The Icelandic horse is often mistakenly referred to as a pony because they are so small. In the equine universe, a pony is 14.2 hands or smaller (a hand being four inches). Most Icelandic horses do not reach 14 hands in height from the ground to the top of their withers. But they are powerful enough to carry a full grown man or haul a wagonload of firewood across country.
It’s only in the last fifty years or so have Icelandic horses been allowed to be exported. They have enthusiastic followers in Europe and North America as well as their native Iceland.
Icelandic horses come in all colors of the equine palette, although solid colors occur more frequently than parti-colors like piebald and skewbald. Solid colors like chestnut, bay and brown often have white markings like stockings, socks, stars or blazes. More exotic colors like dun, buckskin and palominos occur. The rarest color is roan.
They are a stocky, big-boned breed with a straight profile and a thick abundance of mane and tail which, unlike many brees, falls on both sides of their necks. They have short backs, deep chests and notoriously healthy hooves. They are not strong enough to carry a rider until they are four years old, so that is when they begin strenuous training. However, it is often that they live into their 30s. If started out slowly, they are often strong enough to be ridden until their 20s.
What really sets Icelandics apart from other horse breeds are their gaits. They still have the usual walk, trot, canter and gallop, but they also have the tolt and the flying pace. The tolt is a four-beat gait, like the walk, which means that each hoof hits the ground separately. The gallop is also a four beat gait, but there is a period of suspension in the air when all four hoofs are off of the ground. The gallop can also be a little difficult to control.
The tolt provides a gait swifter than a walk, but not as fast as a gallop. It’s also incredibly smooth to ride. The tolt can be found in other breeds of horses under different names. The Peruvian Paso and the Paso Fino of South America also do a gait very similar to the tolt which is best described as a running walk.
The flying pace is far more difficult to ride, but the Icelandic is capable of going at a good speed over far longer distances than at a flat-out gallop, although some Icelandics can reach the same speed as they would if they were galloping. A pace is different from the trot, in that both legs on one side of the horse move in the same direction at the same time. In the trot, the legs on one side move in opposite directions.
A Brief History
Icelandics came with the first Viking colonists to Iceland about 900 AD. Because of the difficulties of getting to Iceland, imports of horses were discouraged, although it was tried. Arabians and Barbs were imported but could not adapt to the weather and produced weak foals. The Icelandic Parliament (Althing) finally banned importing horses in 930 AD.
As a result, this is a breed that has not only adapted to the harsh conditions and even survives on herring if no other fodder is available, but is also one of the purest breeds in the world.
“The Ultimate Horse Book.” Elwyn Hartley Edwards. DK, Inc.: 1991
“International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds.” Bonnie Hendricks. University of Oklahoma Press; 1995.
“Storey’s Illustrated 96 Breeds of North America.” Judith Dutson. Storey Publishing; 2005.United States Icelandic Horse Congress. “Learn About Icelandic Horses.” http://www.icelandics.org/learn.php