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This breed of horses was developed in Iceland as the name suggests. The Icelandic horse is known as the only breed of horse to be found in Iceland.
They were traditionally bred by Norse settlers in the 9-10th century. Icelandic history is filled with mentions of this horse type found in 12th-century literature. The earliest settlers of Iceland that are the Norse people have emphasized that for them this breed is venerable.
This gradually became a popular custom amongst them after the horses were brought to Iceland. As of 1780, the Icelandic horse breed was almost wiped out due to the Laki volcanic eruption. The first of the breed societies for Icelandic horses came up in 1904. As of today, 19 different countries are representing the breed.
The parent association for the same is known as the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations. The horses were venerated as symbols of fertility and also slaughtered if they were white as a religious practice.
Many of the horses have played a seminal role in Norse folklore such as the Sleipnir. He was the eight-footed pacer who was owned by the chief of Norse Gods, Odin.
Skalm was one of the first such horse to appear within the Book of Settlements in the 12th century. As per Norse history, Seal-Thnorir who was a chieftain had founded settlements since Skalm stopped somewhere and took refuge. There are sagas entirely centered on horses that were Icelandic. These were the Grettir’s Saga, Njal’s Saga, and Hrafnkel’s Saga. These were the sagas based on the 9th century though they were composed in the 13th.
The sagas still find mentions today and are relevant through horses being named after them. Horses were known to be the priciest possessions of Norse medieval Icelanders. They were as tradition buried alongside their riders in war. Stories were composed glorifying their deeds or adventures. They were also made to fight against each other as a crude form of entertainment.
The fights between horses were used to determine which one was to be selected for further breeding. Part of the entertainment was also the public brawls that the stallion fights gave rise to. These were not just fights they gave people a chance to advance their political and social stakes. Not to mention they had widespread political and social repercussions. They were so powerful that they influenced decisions being made about the restructuring of political partnerships.
Young men courted women taking them to these fights. The fights were a form of jesting but were also dangerous since people were allowed to fight without facing consequences. History has it that between 874-1300 A.D the horses were selectively bred for color preferences. This could only be favored due to the then prevailing warmer climate. It was from 1300-1900 that selective breeding was not given that much of a priority. This happened since most people along with horses were dying due to climate changes.
It was between 1783-1784 that almost 70 percent of Icelandic horses were dead due to volcanic ash poisoning. The very first of the Icelandic horse clubs in America was founded in the year 1962.
The Icelandic horse displays two kinds of gaits additionally to trotting, cantering and galloping like others. They usually weigh from 330-380 kgs. This is more or less the same as about 730-840 pounds. They are always referred to as horses and not ponies due to their large personality and spirited temperament. An alternative theory suggests that the Icelandic horse is the best for carrying weight.
This and their typical bone structure and weight render them to be a horse and not just a pony. They are known to be an easy keeper. Their colors and characteristics keep changing with individual breeders and their different requirements. Their development of structure remains incomplete till they are 7 years old. These horses are very fertile and can be used for breeding till they turn 25. The mares have often been bred till they were 27.
Icelandic horses are not prone to be scared very easily. This is because they had very least of the natural predators in Iceland. Like the Ardennes variety, these are also docile, friendly, self-assured, enthusiastic, and easy to train. These horses have a five-gaited breed that is well-known for their sure-footedness, vast endurance, and stamina. They have displayed signs of tolting that is a four-beat ambling gait that is lateral.
Though they can move very fast their natural gait ensures that it is ground-covering and comfortable. The gaits are highly variable and different from one another. The tolt is often compared to the lateral gaits such as the rack of the Saddlebred. There are other similar gaits such as the Paso Fino largo and the running style of the Tenessee Walking horses. Their pattern is kind of similar to the laterally ambling gaits.
Some Icelandic horse prefers to trot or tolt though they are often trained for improvement in gait. Uneven gaits are known as the Piggy-pace or Pig’s-pace. This is close to the two-beat pacing than the four-beat ambling gait. The second weak gait is known to be the Valhopp. This is a strange combination of the canter and the tolt. This makes them uncomfortable for riding and is found in young, untrained breeds.
The Icelandic horse also performs a gait called the skeid or the flying pace. It is also known as the flugskeid. This pace is smooth and fast and is utilized in pacing races. The best of the breeds perform both the tolt and flying pace along with canter and walks. Long-distance travel does not permit the flying pace though. Unlike most horses, these are ridden while being raced as well.
Breeding And Uses
The breed gets its present form due to the many processes of selective breeding. Though natural selection is always a criterion the harsh Icelandic climate is responsible for the deaths of other breeds. They are mainly bred in isolation hence they do not catch diseases except for internal parasites very easily. Iceland maintains that any equine equipment brought into the country should be well disinfected, new, or unused.
