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Horse Breeds

Icelandic Horse

Photo Jamen Percy/Shutterstock

When Viking settlers first came to the island of Iceland in the late 800s, they must have been in awe of its staggering beauty. Huge glaciers, ancient volcanoes, roaring waterfalls and lush forests greeted the immigrant farmers, who brought their animals with them to their new home.

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Among the livestock that made the trip from Norway were horses—ancestors of today’s Norwegian Fjord. Other settlers from the British Isles soon followed, bringing ponies carrying Shetland, Exmoor and Highland Pony blood.

Over the next 1,000 years, horses in Iceland remained isolated from the rest of the world. Without the infusion of outside blood, and with the need to adapt to Iceland’s severe climate and rugged terrain, a distinct breed of horse was formed. Small enough to survive on the sparse native grasses that grow in the coldest winter months, yet strong enough to work the farm and carry an adult rider, the Icelandic breed became an integral part of Icelandic life.

The Icelandic Horses of today are descendants of the horses that survived centuries in this harsh land. Through a law decreed in 982, no horses are allowed to enter Iceland, and horses that leave are never allowed to return. Thus the Icelandic equine gene pool has remained pure for 1,000 years.

The tölt is the Icelandic’s signature four-beat smooth gait, where at least one foot is always on the ground. Pictured: Antje Freygang of Montaire Icelandic Horses on Vaskur Fra Kadarholi. Photo by

Unique Traits

Because of its distinctive history, the Icelandic Horse is truly unique in the equine world. Its long period of isolation, along with careful breeding by Icelanders, has allowed the breed to maintain a classic appearance, movement and temperament.

In addition to its compact form and shaggy mane and tail, the Icelandic possesses special gaits not seen in any other breed. Every Icelandic is born with the ability to walk, trot, canter and gallop like other breeds, and to also perform the four-beat tölt. Some are also born with another gait called the flying pace.

Treks through Iceland on horseback are a part of many equestrians’ bucket lists. Photo by Blue Planet Studio/Shutterstock

The tölt, the most comfortable of the Icelandic’s gaits, is a lateral movement where at least one foot is always on the ground. The two-beat flying pace is the fastest of the Icelandic’s gaits, with speeds reaching 30 mph. In Iceland, horses are raced at this gait.

The Icelandic Horse’s temperament is as treasured as its distinctive look and special way of going. The ideal Icelandic has a very easy-going personality and is virtually bombproof. The breed’s lack of spookiness goes back to its isolation within its native land where horses have no natural predators.

In Iceland, these horses are an integral part of the country’s tourism industry, providing rides through the spectacular countryside during the warmer months. The horses carry visitors over lava fields and volcanic landscapes, giving a perspective of Iceland you can only get from the back of a horse.

With no new horses allowed in for 1,000 years, the Icelandic horse has maintained its distinctive characteristics. Photo by Karel Cerny/Shutterstock

In the USA

Although Icelandic Horses are most numerous in their home country (around 80,000 currently reside in Iceland), 6,248 horses are registered with the United States Icelandic Horse Congress (USIHC). They are valued in the U.S. as pleasure, trail and family horses.

In USIHC-sponsored competitions around the country, the breed is judged at its five gaits using International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF) rules. The FEIF is an association of 19 different countries where the Icelandic Horse is represented, and is the international governing association for the breed.

The Icelandic Horse, while technically pony-sized, is still called a horse due to tradition, its weight-carrying ability and spirited disposition, and its ability to do all things horse. Photo by Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock

Every two years, a different FEIF member country hosts the World Championships for Icelandic Horses, where Icelandic Horses from around the globe compete against one another. Throughout the world, the Icelandic Horse is judged on the quality of its five gaits. Classes are organized by division, and include open, intermediate, novice, youth, beginning rider and green horse.

In the U.S., the United States Icelandic Horse Congress has a pleasure/leisure riding department that manages a Sea 2 Shining Sea Ride, which is a virtual ride where members log hours in the goal of traveling through regions of the U.S.
Another virtual competition for all levels of riders is currently being developed to help Icelandic Horse owners stay involved with showing during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The Icelandic is a rugged little horse with great strength, endurance and temperament. As its popularity continues to grow outside its native Iceland, more people are coming to appreciate the beauty and unique talents of this special breed.

Fast Facts about Icelandic Horses

Height: 13 to 14 hands

Color: Primarily brown, bay, black and chestnut; dun, cream, silver, roan and pinto are sometimes seen.

Overall Appearance: Rectangular and compact in shape; long, thick mane and tail. Head well-defined, proud and alert.


Icelandic Resources

United States Icelandic Horse Congress
International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations
◆ For free educational training resources specific to Icelandics, visit:

This article about the Icelandic Horse breed appeared in the July 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Audrey Pavia

Audrey Pavia is a freelance writer and the author of Horses for Dummies. She lives in Norco, Calif., with her two registered Spanish Mustangs, Milagro and Rio.

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