The Icelandic horse is a popular breed of small equine from Iceland that are famous for their unique tölt, a four-beat lateral gait. With over a thousand years of integration into Icelandic culture, these gaited horses are a beloved icon of their native country.

Descended from ponies brought to Iceland by Norse settlers in the Viking Age, Icelandic horses are hardy equines that evolved to thrive in a unique landscape. Tens of thousands of these horses still live on the island, but the breed is also popular abroad.

Icelandic horses are often featured in tourism advertisements, but these horses’ talents aren’t limited to marketing campaigns. Riders worldwide enjoy Icelandics as competition and pleasure mounts. With quality care, they can live long, healthy lives.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Icelandic horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Icelandic horses.

Icelandic Horse History

Icelandic horses are the only breed of horse native to Iceland. Having evolved in isolation over centuries, they’ve become one of the world’s most distinct and recognizable equine breeds.

Laws prohibiting horse imports to Iceland preserve the breed’s purity today.

Origin

Norse settlers first brought domestic ponies to Iceland between 860 and 935 AD. The Viking horses that accompanied these settlers were the foundation stock of the Icelandic breed. Norwegian Fjord horses are the most direct descendants of ancient Norse horses alive today.

Settlers from Norse colonies in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man followed in later years. Horses accompanying these settlers shared ancestry with Shetland, Connemara, and Highland pony breeds that developed later in those regions.

The Icelandic government prohibited importing foreign horses to Iceland in the late 10th century. Since then, Icelandic horses have developed in isolation from the rest of the world’s equine population.

Research into the evolution of ambling gaits tracked the origin of gaitedness in horses to England between 850 and 900 AD. The presence of the corresponding gene in Icelandic horses suggests that Norse settlers brought ambling horses from the British Isles to Iceland. [1]

Historic Use

Horses play a significant role in Norse mythology. Early Norse settlers exported these spiritual beliefs to the lands they conquered, and many references to horses appear in medieval Icelandic religious texts. During the Viking Age, it was common to bury horses alongside warriors and for horses to participate in battles. [2]

While horses were prized possessions for medieval Icelanders, they also served practical purposes. The Icelandic horse’s modern gaits are likely the result of selective breeding that favoured ambling horses as comfortable riding mounts for long days in the saddle. [1]

As the lone horse breed in Iceland, these horses were the only means of transportation for centuries. The population grew rapidly until a massive volcanic eruption led to their collapse in the late 18th century, with 70% of Iceland’s horses dying from starvation and ash poisoning. [3]

Despite several population crashes over their history, the Icelandic breed has persevered. The breed grew in popularity as recreational horses, and exports to the rest of the world began in the 1940s. While the breed is popular internationally, exported horses cannot return to Iceland. [4]

Breed Registry

Breeders established the first breed societies for Icelandic horses in the early 20th century. The International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations, or FEIF, represents 22 Icelandic Horse Associations in several countries and organizes international breed competitions.

The United States Icelandic Horse Congress and Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation maintain breed registries in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

One thousand years of geographic isolation and selective breeding solidified the breed standard seen in Ic