Icelandic horses in the midnight sun

What attributes make the Icelandic horse so loved by its people? How different are Icelandic horses from other breeds? Where do you go horse riding in Iceland? Is the 'Icelandic horse' the same as an 'Icelandic pony'? Read on to find out everything you ever wanted to know about this magnificent animal, from its history since the Age of settlement, to its significance and status in Iceland today.

The Icelandic horse is as local to this volcanic land as its people. It arrived here on the very first ships of the settlers and has remained a loyal friend and servant ever since. It, therefore, holds a very special place in the people's hearts and souls, and if you ever have the honour of meeting a member of its species, you'll immediately understand why.

In this article, we have gathered essential information on the Icelandic horse and explored the breed's history and unique traits, its special relationship with the people and its bountiful mythological, cultural and literary connotations.

The History of the Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horse and its rider

The very first members of the breed arrived aboard the Viking ships of Norse settlers sometime between 860 and 935 AD. Although sources don't agree on the breed's exact ancestry, interestingly enough, many of its characteristics can be related to the mere circumstances of this transportation.

Some claim that the animals were chosen because of their short but sturdy stature, which made them ideal for overseas travelling. When you think about it, it is much easier to transport larger animals across wild waters if they keep their footing and take up less space on the boat.

Icelandic horse in the sunset

Since then, selective breeding has made the Icelandic horse what it is today. It has also changed and adapted to its surroundings, seasonally sporting a thick winter coat which it then sheds come springtime.

The horse is subsequently undaunted by high winds and snowstorms and capable of feats like wading glacial rivers and crossing rough terrains.

In 982 AD the Icelandic parliament Alþingi passed laws that prohibited any importation of other horse breeds into the country, meaning that for over a thousand years, the breed has been kept completely isolated on the island.

And consequently, it is one of the purest horse breeds in the world. Although individual animals may be exported, once gone, they may never return.

The Icelandic horse is sturdy and well adapted to the rough environment in which he was raised

About 900 years ago, there were attempts to introduce eastern stock into the Icelandic blood, but this experiment resulted in significant degeneration and a near wiping out of the species.

Great care has since been put into protecting the stock, and as a result, it is exceptionally healthy and long lived. The average animal might live for up to 40 years, with the oldest reportedly reaching the ripe old age of 59.

Fair-weathered friends wearing fluffy winter coats

The horse's physical excellence is far from the only reason why it's so beloved by the Icelandic people. The personality of Icelandic horses is also widely celebrated, in particular, their spirited but gentle temperament.

Because these animals have had no predators in their natural environment, they are not easily spooked, making them very approachable and friendly—and let's be honest, they just have that cuddly look!

Spot these creatures by the side of the ring road, and in all likelihood, they will approach you with tenacity, look you straight in the eye and expect a pet on the snout.

In such situations, it is extremely important that you do not feed the horses. They have plenty of food, and any additional treats would only be hazardous to their health.

You can approach them carefully from your side of the fence, but do not cross over since the land belongs to the farmers. The horses are very likely to want to greet you, in which case you are welcome to pet them and take pictures, which they are probably more than willing to pose for.

Always respect the animals, and never ride a horse without permission from its owner. 

What are the Specific Traits of Icelandic Horses?

One of the Icelandic horse's most notable attributes is its five gaits. All horses typically possess the three general gaits of walk, trot and canter/gallop, while the Icelandic horse possesses the two additional gaits of 'tölt' and 'skeið', or 'flying pace'.

Each animal's ability to perform these two gaits well largely defines its value.

Note that three of the horse's hooves are touching ground, almost simultaneously.Photo by: 'Dagur Brynjólfsson'. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

What are those gates? How do they function? And perhaps most importantly: how do they feel? The 'tölt' is a four-beat lateral ambling gait, known for its merger of speed and exceptional riding comfort, so imagine a smooth-as-silk trot as you glide speedily forward. 

