size, but breeders and breed registries always refer to Icelandic’s as horses. Several theories have been put forward as to why Icelandic’s are always called horses, among them the breed’s spirited temperament and large personality, and the lack of a word in Icelandic for “pony”.
Another theory suggests that the breed’s weight, bone structure and weight-carrying abilities mean it can be classified as a horse, rather than a pony. The breed comes in many coat colors, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, gray, palomino, pinto and roan.
There are over 100 names for various colors and color patterns in the Icelandic language. They have well-proportioned heads, with straight profiles and wide foreheads. The neck is short, muscular and broad at the base. The withers broad and low; the chest deep. The shoulders muscular and slightly sloping, the back long, the croup broad, muscular, short and slightly sloping. The legs are strong and short, with relatively long cannon bones and short pasterns. The mane and tail are full, with coarse hair, and the tail is set low. The breed is known to be hardy and an easy keeper. The breed has a double coat developed for extra insulation in cold temperatures.
Characteristics differ between various groups of Icelandic horses, depending on the focus of individual breeders. Some focus on animals for pack and draft work, which are conformationally distinct from those bred for work under saddle, which are carefully selected for their ability to perform the traditional Icelandic gaits. Others are bred solely for horsemeat. Some breeders focus on favored coat colors.
Members of the breed are not usually ridden until they are four years old, and structural development is not complete until age seven. Their most productive years are between eight and eighteen, although they retain their strength and stamina into their twenties. An Icelandic mare that lived in Denmark reached a record age of 56. Another horse, living in Great Britain, reached the age of 42.
The horses are highly fertile, and both sexes are fit for breeding up to age 25. Mares have been recorded giving birth at age 27. The horses tend to not be easily spooked, probably the result of not having any natural predators in their native Iceland. Icelandic tend to be friendly, docile and easy to handle, although also enthusiastic and self-assured. As a result of their isolation from other horses, disease in the breed within Iceland is mostly unknown, except for some kinds of internal parasites.
The low prevalence of disease in Iceland is maintained by laws preventing horses exported from the country being returned. By requiring that all equine equipment taken into the country be either new and unused or fully disinfected. Native horses have no acquired immunity to disease; an outbreak on the island would be likely to be devastating to the breed. This presents problems with showing native Icelandic horses against others of the breed from outside the country. As no livestock of any species can be imported into Iceland, and once horses leave the country they are not allowed to return.
The Icelandic is a “five-gaited” breed, known for its sure-foodness and ability to cross rough terrain. As well as the typical gaits of walk, trot, and canter/gallop, the breed is noted for its ability to perform two additional gaits. Although most horse experts consider the canter and gallop to be separate gaits. On the basis of a small variation in the footfall pattern, Icelandic breed registries consider the canter and gallop one gait, hence the term “five-gaited”
The first additional gait is a four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt. This is known for its explosive acceleration and speed; it is also comfortable and ground-covering. There is considerable variation in style within the gait. The tölt is variously compared to similar lateral gaits such as the rack of the Saddlebred, the largo of the Paso Fino, the running walk of Tennessee Walking Horse. Is like all lateral ambling gaits. The footfall pattern is the same as the walk (left hind, left front, right hind, right front).
Differs from the walk in that it can be performed at a range of speeds, from the speed of a typical fast walk up to the speed of a normal canter. Some Icelandic horses prefer to tölt, while others prefer to trot. Correct training can improve weak gaits, but the tölt is a natural gait present from birth. There are two varieties of the tölt that are considered incorrect by breeders. The first is an uneven gait called a “Pig’s Pace” or “Piggy-pace” that is closer to a two-beat pace than a four-beat amble. The second is called a Valhopp and is a tölt and canter combination most often seen in untrained young horses or horses that mix their gaits. Both varieties are normally uncomfortable to ride.
The breed also performs a pace called a skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace”. It is used in pacing races, and is fast and smooth, with some horses able to reach up to 30 miles per hour (48 km/h). Not all Icelandic horses can perform this gait. Animals that perform both the tölt and the flying pace in addition to the traditional gaits are considered the best of the breed. The flying pace is a two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls; each side has both feet land almost simultaneously (left hind and left front, suspension, right hind and right front).
It is meant to be performed by well-trained and balanced horses with skilled riders. It is not a gait used for long-distance travel. A slow pace is uncomfortable for the rider and is not encouraged when training the horse to perform the gait. Although most pacing horses are raced in harness using sulkies, in Iceland horses are raced while ridden.