The Icelandic Horse: Personified Beauty

When one travels through Iceland, it’s impossible not to notice this animal that is present wherever you go. The small horse may have a wild look, but it is known to be very friendly; indeed, it is believed to be one of the purest horse breeds in the world.
So, what is the Icelandic horse like? And why is it so special? This article attempts to answer these questions. If you want to enjoy a tour with them, we recommend the tour offered by Landmannalaugar Tours, as it departs from a farm in Vik (about two and a half hours from Reykjavik).

Icelandic horses

Icelandic horse size and height

Icelandic horses typically stand between 125 and 145 cm tall at the withers, with mares averaging 136 cm and stallions 138 cm. Adult Icelandic horses weigh between 300 and 400 kg, showcasing their compact and sturdy build.

What are icelandic horses used for?

Icelandic horses, Europe’s purest horse breed, have been historically bred for traversing Iceland’s challenging landscapes. Nowadays, besides their traditional role in sheep herding, they’re favored for leisure riding. Their gentle nature and compact stature render them ideal for beginners and experienced riders alike.

History of the Icelandic Horse

The Icelandic horse stands at an average of 135 centimeters. It arrived in Iceland when the first Viking settlers arrived around the year 800. Despite not being a large horse, it is very strong, can carry a man, and has adapted very well to the weather conditions of Iceland. Most horses spend a lot of pseudo-free time in the fjord. During the cold winter, they survive thanks to the thick layer of fat that protects them from the cold and strong winds.
Icelandic horses
The Icelandic horse is enormously muscular, with very dense bones, often with a heavy head and compact body. This breed is known for its great agility and sure-footedness.

Icelanders are very proud of their equines, and under no circumstances do we recommend speaking ill of their horse in front of them. Their size is the main topic of conversation, even if they seem like ponies, they are not! (one of the most frequently asked questions to an Icelander).

origin of horses in Iceland
The Icelandic horse is the only horse breed in Iceland. Icelanders are doing everything possible to protect them. That’s why all horse imports to Iceland are prohibited, without exception. Once the horse leaves Iceland, it will never be able to return. This way, Icelanders ensure the purity of the breed and protection against foreign diseases. Additionally, it’s very important to wash and disinfect any riding equipment that you’re going to bring into the country, as well as footwear.

history of horses in Iceland
Due to Iceland’s geographical isolation, the ban on importing horses has helped Icelandic horses suffer from few diseases (there are very few compared to other places in the world). The reverse situation is more complicated, as horses leaving Iceland are not immune to mainland diseases.

The Icelandic horse was very important to Icelanders in the past. Before cars arrived, it was the only means of transportation. A very popular entertainment among the ancient Vikings was stallion fighting. Nowadays, the Icelandic horse is mainly bred for leisure, sport, and its meat.

Did you know that Iceland is one of the only countries in the world where horse meat is eaten (even today)?. We recommend you to try it.

horseback riding tours

Steps of the Icelandic Horse

All horses have 3 common steps or gaits: walk, trot, and canter. However, Icelandic horses have two more gaits: the smooth gait and what many Icelanders master: the fifth gait (exciting and fun). It is with the fifth gait that the horse shows all its power. The fourth step called “smooth” has a rhythm of four (similar to walking). You can reach speeds of up to 25 km/h with this step. You can carry a full glass of beer or your favorite drink while riding with this step without fear of spilling it all. The “tolt” (as it’s called) is a natural gait, often seen in foals and adult horses while grazing.

friendly Icelandic horses

Horse Excursions in Iceland

It is very popular among tourists to explore Iceland on horseback; there are many horse rental companies throughout Iceland that offer horseback riding tours (of all kinds, short and long). If you’ve never had an experience with horses, Iceland is the place for the first opportunity. The Icelandic horse is a gaited horse, which means that in addition to normal steps, it has two extras as we detailed earlier.
If you’re interested in riding an Icelandic horse, don’t hesitate. A horseback ride through one of the Icelandic fjords will be something you’ll never forget! For more information about horses in Iceland, go to our Iceland forum (at the bottom of the page).