All Icelandic horses are directly descended from a small number of horses carried in open boats to Iceland by Viking Scandanavians in the 9th and 10th centuries. Subsequent settlers from Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Norway and the Faroe Islands also migrated to Iceland with their small horses. In 982 the Icelandic Althing (parliament) prohibited the import of any horse into Iceland. Thus the breed has been pure for over 1,000 years. Even today, no horse may to be brought to Iceland, and Icelandic horses that leave the island may not return. As a result, equine diseases are entirely absent in Iceland.
Horses figure prominently in Icelandic history and great mythic sagas. In Pagan times, they were considered symbols of fertility and personal power. They were buried with fallen warriors, raced for sport, and stallions were fought to settle political conflicts or to bind tribal loyalties.
In 1783-4, a massive volcanic eruption killed 70% of the horses in Iceland. About 8,600 survived and over the next century careful selective breeding of the remaining stock resulted in the types of Icelandic horses known today. In 1904 the first Icelandic breed societies were formed and the first breed registry opened in 1923. Today there are pureblood Icelandic horses in 19 countries of Europe, Scandinavia and North America, as well as in Iceland.
Today Icelandic horses are bred for pleasure riding, competition showing their unique gaits, and racing. They are still used by Icelandic farmers to round up sheep from the remote highlands.
Icelandic horses are typically 13-14 hands tall and between 700 and 900 pounds. They can easily carry adults and gladly carry children as well. The neck is short, broad and well-muscled, the head straight, wide at the forehead and refined in appearance. They have short, sturdy legs with short cannon bones that enable them to carry larger riders. Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of the Icelandic horse’s appearance is its lavish mane and long tail. In winter Icelandic horses grow a double coat that protects them from extreme weather.
Icelandic horses come in many coat colors. In the Icelandic language, there are over 100 names for these colors. Common colors include chestnut, bay, black, seal brown, palomino, gray and pinto variations. The silver dapple, a chocolate brown horse with flax mane and tail and golden spots throughout the coat, is especially valued.
In Iceland, horses are left to roam in herds until they are four or five years old. The harsh environment improves the breed by promoting great stamina and sure-footedness. They are very easy keepers and continue to grow into their seventh year. Long-lived and fertile into their 20s, they are friendly, docile and level-headed while remaining lively and confident. They rarely kick or strike, perhaps because there are no natural predators on Iceland.
Icelandic horses are four or five gaited. They are famous for their special gaits, which are present in the foals from birth. In addition to the walk, trot and canter/gallop, they also have the tölt, a four-beat lateral gait that is extremely smooth and can be performed slowly or at remarkable speeds. The other is the flugskeið , a flying pace, which is used in specialized mounted racing. It is a very fast, smooth two beat lateral gait with suspension between footfalls. Specially trained Icelandic horses have been clocked up to 30mph in this gait.
In summation, Icelandic horses are valued for their hardiness, gaits, friendliness, steadiness, and beauty. They are especially suited for English pleasure and trail riding, but are also driven, shown and raced.