The 'skeið,' however, could be described as a very rhythmic gallop, a two-beat lateral gait where each side of the horse's feet moves simultaneously with a moment of suspension between footfalls. At up to 48 km/h, it truly feels like flying.

The animal's beauty goes far beyond subjectivity. The Icelandic horse comes in a rainbow variety of colours, with over 40 basic colourings officially listed, as well as over 100 variations. And the Icelandic people have long held firmly to the belief that a horse's colour reflects its personality.  

Red, brown, white and pink are some of the many basic colourings of the Icelandic

An example of this is to be found in one of the adventures of locally beloved literary characters Nonni and Manni. The two mischief-makers are warned against borrowing a nearby farmer's pink horse, since pink horses are said to be willful and hard to break. And sure enough, the brothers lose control of their steed, and it runs wild with them across the plains. 

It might be high time to address the pink pony in the room: Is the animal a pony, or is it a horse? My advice to you, right now, is to never ask an Icelandic person that question, ever. 

But since we're on the subject, by definition, ponies are smaller (under 144 cm) and stockier than horses, with a thicker mane, coat and tail. Although the Icelandic horse might fit that bill, locals will always argue, in length and detail, that the Icelandic animal has the genetic makeup, intelligence and strength of a horse.

You can't argue with that. Just don't. 

The Icelandic Horse in Mythology and Folklore

Illustration of Odin and his horse Sleipnir from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript

Odin rides Sleipnir in an 18th Century Manuscript Illustration - Photo by: 'Jakob Sigurðsson'. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

The national pride Icelanders take in the breed dates back to olden times. The horse has long been celebrated in Norse folklore, and when the settlers imported the animal, they also imported its mythos.

Literature, poetry and folklore are littered with examples that reflect the nation's admiration of the animal, which throughout history has not only been lauded for being man's most valuable servant, but also his friend and trusted companion.

Artist's depiction of Norsemen landing in Iceland

Norsemen arriving at Iceland's shores - Photo by: 'Oscar Wergeland'. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

According to Grágás, the first Icelandic book of laws, stealing someone's horse was punishable by banishment; horse thieves were outlawed, and all outlaws could be legally killed if encountered. You just don't steal a man's horse.

The Vikings buried their dead with their personal belongings, the so-called grave goods one might need on their journey to the next world: the higher your status, the more valuable possessions you were able to bring.

The horses of kings and lords were therefore often buried with them, for what better companion on your trip through the underworld than your trusted steed?

Odin rides to Hel on Sleipnir

Odin rides Sleipnir to Hel - Photo by: 'W.G. Collingwood'. Wikimedia Creative Commons

In Norse mythology, Odin's trusty steed is called Sleipnir, an eight-legged creature dubbed the finest of all horses. He is credited with the creation of Ásbyrgi in north Iceland, where his hoof touched the ground, leaving behind the horseshoe-shaped canyon you can see and visit today.

The horse who fathered Sleipnir, named Svaðilfari, is said to have helped a villainous giant build the wall of Asgard on a wager against the gods. In fear of losing the bet, the shapeshifting trickster god Loki, in the form of a mare, enticed Svaðilfari away from his master, making it impossible for the wall to be finished before the set time. 

The romantic encounter that followed resulted in Loki getting pregnant and soon after, the great god of mischief gave birth to Sleipnir himself.

Perhaps this tale encapsulates how essential the horse was to the human workforce, and how helpless the people would have been without it.

Svaðilfari and his owner in foreground, Loki as a mare in background

Svaðilfari bucks and neighs when he spots the 'mare' - Photo by: 'Dorothy Hardy'. Wikimedia Creative Commons

There is also a repeated motif in Norse mythology involving horses pulling the sun across the sky. In Gylfaginning, the first part of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, the sun is dragged across the heavens on a carriage by the horses Árvakur and Alsvinnur.

