Breed Organization Information
FELAG HROSSAV?NDA Horsebreeders Association B?ndah?llinni v/Hagatorg 107
About the Breed
The history of the Icelandic horse can be traced all the way back to the settlement of the country in the late 9th century. Vikings who settled in Iceland brought with them their horses of various origins, though mostly of Germanic descent. Some sources claim that at the time of Iceland’s settlement there was a breed in Scandinavia and Northern Europe called Equus Scandinavicus. Due to the isolation of Iceland, this stock remained pure while it was crossbred elsewhere. Other sources claim that the Icelandic horse is closely related to the English Exmoor pony. Whoever its cousins may be the Icelandic horse is pure-bred and unique today, over a thousand years after first coming to the land of fire and ice.
The Icelandic horse has played a vital role in its home country from the beginning. In heathen times the horse was highly regarded and renowned in Norse mythology. The horse played a big part in Norse mythological stories. Several Norse gods and their enemies, the giants, owned them. The most famous of all these mythological horses was Sleipnir, the eight-footed pacer. The influence of the Norse myths is still visible, as many riding clubs bear names of mythical horses, as do herds of horses in modern Iceland.
The horse is often mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas as well, still playing a vital role, this time in the warfare of the Viking period. To a serious warrior a good horse was indispensable. Great horses were treated with much respect and sometimes slain warriors would be buried alongside their mount.
For centuries, the horse was the only means of transportation in Iceland, as well as, being the most important working animal in the days before machinery. The horse was called “the most useful servant” and literally followed man from birth to death, fetching the doctor and midwife to pulling the coffin to the cemetery. The first automobile arrived in Iceland in the year 1904 and almost immediately the horse became redundant. Enthusiastic individuals, however, kept breeding good horses and Iceland’s first horse breeding association was formed the same year the automobile arrived.
Today, there are around 80,000 horses in Iceland, no small number for a country with 270,000 inhabitants! Thousands of people ride in cities and towns as well as in the countryside. The only practical role of the horse today is during the annual roundups when farmers use horses to round up sheep in the highlands. Most horses in Iceland today are used for leisure and competition. The first breeding shows were held in 1906 and since then horse owners in Iceland have concentrated on breeding an excellent stock of a unique horse, suitable for children and adults alike.
The main competition and show season for the Icelandic horse is during the summer, but winter games, ice-riding and indoor shows take place from February to May. The Icelandic horse is suitable for most types of shows and competition. In Iceland there are two main types of competition, sports competitions and the so-called G?dingakeppni. In the sports competition the main emphasis is on the rider’s ability and the co-operation between man and horse but in G?dingakeppni the horse’s abilities weigh more.
Because of Iceland’s geographic isolation, the Icelandic horse has remained virtually disease-free so far. To keep it that way no import of horses, or other livestock is allowed. All imports of used riding wear, tack and other things used around livestock are also forbidden, unless fully disinfected. As a result, the World Championships can never be held in the home country of the Icelandic horse because once horses have been exported they can never return.
There are around 100,000 Icelandic horses abroad, most in Europe but also a growing number in the United States and Canada. Germany holds the largest number of Icelandic horses, with close to 50,000 horses along with active riding clubs and breeding societies. This growing popularity of the Icelandic horse has made horse breeding and exporting a valuable business, boosting agriculture and industry in many areas.
An increasing number of people travel the Icelandic highlands on horseback, enjoying the incredible beauty of unspoiled nature in company with a horse born to climb mountains, gallop across fields and cross rivers. Riding tours in Iceland attract thousands of foreign visitors each year and are one of the fastest growing businesses in Iceland.
The Icelandic horse is certainly unique. What else can be said of a horse, bred exclusively and naturally in a country known for its pure air and magnificent landscape. The horse is a favorite among Icelanders and also one of the country’s main attractions for visitors. This is a horse which has been pure-bred for over a thousand years, treated with respect and dignity and raised to the highest levels by systematic and ambitious breeding. In Iceland, horse breeding is considered an art, just as much as an agricultural business. No other horse breed in the world can claim such as a status in the minds of a whole nation.
The Life of the Icelandic Horse
Thousands of foals are born each year in Iceland. In almost all cases they are born outside in grassy fields, the occasional exception being when mares are still stabled. It is magical to witness a foal’s birth in the beautiful nature of Iceland. Breeders like to watch their foals closely in the beginning. Many believe that the movements and spirit shown by the foal in the first few days will predict how they will turn out later in life. Future stallions and prize mares are often identified within a week of their birth.
