The Singularity of the Icelandic Horse

01.01 2015

Ingolf Arnarsson became the first permanent settler in Iceland, when he established Reykjavik, in 874 AD. Onboard his longboat, he had his family, his possessions, and his livestock. Over the next sixty years, other Vikings settled in Iceland, and they, too, brought along their families, possessions, and livestock, among which were horses, the one animal that, in the beginning years of establishing the snowy island as an independent republic, became the most important.

With a stout, sure-footed horse, the early Icelanders could plow their fields, transport wares and supplies, and could traverse a world rough enough to kill anyone who did not have a four-legged work partner. The Icelandic horse quickly became a prized possession, an invaluable tool, and a venerated partner.

The partnership between humans and horse endures even today, throughout Iceland.

The Icelandic horse was the only mode of land travel until the 20th century. Because the horses were left outside, they adapted to the harsh, ever-changing weather and the tumultuous landscape to become one of the strongest horse breeds in the world. Many were bred as draft animals. Prized for their stamina and endurance, the sure-footed horses are strong enough to tote goods and building materials through rivers, over mountains, and across glaciers. Early on, the horse became so important to Icelandic life the country banned the import of any other horse, a ban that still holds today. Once an Icelandic horse leaves the country, it is not allowed to return.

The Icelandic horse generally stands only 14 hands (142 cm or 56 inches) tall, but is very broad at the withers, with a deep chest, and stout, muscular legs. Looking at them, one might be inclined to call them ponies, but they are not. They are considered the purest breed of horse in the world.

Particular to the breed, the Icelandic horse is one of only a few that have five different, natural gaits. Besides the usual walk, trot, and cantor, the Icelandic horse has two other gaits: 1) the tölt, inherent to all Icelandic horses, and which looks like an incredibly fast walk, and 2) the “flying pace,” a two-beat gait in which the hooves on one side of the horse simultaneously touch the ground, and with which the horse can reach speeds of 48 km/h (30 mph).

The horse also played an important role in Norse mythology, was sometimes used as a sacrifice to the gods during troubled times, and one particular horse, Skalm, is mentioned in the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), which details the first families and land holdings of Iceland.

On a Riding-Iceland tour, you can experience horseback riding as it was in the “old world”. There’s no better way to explore Iceland than on the back of a trusted partner who can take you to places no four-wheel drive vehicle can. Peruse our great selection of Iceland Horseback riding tours page for exciting adventures in the land of fire and ice, and elves!

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