They also have strict laws against horses once exported being brought back to the country. This is done since the horses do not really have any in-built immunity system. This means that if there was a disease outbreak in Iceland it could wipe out their population entirely. The horses outside of the country face no such problems whatsoever. Hence it is a unique problem for the horse-breeders in Iceland since they are not allowed to import horses altogether.
Similar breeds are the Faroe ponies from the Faeroe Islands. Studies have shown that they are also related to Mongolian horses. They were also used in stallion fights (as per Norse history) to select the animals for breeding.
The Icelandic horse is really small in size but most registries still call them horses. Their height is about as much as 13-14 hands tall. To convert that to centimeters would mean they are about 132-142 cms tall. That is almost the typical size of a pony but the Icelandics are always known as horses.
What Breeds Make Up The Icelandic Horse?
The Icelandic breed consists of horses with eastern blood. This has resulted in total stock degeneration. As of 982 A.D, the parliament of Iceland ended crossbreeding by legally prohibiting the import of horses. This breed is still reared as pure in Iceland.
The Icelandic horse comes in many coat colors. Some of them are in roan, pinto, palomino, grey, black, bay, dun, and chestnut. The Icelandic language describes their colors in over 100 names.
What Do They Look Like?
Their heads are really well proportioned. They come with a straight profile with wide foreheads. The necks of the Icelandic horse is very short, broad at their base, and muscular. Their withers are low and broad with deep chests. They also have muscular shoulders that are sloping very slightly. They also have a long back with broad croups that are short, muscular, and slightly slanted.
They have legs that are short but strong. They have longish cannon bones with short pasterns. Their mane and tail are full, filled with coarse hair. Their tails are also set very low. Some of them look like donkeys with double coats for added insulation during harsh winters that they bear.
These horses kind of look like the Yakut ponies and are also similar in looks to the Nordlandshest of Norway.
What Are They Used For?
These horses are the most productive when they are between 8-18 years of age. There are also cases when the Icelandic horse has retained their stamina in its 20s as well.
The Icelandic horse is typically used for work such as traditional sheepherding in Iceland. They are also racing, showing, and leisure riding horses. They can be used for draft and pack work which is different from the ones working with a saddle. The ones with saddles are carefully chosen to perform the traditional gaits of the Icelandic horse.
They have often been reared just for their meat. There are breeders who seek to have different coat colors while crossbreeding them. They typically cannot be ridden on till they are 4 years of age.
Where Do They Live?
The Icelandic horse is popular worldwide however they also exist in large numbers in North America and Europe. Some have however opined that they are a rare sight in America. They have said that out of the 9.2 million horses there, only 4,598 are (registered) Icelandics. This makes them be 0.04 percent of the U.S horse population.
They are found and also foaled in Germany by as many as 50 percent of the total population. Denmark has also been seen to be having a breeding ground for these horses as well.
Many of the Icelandic horses are also found in Canada.
How Long Do They Live?
The Icelandic horse breeds live long and are known to be pretty tough too.
How Fast Are They?
The Icelandic horse moves at high speeds and has an explosive acceleration. They can often travel at 30 miles or 48 kms per hour. This is mainly seen in horses that can perform the skeid or the flying pace.
How Much Do They Cost?
The buyer will have to pay for the cost of importing that makes them really expensive. This is added to the flight costs to U.S breeders with additional quarantine and vaccination costs. Currently, Iceland exporters of horses are trying to take advantage of all direct flights. However, it depends on if the plans are filled to capacity or not. The shipping charges to the U.S alone are 5000 U.S dollars and 2600 dollars for the flight additionally.
The import charges are about 2350 dollars for these horses. One will also have to arrange for the cost of ground transport from the quarantine facilities in the U.S. (These facilities are located in Florida, New York, and California). It is however an option to find horses from other places as well for importing. Making imports from Europe is however likely to be more expensive than from Iceland itself.
It depends on where the buyer is located in America that will determine the ground transportation costs. One may buy a horse in the U.S but finding certified trainers will be costly. It has however come to light that registered but non-trained horses can be bought at lower prices. The horse being untrained however will demand that the owner be trained or at least semi-trained. This will have to be ensured or it will lead to frustration.
Are They Good For Beginners?
With a proper trainer, they can have quality gaits and character that make them ideal for beginners.
These horses cannot be bought by anyone and everyone since finding a proper trainer for them is a task. One should ideally stay away from the ones that cannot be registered under the U.S Icelandic horse Congress. It is still easier to ride on horseback than to travel by vehicle in Iceberg. This is the reason why these horses are considered a boon in Iceland. These horses have often been rented to tourists who want to go trekking on them. In Iceland, they are seen as treasures since time immemorial.
There’s a whole world of horse breeds out there to explore! Discover and find out more information by checking out our horse breed guides.