Forget the volcanoes, black sand beaches and towering glaciers – I wanted to see the horses in Iceland! As soon as I landed in Reykjavik, I kept my eyes peeled for these plucky little loves on four legs.
Icelandic horses are known for being an agreeable, friendly and warm breed that can survive all elements and get along great with humans. They live long due to the lack of diseases they are susceptible to in Iceland, and no other horses are allowed to be imported into the island nation. This keeps the breed pure, strong and essential to the Icelandic way of life.
So where can you see these gorgeous creatures? There are more than 80,000 horses in Iceland, or about one for every four local people. There’s a good chance you’ll spot some on the side of the road, at riding stables or near the hot attractions along the Golden Circle.
While enjoying these horses though, it’s important to know how to respectfully handle the Icelandic wildlife and domestic breeds too so everyone has a happy experience.
If you’re not into riding, there’s still plenty of places to see horses while adventuring through the country. Farmers and stables will keep the horses outside during the year, as they thrive in the natural environment and can graze through the landscape. For instance, on the main highway going from Reykjavik to Vik, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive, there are several fenced areas where Icelandic horses roam. You can approach them, but be respectful of other people’s property and animals.
Like with all horses, go near them slowly and without jerky movements. Offer a hand with closed fingers for them to check you out if they come to the fence. Do NOT hop the fence – most paddocks are full of mud anyways! You can offer a little food, like an apple or carrot, but in my experience they were more interested in a scratch behind the ear than food. You can also certainly take photos with the horses at a distance (without the flash on) if you aren’t too keen on up-close contact.
You can interact in a more contained setting at places such as the Gaski Horse Center, where stables are full of Icelandic horses and ponies to love. You can ride in the paddock or take a trail ride too, but you can simply pop in and say hello too.
Icelandic horses have five gaits instead of three. Most horses are able to do a slow walk, a trot (bouncier, faster gait) and a canter/gallop, which is a run. The Icelandic horse breed can also ‘tölt’, which is like a trot but leaves one foot on the ground at all times. Riders who trot need to ‘post’ to avoid the bumpiness, but with a tölt its super smooth. New foals are born with this ability. Some Icelandic horses can do a ‘Flying Pace’ too, which is like a running gait and all feet leave the ground at the same time.
As the horses in Iceland are so revered and loved, there’s tons of options for you to have a horseback riding experience or tour. No matter your ability or schedule, there is something for everyone to give this a try. Have a feel for the unique gaits with an experienced wild ride along the black sand beaches in the south. Or, learn a few basics and enjoy a leisurely, quick guided trail ride with views of the rolling, grassy land.
One thing people don’t want to talk about when it comes to horses in Iceland is how the meat is sometimes used in dishes as well. Horse steaks and filet can be found on many menus throughout the country, often billed as more of a delicacy then a staple diet item.
This makes many tourists (and some modern Icelanders) fairly uneasy, as it’s been mostly a squashed taboo in fellow progressive countries. Even Kim Kardashian acted shocked when she learned horse meat was consumed in Iceland on her own visit.
Now without going into options about vegetarianism or which animals are OK for eating, this has been part of an Icelandic diet for centuries. It is becoming less common and popular by locals anyways, as it’s the smallest type of meat produced in the country. Showing disgust or protest from it being on menus isn’t the correct way to handle a situation. Avoid horsemeat if that is your preference and respect that, like beef and pork, it can be eaten by people in Iceland.
Would you want to see horses in Iceland? Do you like horseback riding? Would you eat something 'unusual' in Iceland?