Horses of Fire and Ice

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Monday, July 5, 2010


History of the Icelandic horse


Horses propably came to Scandinavia form Asia, and the horses there are the descendants of the mongolian horse. The icelandic horse is the descendant of the horses that were in Norway in the time of the vikings.

Iceland was settled between 874 AD and 935 AD. The settlers came in open boats and brought their lifestock with them. Before that, Iceland’s biggest mammal was the arctic fox. The settlers vere very often indipendent people that didn’t want to be ruled by the norwegian king, thus moving to this island without any kings. The settlers couldn’t take many animals with them when moving to Iceland, their ships weren’t big enough. So propably the chiefs only took the best of their best when bringing horses to Iceland, and when there were horses enough, import stopped. The nature molded the breed thereafter.

The settlers came from Norway, the Western Isles of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The foundation stock for the Icelandic horse was, therefore, drawn from all of these regions. The icelandic horse has without doubt kept it’s characteristics better than any of the breeds that are it’s forefathers.

One of the most fascinationg feature of the Icelandic horse is it’s extreme genetic purity. No infusions of outside blod has propably happened to the icelandic horses for over 800 years, and there is only one breed of horses in Iceland. It is sometimes said on websites that the old Althing, the world’s oldest parliament, passed more than a millennium ago laws prohibiting the importation of foreign horses into the country. This is not true, but the truth is that there are really no documents about anybody seeing any reason to import horses in this long time.  And, 1882 import was forbidden by law, and such a law is still in effect today (to stop diseases coming to Iceland), so no horse that leaves Iceland can ever return. If a horse leaves Iceland for a competition, it can never return. Virtually all contagious diseases, from which horses on the European continent or in the USA suffer, are unknown in Iceland. The breed has also kept the gaits and the versatility of its forefathers. This law has recently been appealed by some people, but at that same time a disease came in to Iceland on a bit. The law was changed, now used bits, bridles, health products, brushes etc. are included in the list of things that cannot re-enter the island, and many other used things have to be disinfected by proper authorities.

In the early days of the Norse settlement the horse was worshipped as a deity and a symbol of fertility. A white horse was offered ceremonially at sacrificial feasts. The medieval Sagas are full of myths and heroic legends in which the horses play prominent roles. An example is Hrafnkell’s saga, where the horse Freyfaxi is the fate-maker of a prominent chief. There you can also find numerous episodes describing horse-fights between 2 stallions in a ring. Usually the owner went himself with the horse in the ring, giving it support and encouraging it.

A horse was also a symbol and protector of poetry in the ancient, nordic religion. The gods owned horses that were outstanding amongst other horses. An example is the horse Sleipnir, owned by the god Odin. It had eight legs, and was the fastest horse of all.

When heroes died their horses were often buried with them. The horses that the chiefs owned did often get special care, often being fed on expensive feed like grain, milk or butter. This is very interesting in a country where even the richest people hardly had enough to eat. A good horse became the pride and status symbol for the chief or the master of the house. The life and destiny of men got intertwined with the horse, and it was more than a working animal. It was a companion and a friend that never failed, it was called the most needed servant (not undeserved). It was also often the strongest wish of many horsemen to meet their good horse (gæðingur) on the other side of the grave.

Proper roads, that could be used for cars, were low in number in Iceland untill a few decades ago. Therefore the Icelandic was uncomparable as a pack-animal and ridinghorse. Its homing instinct has also always been extremely well developed, and a lost or loaned animal could find it’s own way home (loaned animals were often simply released and took care of returning themselves home). In the early 20. century the Icelandic horse was used for all the purposes that several different breeds might have been used for in other countries.

Horses moving loads of soil in Skagafjörður 1928 –>

They drove carts, harvesting tools, were used as pack-animals, for riding and for eating. They were the only means of travel in a rugged country. They swam over deep glacierrivers with their passengers, they carried nurses to wimen in labour, and they carried the dead in their coffins to the graveyard. Poor and children rode bareback or on a sheep-skin, and often the only bridle that was used was some rope, tied in a loop in the horse’s mouth. They were also exported to Britain to be used as pit ponies.

The most needed servant, carrying his master and the dog over a cold river. A many times recited sentence in Iceland is (translated) “between a man and a horse and a dog lies a secret bond”.

Many factors molded the icelandic horse through the ages. The most prominent are cold and wet weather, which caused the horse to grow lower legs, shorter necks, longer wintercoat, and a good digestion. Feed in the winters was little and bad, but the feed in the summertime is good, so the Icelandic horse has the capability of getting very fat in a very short time in the summer, and sure is an easy keeper. The country is also rough, with lots of lava and mountains, so the horse is sure-footed. The horse also became a late grower. If it gets well fed, it can be started when it is a few months short of being 4 years old, but if it does not get enough to eat it isn’t grown untill at 6-7 years of age. And the Icelandics aren’t generally considered ready for really hard work untill 6-7 years old. Extremeties in weather between seasons cause the hooves of horses in Iceland to be a bit more uneven than in other countries, weather is often the reason, not bad hoofcare.

An old type of icelandic horse, fat, hairy with short limbs and neck. These features still help thousands of horses that are outside in pasture all year round in Iceland.

Bad weather and volcanic eruptions are both common in Iceland, and culled those horses that weren’t tough enough. As an example we can take the bad spell of Móðuharðindi. The year 1783 there were 32,200 horses in iceland, a year later they were only 8,600. All Icelandic horses in the world (now around 200.000) are descendants of those few survivors.

Breeding has changed the average body type a bit, breeding lighter horses, but the metabolism in the horse is the same. Now horses also get fed in the wintertime, thus growing bigger and better developed than in past ages.

As knights in armour weren’t in Iceland in the middle ages, the demand for heavy trotting horses wasn’t here as it was in Europe. Icelanders wanted a smooth, fast, energetic horse, that could be used for trekking for weeks without getting sick or giving their rider a sore butt. So the tolt, pace and hardiness was never lost in this wonderful breed. It is still traditional in Iceland to cull bad horses humanely, and eat horsemeat, ensuring that mostly just the good horses are bred.

It’s also been traditional in Iceland to go on longer treks with 2-4 horses per rider, thus making it possible to ride in trot or tolt all day long. The horses that aren’t carrying a rider get a breath while one of them takes the burden at a time.

A traveller ponying two horses (this is still very common in Iceland).

Icelanders have had to trust the horse more than many other nations. There were no real roads here, and you couldn’t use carts. Maybe the icelandic horse has gotten sure-footed because men chose the horses for breeding that were outstandingly sure on bad roads, rocks, moors and steep hillsides. An unforgiving nature has chosen the strongest individuals. In many ways the culture of Icelandic horsemanship is a strange mixture of ultra-modern training techniques with very sophisticated sportmanship, and old traditions. The same rider can be one day participating in Landsmot or World Championships, and the next day sitting at home with pals, doing hestakaup.

Maybe this has caused that Icelanders are more bonded with their horses than many nations. Our literature prooves that. Men wrote poems about their horse and said great stories of it’s achievements. A proof of this are the horse-rhymes that became a special branch of literature in Iceland, and which is still cultivated.

Now there are about 80.000 horses in Iceland (but only 280.000 people, and the horse/people ratio in the country is a world record), and about 80.000 Icelandic horses in Europe. There are also over 2.000 of them on the american continent.

It is still customary over all the world to name almost all Icelandic horses with Icelandic names , regardless of in what country they are born. Sometimes this can cause a bit of trouble in pronounciation, but mostly this is a fun tradition, which honours the deep roots that this horse has in the Icelandic culture.

Article and Photos Courtesy of

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