What to Know About Icelandic Horses

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 05, 2023
5 min read

Icelandic horses are a unique and beautiful horse breed native to Iceland, the land of ice and fire. These four-legged creatures are a source of national pride for Icelanders and are known for their slight build, resilience to the extreme Icelandic weather, and friendly nature. The horses have crafted a special place for themselves in Icelandic and Norse culture, with some reports suggesting they’ve been bred for over 1,000 years in the country. This article explains some of the characteristics of the Icelandic horse and how to care for them.

Icelandic horses are a pure breed of horses native to Iceland. According to records, they have been purebred since the 10th century and are popular for their athletic, sturdy, sprightly, and adaptable disposition. These characteristics make Icelandic horses a very popular choice among many horse breeders.

Viking settlers from the British Isles and Norway brought the first Icelandic horses to the country, where they remained and prospered in human settlements. Icelandic horses were the primary mode of terrestrial transport for centuries till the introduction of the first motorable roads in the 1870s.

But Icelandic horses are still a traditional part of many families who use them to travel long distances. Horse owners also use Icelandic horses to participate in formal horse competitions, cross-country rides, and sports like dressage and jumping.

A fascinating aspect about these horses is that no Icelandic horse has been imported into the country since roughly the 12th century, giving heft to the claim of a true purebred horse. According to Icelandic mythology, Loki, a god known for his tricks, became a breeding mare and lured a giant stallion to prevent it from winning Goddess Freyja’s hand. Their union led to the birth of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed.

The Icelandic horse size is comparatively smaller than other breeds. They typically grow between 49 inches (125 centimeters) and 57 inches (145 centimeters) when measured from the ground to the tallest point on their withers (the ridge between the animal’s shoulder blades). They lead long and healthy lives, and the average Icelandic horse lifespan is between 25 and 30 years.

Icelandic horses are one of the few breeds that can have almost all colors. They display over 40 colors with more than 100 variations. Some of the most common colors include black, brown, chestnut, white, gray, skewbald (skin patches that are a combination of white and any other color), and piebald (a combination of white and black patches).

Icelandic horses rarely display roan (red, black, or brown base with a dash of white hair) and wind dapple colors. Icelandic horses have extremely long and thick fur to help them survive in the cold climes of their natural habitat. They shed the long coat during summer for a short and flat coating of fine hair. While their body coat changes with the season, their manes and tails are thick and long throughout the year. They are not cut or plaited.

Icelandic horses are excellent domestic animals due to their gentle and trusting nature. They mingle easily with their owners and seldom bite or trample if they’ve been raised properly. Icelandic horses are also great as show horses or trail horses and can be trained to adjust to these tasks.

An Icelandic horse reaches full growth around the age of six or seven. These horses have a high fertility rate and can reproduce into their late twenties. They mature later than other horses, and training typically begins around the age of five.

Characteristic of Icelandic horses are the five types of gaits, which is uncommon among horse breeds. In addition to regular gaits like the walk, trot, and gallop (canter), Icelandic horses can also do the tolt.

Tolting is a lateral four-beat gait in which the horse lifts the front and rear legs on the same side above the ground, with one leg on the ground at all times. The horse carries itself effortlessly, allowing the rider to stay on the horse for long distances without tiring it.

A unique characteristic is that Icelandic horses can maintain the tolting gait when they’re ridden at a leisurely pace and when they’re raced. Icelandic horses learn to tolt naturally, and it’s common to see foals tolting in the open without being trained.

Although tolting comes naturally to these horses, it may not be favored by all horses and some may prefer trotting to tolting. Tolting is one of the most enjoyable gaits, and horse riding enthusiasts prefer riding on Icelandic horses due to their ability to tolt. The fifth gait is called the pace, a lateral gait with a moment of suspension. Riders generally use this gait to cover short distances quickly.

Icelandic horses are usually kept in large herds and have adapted to the Icelandic weather. The traditional way of caring for these horses has helped them retain their natural herd instincts and easy handling by humans. These horses are easy to feed, but you should take necessary precautions to keep their weight in check, especially during spring and summer, when they tend to overeat.

You can do this by monitoring your horses’ grazing time. If you feed them good quality grass or haylage (dry cut grass) throughout the year, you won’t need to feed them anything more, unless they’re breeding horses or if you’re making them work extra hard. Avoid giving them silage (fermented grass) and protein-rich food as it may be too heavy for most horses. Keep a salt and mineral block near their station and give them fresh water throughout the day.

You should worm Icelandic horses frequently and vaccinate them for tetanus, influenza, rabies, and Eastern and Western encephalitis. You can also choose to vaccinate them for herpes and the West Nile virus.

  • Icelandic horses can live for a long time. One Icelandic horse in Germany lived up to the age of 47.
  • Horse riding is one of the fastest-growing businesses in Iceland and attracts thousands of tourists from around the world.
  • Many Icelandic families are proud owners of this beautiful horse, and it shows. In a country of roughly 300,000 people, there are 80,000 Icelandic horses.
  • There are roughly 100,000 Icelandic horses outside Iceland. Germany alone is home to more than 50,000 horses, with Canada and the U.S. being other countries where it’s bred extensively.
  • Today, to maintain the purity of the breed, an Icelandic horse can’t return once they’ve left Icelandic shores.