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History and gaits of Icelandic horses

The Icelandic horse is intelligent, good-tempered, versatile and beautiful. It can be found in over 40 different colors, with about 100 variations, and it masters five gaits, among them the magical tolt. 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.

The Icelandic horse is a horse for everyone and its good temperament and behavior make it suitable for children and adults alike. It is versatile, and therefore suitable for both leisure activities as well as hard competition. Many people in Iceland keep horses simply for the pleasure of riding on their days-off, or to find relaxation in grooming and looking after them. Others like to travel on horseback in Iceland's unspoiled nature, and yet more like to compete, either in Icelandic equestrian sports, such as four-gaits, five-gaits or pace, or in the classic equestrian sports such as dressage and jumping. Whatever your preference, you will always find an Icelandic horse to fulfill your dream!


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, settling 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" which was later crossbred, except in Iceland where, due to isolation, the stock remained pure. 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. Several of the Norse gods owned horses, who played big parts in the mythical stories, as did the giants, their main enemies. 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 as well as being the most important working animal in the days before machinery. Therefore the horse was called "the most useful servant" and literally followed man from birth to death, fetching the doctor and midwife, as well as pulling the coffin to the cemetery.

The first automobile arrived in Iceland in the year 1904 and almost immediately the horse became redundant. However enthusiastic individuals, interested in the horse's riding abilities, kept breeding good horses and Iceland's first horsebreeding 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 sheep roundups, where the 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, as well as leisure and competition riding.

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 and breeders like to watch their foals closely in the beginning. Many of them believe that the movements and spirit showed 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-october and sorted out 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 and 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 trained a little, 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 real training starts for most and 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 one, in Scotland, lived to over 40. It is not unusual for them to be ridden and trained well into their twenties


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 pace and tolt.

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 tolt, because the feet move in the same way in the tolt 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 tolt. It is useful when working on the horses balance and teaching it to work with the rider. The trot can be difficult for horses that tend towards pace, but it is important to train the trot as well as the other gaits.

The canter is a three-beat gait, ridden at various speeds. A slow canter is comfortable for riding and is common all over the world with the different breeds. A fast canter 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 tolt 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 tolting the horse's hind legs move well under the body, enabling the back to yield and the forepart to rise. A beautiful tolter 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, but 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 tolt is its main attraction. At shows and demonstrations Icelandic horses are often ridden in tolt while the rider holds a full glass of beer in one hand and the reins in the other, without spilling a drop! The tolt can be ridden at any speed, from a gracious slow tolt, where the horse's tail wiggles up and down showing the rhythm of this remarkable gait, up to a very fast tolt, where the horse can easily keep up with a cantering or a 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 pace racing, with the rider mounted on the horse, is one of the oldest and most popular equestrian sports. Not all Icelandic horses can pace, but those that manage all the five gaits well are considered the best of the breed.


People who own horses in towns or cities usually keep them in stables from December to June, when they are put out to graze. 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 visitor each year and it is one of the fastest growing business' in the country.

The main competition and show season 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 Gaedingakeppni. In the sports competition the main emphasis is on the rider's ability and the co-operation between man and horse, but in Gaedingakeppni the horse's qualities weigh more.

Icelandic horses compete amongst other things in: Four gaits, Five gaits, Pace, Dressage, Jumping, Races - pace - trot - gallop and special tolt competitions.

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 favourite among Icelanders and also one of the country's main attraction 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, horsebreeding is considered an art, just as much as an agricultural business. No other horsebreed in the world can claim such a status in the minds of a whole nation.


Icelandic horses were first exported as working animals decades ago, but in the year 1950 export of riding horses began. Since then the Icelandic horse has become very popular in Europe and recently in the United States and Canada. FEIF, an association of Friends of the Icelandic horse, was formed in 1969 by a few Icelandic Horse Societies in Europe. Since 1987, FEIF has been an international organization with 19 member countries and it growing. The member countries are: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Farao Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and USA.

FEIF organizes biennial World Championships for Icelandic horses where the member countries send teams of their best riders and horses. The Icelandic national team is in a somewhat different situation from the rest, because horses that are exported from Iceland can never return. Therefore the World Championships can never be held in the home country of the Icelandic horse. Still, it is a major honor to compete on Iceland's behalf and the best riders return year after year.. with a new mount.

Because of Iceland's geographical 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 is also forbidden, unless fully disinfected.

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 and active riding clubs and breeding societies. This growing popularity of the Icelandic horse has made horsebreeding and export a valuable business, boosting agriculture and industry in many areas.