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5 Facts About the Icelandic Horse

Learn What Makes Horses in Iceland so Unique

|November 13, 2020
Vita has hiked glaciers in Alaska, climbed fourteeners in Colorado and is all about sharing her stories and promoting responsible tourism. These days she is often wandering the streets of Vilnius with a film camera in her hand or reading.

Small yet sturdy, the Icelandic horse is a majestic creature. And there are so many unique things about it!

For example, did you know that while most other breeds have a maximum of four gaits, the Icelandic horse prides itself with five! 

Keep reading and learn five fascinating facts about the Icelandic horse. If you decide to book a horseback riding tour during your trip to Iceland, you’ll be prepared.  

1. The Icelandic horse is no pony!

a herd of icelandic horses in winter in iceland

The average height of an Icelandic horse is 140 cm, and the line between a horse and a pony is drawn at 147 cm. It would seem reasonable to call the Icelandic horse a pony, right? 

Make no mistake, although tiny in stature, calling the Icelandic horse a pony is not how you want to start a conversation with its owner. Or anyone from Iceland for that matter. People in Iceland are very clear that this animal should be referred to as a horse, and there is no way around it. 

2. The Icelandic horse is as thoroughbred as they get

icelandic horses near abandoned house near hofn

While in most countries the variety of horse breeds you can encounter is pretty vast, in Iceland you will find just this one – the good old Icelandic horse. The Icelandic horse arrived in Iceland along with Viking settlers in the ninth century and the breed has been kept pure ever since. 

As early as 982 AD Iceland passed a ban preventing the import of foreign horse breeds and it’s been successfully enforced ever since. Plus, if an Icelandic horse leaves Iceland, there is no coming back!  

Because of that, the Icelandic horse is extremely healthy and can live much longer compared to other horse breeds. Their average age is 40 years, whereas horses generally live to be 26. 

3. The Icelandic horse can perform five gaits

group horseriding in north iceland in summer

The gaits that most of us are familiar with include walking, trotting, and galloping. Those that are reading about horses for the first time can likely imagine what these look like. 

The Icelandic horse is unique in that way – it has two more! 

The Icelandic horse can pace (or skeið), meaning they can advance forward with two legs on the same side moving forward (as opposed to trottingwhere two legs that are diagonally opposite move forward). 

This incredible animal is best known in the equine world for tölt because only the Icelandic horse can do it. It’s basically a fast-paced walk but only one leg at a time is touching the ground.   

The Icelandic horse developed tölt back in the day when roads in Iceland were sparse and people needed to travel long distances on uneven ground. These days, while physically gifted, horses in Iceland need to be trained if they are to perform tölt properly and effortlessly.  

Having trouble picturing how these different gaits look like in real life? Check out this video where an Icelandic horse performs all five and does it beautifully: 

5 gaits of the Icelandic horse

4. The Icelandic horse has an important place in Iceland’s folklore

The Norse folklore has celebrated the Icelandic horse from the very beginning. Grágás, Iceland’s first book of laws, clearly states that anyone who steals another person’s horse is to be banished and outlawed.  

Even Odin himself, the strongest and wisest of all Norse gods, owned a horse named Sleipnir. This fine creature had no equals and could fly or carry his master around on eight legs. 

icelandic horse sticking the tongue out

5. You can taste the Icelandic horse

This might come as a surprise knowing how much pride the Icelanders take in their equine friends, but horse meat is actually a delicacy in Iceland. 

icelandic horse butcher cut scheme

Before turning Christian people in Iceland faced harsh living conditions and considered the consumption of most kinds of meat necessary for survival. In the 10th century, when Iceland underwent country-wide Christening, this practice was strictly forbidden. And it grew on people because for the longest time many people would rather die of starvation than eat horse meat. 

Nowadays, it is not a very common practice, but you’ll certainly find restaurants that serve it. So don’t be too shocked!  

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