Our Stallions and Icelandic Horses for Sale
The Icelandic Horse
History, Description and Characteristics
What is this enigma - the
Icelandic horse? Why do we never forget it when we've met
one? Why do we always want more after we've got one?
What is it about them that makes them so special to so many people?
Why, when we have one, do we suddenly find ourselves going to the
Library to read about the history of Iceland? Why do we find
ourselves planning a trip to Iceland to see the horses in their native
surroundings? I'm still trying to come up with the answer!
As with the sheep and the
sheepdogs, the Icelandic horse arrived in Iceland with the Viking
settlers and has probably remained virtually unchanged since that
time. It is difficult to trace its origin conclusively, but
it is thought that a combination of horses from Norway and the British
Isles is the most likely. These horses were the mainstay of
life for early Icelanders, providing the means of transportation,
communication and being used as a working animal. From their
original work use, probably the only one remaining is for the annual
sheep roundup. Their extreme hardiness, surefootedness,
strength and tenacity were responsible for saving many lives in the
early days. Many stories have been written in Iceland about
the heroic achievements of individual horses.
Traditionally many Icelanders were
always interested in good riding horses. In the early
days a prize horse was probably the most valued possession of a chief
and as an exceptional gift, a prize horse would be given and was much
revered. Of course synonymous with the Icelandic horse
are its gaits, sometimes 4, sometimes 5. A display of
Icelandic horses tolting is a never-to-be forgotten sight, and riding a
tolting horse is a very different experience.
It is probably true to say that today the horse
has no less an important place in Iceland than in the early days, but
simply a different one. It was essential to life for early
settlers. Now it provides a phenomenal amount of leisure
activity for Icelanders, many of whom own their own horses which are
stabled on the outskirts of various cities, and are used for pleasure
and/or competition. Many riding clubs have been
formed. Competitions, exhibitions, horse shows and of course, the
ultimate, the Landsmot are all very enthusiastically attended both by
participants and spectators. There are many horse farms,
some involved in the tourist industry offering riding and trekking
holidays, some specializing in various aspects of specialized breeding,
not to mention the ever increasing horse export business.
One feature that is so intriguing
about the Icelandic horse is that the horse you own as a child doesn't
have to be traded in as you grow older! How many times do we
see a pony advertised with a "Sadly outgrown" caption - your
childhood Icelandic horse, friend and companion can be yours for many of
your riding years.
The Icelandic horse is "special".
Nothing looks quite like it. The huge forelock hiding the eyes, the
heavy mane, the thick winter coat and the tail touching the ground, standing out
in a snowstorm is the most magnificent sight. Add to this the fact that
the Icelandic horse has a greater variety of colours than almost any other horse
breed, and you are really looking at something unique! Just the
mention of silver dapple, blue dun, yellow dun, roan, buckskin, black, bay,
chestnut with flaxen mane - the list goes on - conjures up marvelous pictures.
The genetics are intriguing.
I was surprised, when I was in southern Iceland, at how
many horses I saw that were varying shades of "brown". I
understand that it has only been comparatively recently that more attention is
being paid to breeding for colour, which is a very attractive feature in other
countries, also certain colours are prized in Iceland, and emphasis is on
preserving them. For Icelanders it was the performance, conformation
and character of a horse that was most important, and still is for many, rather
than the colour. We are planning to breed for colour as for us it is
one of the most spectacular sights and unique features of this breed.
The Icelandic horse is comparatively small related to
many other breeds. Lack of height, however, is made up for by its
extreme hardiness, strength and endurance. The average height is
13.1 hands, but in the last decade or more, some breeders have been breeding for
The five gaits are also unique. Most horses
have 4 gaits, many have 5 and far fewer have 3, walk, trot and canter.
The tolt is probably the best known and the most often seen, as the smooth ride
is so impressive. Horses who tolt well can increase the speed of
their tolt to almost the equivalent of the gallop. The 5th gait is
the pace, which attracts great attention in competitions.
"Unique" is a word that might be used to
describe the character of the Icelandic horse. Its character
is one of its most riveting and endearing qualities, and has traditionally
featured in evaluations of the horse. It is always the case that a
dependable character is desirable, whether we're talking about people or
horses. However, its character will be somewhat different, depending
on the particular use of the horse. In the early days in Iceland, it
would be apparent that the character looked for then would be a little different
than that required for today's family pleasure riding, wherever in the world
that might be. I'm talking about character now, not temperament,
although temperament is a part of character. In evaluations in
Iceland, within the 60% allotted to performance under saddle,
"willingness" (vilij) and "disposition" (ged) are two of the
factors considered. "Willingness" has traditionally been
very important, formerly in the days of its early uses often for survival under
harsh and adverse conditions, and currently in the many competitions and races
that occur throughout the year in Iceland. The harmonious and
calm temperament of the Icelandic is also a very important feature, and I
believe one that attracts many of its overseas owners.
Surefootedness is another very important
characteristic, perhaps in Iceland more so than in North America, but a very
useful trait wherever a horse might be. We've noticed
differences between our Icelandic horses and our other breeds here during the
winter. One example I observed was when there was an area of ice
that was a significant size that all our horses wanted to cross. The
other breeds paid no attention to the ground conditions and proceeded onto the
ice with total disregard to the footing. The Icelandics were close
on their heels but each one stopped at the edge of the ice, assessed the
situation, then proceeded forward at a slower speed. Another
comparison was when I was in Iceland riding on roads that were often uneven with
water-filled potholes. Asa didn't even slow down at the potholes,
whereas I'm quite sure my usual mare here would have stumbled in them if I
hadn't redirected her. It's an amazing sensation to feel that your
horse will look out for conditions on the ground better than most people do.
Icelandic horses characteristically live long lives, 30
years being not uncommon.
The Icelandic horse is also known for its unerring
sense of direction and its ability to find its way home in the worst of
blizzards. There are many sagas describing heroic journeys by
different horses, just as there are similar sagas related to the leadersheep.