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The Icelandic Horse
History, Description and Characteristics



Icelandic Mare and Foal, Pineridge Icelandics


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.

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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.



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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.



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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 greater height.

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.



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"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.



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Pineridge Icelandics

1049 Hepburn Rd

Chase, B.C. Canada V0E 1M1