Icelandic Horse Origin and Characteristics

Although the Icelandic Horse tends to be more of a pony size, below 14.2 hands, it is a breed that is still referred to as a horse. Protected by strict import laws, there are few diseases that affect this breed within its own nation. When an Icelandic Horse is exported, it is not allowed to return either. This protects the genetic profile of the breed.

It is a popular breed outside of Iceland, with extensive populations in Europe and North America. Although the Icelandic Horse excels in racing and showing, it is still used for traditional work duties as well. With a visit to Iceland, one can expect to see horses being used in shepherding tasks and other agricultural work.

Most Icelandic Horses are never ridden until the age of 4. They are a slow developing breed physically, as their final skeletal structure is not developed until about the age of 7. For this reason, the Icelandic Horse can maintain much of its strength and stamina into its 20s and even 30s. 

What Is the Origin of the Icelandic Horse?

The Icelandic Horse is a direct descendent of the ponies that were taken to Iceland when the island was being settled by the Norse in the 9th century. The initial settlers were liking Viking-era Scandinavians, who would be followed by settlers from Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

Each group would have brought their own horses with them. That means the Icelandic Horse was likely established through a combination of Highland, Shetland, and Connemara ponies. These could have been bred to the horses brought with the initial colonists, such as the Norlandshest.

Genetic testing has also confirmed that there is a link between Mongolian horses and the Icelandic Horse. 

The breed is frequently mentioned throughout the history of Iceland, with historical records referencing the breed as early as the 12th century.

Breeding programs have historically emphasized maintaining the purebred nature of the Icelandic Horse, but this has not always been the case. An early attempt at improving the breed around the late 10th century caused the genetic profiles of the breed to quickly degenerate. In response, the parliament passed laws that forbid any horses being imported into Iceland. This stopped all crossbreeding immediately and the laws have been in place ever since.

Native Icelandic Horses have been purebred for more than 1,000 years. 

Because no additional genetics have been added to the breed in centuries, it is one of the few equine breeds that is virtually free of genetic maladies and disorders. This is even though the breed was almost entirely extinct after a volcanic eruption occurred in the 1780s.

The Norse treated horses with great respect and reverence to the point that some considered them to be sacred. Through selective breeding, the current form of the Icelandic Horse has taken shape. 

Since the establishment of the Icelandic Horse breed society in 1904, along with breed registries that were formed in 1923, selective breeding is working to create specific “types” of horses based on the preferences and needs of breeders and buyers. Since the late 1960s, global societies have banded together to continue emphasizing the unique characteristics of this breed and its purity in bloodlines.

There are about 200,000 Icelandic Horses in the world today, with about half of them found in Iceland. For the global population, about half of the horses live in Germany.

Expected Characteristics of the Icelandic Horse

Most Icelandic Horses stand between 13-14 hands high, though some individuals may stand a little shorter or taller. Although this technically classifies the breed as a “pony,” it is said that they are still called “horses” because of their expansive personalities and overall spirit. 

The bone structure and weight-carrying abilities of this breed are also closer to a horse than a pony, which lends to the classification as well.

In the Icelandic language, there are more than 100 different names to describe the coat colors that can be found with this breed. The Icelandic Horse can be seen in all solid coat colors, including palomino. “Broken” colors, such as pinto or roan, are also seen and accepted in the registry.

During the winter months, Icelandic Horses will grow a heavier coat that looks almost bulky when seen from a distance. This allows the breed to withstand the extreme environments of their island without difficulty.

The Icelandic Horse is also known for its longevity. Mares have been recorded giving birth at the age of 27. Breeding until the age of 25 for both genders is a regular practice. One Icelandic Mare that was exported to Denmark lived to the documented age of 56. Another in Great Britain lived to the age of 42.

Although the Icelandic Horse is very spirited, its personality tends to be more like a cold-blooded horse. They are calm and stay steady when under pressure. They’re not easily spooked as they lack any natural predators in their native environment, which makes them an excellent training and therapeutic horse. The Icelandic is often regarded as an easy keeper.

The mane and tail of this breed are full, with the hair noticeably coarse. The withers are low and broad, while the neck is shorter than average, but more muscular. The legs are short, but strong, and the cannon bones tend to be longer than average.

Other characteristics within the breed tend to vary as different breeding groups focus on specific traits. Some breed Icelandic Horses for drafting work. Others focus on pack work. Horses that are going to be shown are bred with an emphasis on the trademark Icelandic gait. Some of the horses in this breed are still bred for horsemeat.

The 5 Gaits of the Icelandic Horse

Icelandic Horses are one of the few breeds with five documented gaits. In addition to the typical gaits of most breeds, the Icelandic has the “tolt” and the “skeio.”

The tolt is an ambling gait with four beats that creates fast acceleration and a smoothness in the saddle. The closest gait in comparison would be the fast walking gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse. The footfall pattern of the tolt is the same as the walk, but can be performed at virtually any speed. It is a natural gait that the Icelandic performs from birth. 

The second is used for pacing and is also a smooth gait. Sometimes referred to as the “flying pace,” it is a racing gait that some horses can reach 30mph while performing. Not every horse can perform this two-beat lateral gait and it is reserved for short distances only.

The Icelandic Horse is unique in many ways. Laws have protected the horse for more than 1,000 years, allowing it to develop into a breed that is calm, gentle, and long-lived. With an Icelandic Horse, you have the real potential to have a life-long companion.