Katelyn patting horses

Meet Iceland’s Famous Four-Legged Resident: The Icelandic Horse

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Icelandic Horses

Iceland’s green landscape is dotted with thousands of sheep and furry horses. No bigger than a large pony, the Icelandic Horse is a unique breed that came to the island nation of Iceland with the first settlers from Norway over 1100 years ago. Due to its isolation, the breed is one of the purest in the world.

Header picture: Icelandic Horses nuzzling in the pasture (Source: Katelyn Michaud)

About the Icelandic Horse

Iceland is home to over 80,000 horses, which is impressive for a country with only 334,000 people. Bred for both riding and companionship, many Icelanders own at least one of these beautiful creatures. Known for their sure-footedness and the ability to cross Iceland’s rough and diverse terrain, the Icelandic Horse has five gaits. In addition to the normal walk, trot, and canter/gallop gaits of any horse, the Iceland Horse has two special gaits.

The tolt is a four-beat lateral gait that is both fast and smooth. I’ve seen demonstrations where a rider rides an Icelandic Horse at a tolt with a beer stein and does not spill a drop of beer. How’s that for smooth? The breed can also perform a “flying pace,” a fast and smooth gait that can reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour.

Riding the Icelandic Horse

Riding an Icelandic Horse is a popular tourism activity in Iceland. Even if you have never ridden a horse, riding an Icelandic Horse is a fun activity and a great way to see the incredible natural landscape of rural Iceland. You’ll find plenty of farms throughout Iceland that offer various riding tours ranging from one hour to multiple days.

Many horse riding stables near Reykjavik offer one- or two-hour trail rides to people of all ages and riding abilities. Most tours offer transportation from the city center so you don’t need a car. Horses are matched to your riding abilities. A trail ride through the volcanic landscape is a great way to experience the surreal and out-of-this-world landscape that Iceland has to offer.

An Icelandic Horse riding experience can easily be paired with other Icelandic experiences like a visit to one of the many natural hot springs or even the famous Blue Lagoon. Experienced riders might love the East Iceland Horse Riding Adventure, where you spend eight days exploring the best of East Iceland’s valleys by horseback.  

Even if you’re not keen to ride an Icelandic Horse, you can’t leave Iceland without saying “hallo” to an Icelandic Horse. Horse pastures dot Iceland’s rural areas and you’ll see plenty of these furry and friendly horses grazing on the grassy landscape. Just pull over your car and walk over to a fence. Many of these curious creatures will come over for a good scratch behind the ears.

Horse riding in Iceland

People riding Icelandic Horses on the beach (Source: Inspired by Iceland)

An Insider’s Look at What it is Like to Ride an Icelandic Horse

I grew up riding horses competitively and even owned three of my own. Riding an Icelandic Horse was at the top of my bucket list when I visited the country in October 2015. Thankfully my travel companion, who had never ridden a horse before, was game to give it a go.

We booked a 2.5-hour Volcanic Landscape Horse Riding Tour from Reykjavik with transportation. We were promptly picked up and brought to the stable where we watched a short video on the history of the breed and instructions on how to ride a horse. Our knowledgeable guides asked us about our riding abilities and paired us up with appropriate horses.

After everyone in our group had mounted their horses, we began our ride through Iceland’s volcanic landscape. We spent most of the ride at a walk with a few bursts of a trot. The relaxing pace gave us time to enjoy the incredible scenery beneath our feet.

When we reached our halfway point, we took a 10-minute break out of the saddle to stretch our legs. My travel companion was all smiles and was enjoying her first ride on a horse. On the way back to the stables, we were given the option of trying the tolt or continuing back at a walk.

Since I was an experienced rider, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to try out my horse’s unique gait. It took a little coaching from my guide to get my horse into his tolt. But, once I was there, it was enjoyable. On my next trip to Iceland, I plan to do a longer ride through the mountains of Iceland.

Dressing for the Ride

The weather in Iceland is unpredictable. Most stables will provide you with rain pants, rain jackets, and boots. Depending on the time of year you visit Iceland, you’ll want warm clothes. A heeled boot is ideal for riding, but sneakers work as well. Long pants, especially with a little stretch, is always a good idea. The stable will provide you with a helmet that will need to be worn for safety reasons.

Katelyn patting horses

Katelyn patting Icelandic Horses on the side of the road (Source: Katelyn Michaud)

Why You Should Book an Iceland Horse Ride   

The Icelandic Horse is one of the oldest and purest horse breeds in the world. Once an Icelandic Horse is exported out of Iceland, it is never allowed to return home to ensure the purity and health of the population.

Even if you have never ridden a horse before, riding an Icelandic Horse is a unique Icelandic experience. Icelandic Horses are an important part of the Icelandic culture and history and what better way to explore the remote beauty of the country than by the back of one of their most loved animals?

Your bottom might be a bit sore from the experience, but you’ll remember your time in the saddle for a long time to come. Plus, Icelandic Horses love selfies!  

Find Horse Riding Tours all over Iceland here!

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