Usually the young horses will stay with the herd and live outdoors for the first four years of their life. In the summers they will graze in lush fields and in the winters they are fed hay and provided with shelter. In parts of northern Iceland horses are still allowed into the highlands to roam during the spring, summer and autumn. They are then rounded up in late September or October and sorted in corrals. This system of raising horses in a wild herd in open spaces is an essential part of creating the unique personality of the Icelandic horse. These horses will treat humans with respect as they have only been handled occasionally. They learn to behave within the herd. The outcome is a spirited and forward going horse with much respect for the rider. Also, the landscape creates a sure-footed and muscular horse, toughened by harsh weather and wide-open spaces.
The Icelandic horse matures slowly and training is not started until the age of four. In that year, the horse is taught to work with the bridle and saddle, shod for the first time and ridden a little. Breeding mares and stallions can be judged for riding abilities at this age. When they are five the real training starts for most. Horses are allowed to compete in all types of shows and events at that age, although not many five-year-olds compete heavily. Without exception all breeders and riders in Iceland believe that horses should not be trained at an earlier age, and some even say that four-year-olds should not be shown at all.
Icelandic horses usually lead a long and healthy life and their natural life span is 25 -30 years though some have lived to over 40. It is not unusual for them to be ridden and trained well into their twenties.
The Icelandic horse is intelligent, good tempered, versatile and beautiful. It can be found in over 40 different colors, with about 100 variations. Its average height is between 12.3 and 13.1 hands. It masters five gaits, among them the magical t?lt. It is strong, enthusiastic, forward-going and docile. It is virtually unknown for a horse, born in Iceland, to kick or bite, and they are usually easy to catch, box and handle. The Icelandic horse is also self-assured and acts well in traffic.
One of the main attractions of the Icelandic horse is its versatility. It is a five-gaited horse, making it exceptional in comparison with other breeds. In addition to the three basic gaits, the walk, the trot and the canter, the Icelandic horse masters both the pace and the t?lt.
The walk is a four-beat gait. The horse is relaxed, but moves ahead briskly, putting each foot down independently. This gait is very important in training, especially when preparing for the t?lt, because the feet move in the same way in the t?lt as in the walk. The walk is also good to release tension and to get the horse to work in a more focused manner.
The trot is a two-beat gait where front and hind legs on opposite sides of the horse move together. The trot is used a lot in basic training, before the horses have mastered the t?lt. It is useful when working on the horse’s balance and teaching it to work with the rider. The trot can be difficult for horses that tend toward the pace, but it is important to train the trot as well as the other gaits.
The gallop or canter is a three-beat gait, ridden at various speeds. A slow gallop is comfortable for riding and is common all over the world with the different breeds. A fast gallop tends to liven up the horse, increasing its willingness and enthusiasm to work. It is good to allow horses in training to sprint short distances, both to enhance the above mentioned factors and simply because they enjoy a good run now and then.
The t?lt is the specialty of the Icelandic horse. It is a remarkably smooth four-beat gait in which the horse moves its feet in the same order as in the walk. When t?lting the horse’s hind legs move well under the body, enabling the back to yield and the forepart to rise. A beautiful t?lter has high foreleg movement and carries its head in a dignified, free manner. Other breeds, such as the American Saddlebred, have a similar gait, sometimes called the running walk or rack. Enthusiasts all over the world agree that no horse can manage this gait as naturally and beautifully as the Icelandic horse.
The smoothness of the t?lt is its main attraction. At shows and demonstrations, Icelandic horses are often ridden in the t?lt while the rider holds a full glass of beer in one hand and the reins in the other, without spilling a drop. The t?lt can be ridden at any speed, from a gracious slow t?lt, where the horse’s tail wiggles up and down showing the rhythm of this remarkable gait, up to a very fast t?lt, where the horse can easily keep up with a galloping or an even a pacing horse.
The pace is a two-beat gait, well known in the international racing world. When pacing the horse moves both legs on the same side together. In most countries pacers are raced in front of a sulky, but in Iceland the rider is mounted on the horse, This type of racing is one of the oldest and most popular equestrian sports in Iceland. Not all Icelandic horses can pace, but those that manage all the five gaits well, are considered the best of the breed.