The horses of Dagur ('Day') and Nótt ('Night') are Skinfaxi and Hrímfaxi, their names referring to a shining mane and a frozen one, respectively. In pulling Dagur's chariot every day, Skinfaxi's mane and tail lit up the sky and the earth below it.

Hrímfaxi and Skinfaxi escaping the wolves with Dagur and Nótt

Dagur and Nótt race their chariots away from the wolves - Photo by: 'John Charles Dollman'. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

But not all mythological horses come bearing the sun, for let us remember that the horse is not naturally a servant, but a starkly individual and unpredictable animal. Whether from misbehaving, getting spooked or it being the fault of the rider, a horse can always throw you.

One of the monsters of Icelandic folklore, the Nykur, was a water-demon with the appearance of a horse, except that its ears and hooves faced backwards. The Nykur was believed to reside underwater in lakes and rivers, and its purpose was to lure unsuspecting wanderers to a watery grave.

When the ice cracked on frozen lakes in winter, the noise it generated was said to be the Nykur neighing. This belief encouraged riders to take great care when crossing frozen waters.

A painting called 'Boy on white horse' depicting the Nyx

A Nyx-like creature dives into a lake to drown its rider - Photo by: 'Theodor Kittelsen'. Wikimedia Creative Commons

A way to fend off this terrifying beast was to draw the sign of the cross on its back—if you find yourself unlucky enough to be riding one. Another method is to speak its name. One tale tells of a Nykur dragging a sleeping girl into a lake to drown her until the girl woke and screamed its name. The creature dropped his prey at once and disappeared back into the water.

In fact, the names of Icelandic horses hold an entire tradition of their own. Some refer to their colour, like Bleikur (the pink), Gráni (the grey) and Kolfaxi (black-maned). Others refer to their temperament or personality, like Farfús (likes to travel), Háski (daredevil), Ljúfur (dear) or Prakkari (trickster). Many names furthermore derive from Norse mythology, like Loki, Mjölnir, Ýmir, Þór, Frigg and Æsir.

What's my name?

It is a commonly held belief in Iceland, that you should never ride a horse whose name you don't know or understand. So before embarking on a horse riding tour, remember to ask your guide all about the name of your companion animal. 

Of Horses and Men

In the past, the horse was absolutely necessary to the people's survival; it was their best and surest way of transportation and also, quite literally, a lifesaver. Many tales tell of riders getting lost in blizzards in Iceland's unforgiving wilderness, where their horse kept them warm until rescued or simply found its own way home, carrying the exhausted rider back to safety.

Today the mechanisation of transport and general road improvements, have greatly reduced the need for the horse, but it still plays a significant role in the lives of the Icelandic people.

Farmers still use horses for sheep-herding in the highlands, people keep them for leisure riding, and popular competitions for gait performance, racing and showmanship have been held annually since the late 1800s.

Modern Icelandic leisure riders by Skógafoss

It may also be obligatory to inform you that Icelanders do eat horse meat, and that some horses are bred solely for human consumption. Some people stay away from it, while others don't see the difference in eating horse, lamb, beef or pork.

Many outsiders are shocked at the thought of eating horse (remember that incident in the UK?), but this wasn't always clear-cut for the locals in Iceland either.

After the christening of the entire country in the 10th century, eating horse-meat was in fact forbidden. The few poor people who did were disgraced, and on average, people would rather have starved than risk damnation for eating horse meat.  

trailing along an Icelandic mountain road in wintertime

In Iceland of today, the horse is generally considered a friend and a comrade. Many Icelandic children attend riding classes held both outside and within city limits, and with the great boom in tourism in recent years, demand for well-bred horses for riding has never been higher.

A traveller might be said not to have fully experienced the beauty of Icelandic nature without witnessing it from a horse's back. It gives you a chance to get off the roads, while still braving up mountains and wading across rivers.

It means flying through the Icelandic scenery and exploring the land in the same way as the settlers did, and their descendants have kept on doing ever since.