10 Facts About Iceland’s National Horse (And Why You Should Ride One)

There are many reasons to go to Iceland, but few people know about the possibility of riding an Icelandic horse in its natural habitat. This unique breed of horse hails from Iceland and has many desirable traits that make them fantastic companions on the trails. For horse lovers, Iceland can be a dream travel destination that offers the opportunity to ride one of these special horses and experience the infamous Icelandic spirit for which they are known.

For travelers with no previous riding experience who want to try horseback riding, Iceland is a great place to try it. There are many horse treks that take experienced and calm Icelandic horses through the natural rocky terrain to show travelers a different side to the country. Here’s what to know about the Icelandic horse before riding one.

10/10 They are the only horse breed in the country

North Americans are used to walking into a stable and seeing several breeds of horses represented in a stable. In Iceland, this is not the case. The Icelandic horse is the only breed of horse in Iceland, bred for over 1,000 years and remaining pure in line. Other breeds are not imported into the country, making the Icelandic horse the only breed in the country. However, not all Icelandic horses look exactly alike. Within the breed, there are many color variations, from chestnuts to black and brown coats or even Strawberry Roan.

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9/10 They live outside all year round

The Icelandic horse is a hardy breed with a double coat designed to keep them warm even in the harsh, cold winters that are usual for this North Atlantic country. Icelandic horses don’t usually need a blanket to stay warm outside, and they’re often not even stabled. These horses thrive in a herd environment, staying together for warmth as they roam the open fields 24/7.

8/10 It’s a horse, not a pony

The Icelandic horse averages 12.2 to 13.2 hands. For horse enthusiasts unfamiliar with the breed, it would normally be referred to as a pony rather than a horse. However, despite its small size, the Icelandic horse has enormous bone density and is capable of carrying adult adults with ease. The breed is specifically called a horse, never a pony.

7/10 They have a fourth look

Most horses are capable of three gaits (types of movement): walk, trot and canter/canter. What makes the Icelandic horse so unique is its ability to perform a fourth gait, called tölt. This four-beat ambling gait allows horses to practice high, dramatic knee action while the rider remains comfortable in the saddle. The gait is so gentle on the rider that a popular event in Icelandic horse shows is the beer tölt; the riders hold a pint of beer while the horse tölts. The smoother their gait, the less beer the rider will spill.

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6/10 Some have a fifth look

As if tölting weren’t enough, some Icelandic horses are endowed with a fifth gait, called gait. While the tölt is a flowing gait where one foot always touches the ground, the rhythm is a two-beat lateral movement. There is amazing suspension and the gait is mounted extremely quickly, often for racing. In these cases it is called flight rhythm, and at times the horse will have all four feet off the ground simultaneously.

5/10 You’ll find them wandering wild around Iceland

The Icelandic horse lives half-tame and half-wild in Iceland, which is a unique experience compared to how most breeds live in North America. Although there is a small population of truly wild horses that still roam Iceland, the majority of those you will see roaming the fields and highlands have owners. However, the farmers graze their horses in the wild during the summer months, allowing them to roam freely and graze on the grass until September. Horses survive without human care during this time, and some even give birth to foals. In September, owners across the country work together to bring highland horses back to their farms.

4/10 There is no going back to Iceland for horses

The reason Icelandic horses have remained so pure in Iceland is that no other breed has ever been allowed into the country. Due to the country’s location and low disease rates, Iceland’s Icelandic horse population remains unvaccinated. They are only protected from disease because of rules prohibiting the importation of other horses that may bring disease with them.

For this reason, when an Icelandic horse born and bred in Iceland is exported to compete in a World Championship in Germany, Denmark or another country, the horse can never return to Iceland. Following the competition, these horses are sold and sent to new homes.

3/10 They thrive on trails

Trail riding is the primary mode of enjoyment for Icelandic horse owners. While North American equestrians frequently participate in jumping or dressage competitions and training, the smooth gait of the Icelandic horse is best appreciated when traversing natural terrain in the country’s countryside. Horses are sure-footed and able to traverse rocky and uneven terrain.

2/10 Their lifespan is longer than that of the average horse

The life expectancy of a larger breed of horse, such as a Thoroughbred, is often only 25 to 30 years. However, the average age for an Icelandic horse to live is 40 years old. The oldest recorded Icelandic horse lived to be 59 years old. This makes them fantastic companions who often spend over three decades bonding with their owners and herd mates.

1/10 They are extremely friendly

The Icelandic horse has many wonderful qualities, including its beautiful, flowing mane and forelock. But what seals the deal for most people who fall in love with this hardy breed of horse is their gentle disposition. It is rare to find an Icelandic horse in a bad mood. Most are extremely friendly, gentle and affectionate towards their owners, which makes sense given that Iceland is such a peaceful place. However, as with any wild animal, horses are unpredictable animals, so it is important to be careful and vigilant when riding or handling them.