About Icelandic Horses
The following is from an article I wrote in 2001 for a model horse publication called "Horsing Around." It was designed to be a "breed profile" on the Icelandic Horse. I have edited it to make it more suitable for this venue.
The origins of the Icelandic Horse are somewhat speculative. One thing all my sources agree on is that the Vikings brought the ancestors of the modern Icelandic Horse with them on open boats when they settled Iceland late in the 9th century. The horses were of Germanic origin. Some sources believe there was Mongolian influence; that they came to Western Europe via Russia, with potential contributions from Fjords and Tarpans. There is evidence of a breed in Scandinavia and Northern Europe called Ecuus Scandianavicus, which was later crossbred to extinction on the mainland but not on Iceland. Comparison between the Icelandic Horse at the time of the settlement of Iceland and ancient Norwegian and German horses show them to have similar bone structure.
It is also speculated that when the Celts from Ireland and Scotland came
over they crossbred the horses on Iceland with Shetlands, Connemaras, Exmoors
and Highland ponies. There is some
debate about this, however as the Icelandic has a genotype which is very
different from other European horse populations. One thing that is well known,
however, is that for the past 900 or so years, the Icelandic Horse has remained
pure. In 1100 AD, Iceland closed its borders to the importation of
horses for reasons of disease control. Even
today, no horse can enter Iceland, and no horse that leaves Iceland is ever
allowed to return.
Iceland, the horse was used for agriculture and transportation until around the
1950’s, when motorized vehicles finally took over.
After that point, the focus changed from draft to riding.
If you drive a car in Iceland you will find wide shoulders intended for
those still traveling by horse.
think the best way to launch into the qualities, traits and characteristics of
the breed is to describe why I like them so much.
What attracted a thirty-something American woman who’s loved horses all
her life but never owned one to this particular breed? Truth is, I devoured
breed books when I was younger. Something
about the Icelandic, this short, sturdy, good-tempered gaited horse, stuck in my
mind. So when I had the money and the land to go horse shopping, I
sought this breed out.
characteristics are directly related to my age.
When I was a teenager, larger horses seemed somehow better.
But in my early 30’s, staring over yonder toward middle age, the
smaller size seemed appealing. A
horse I can look in the eye, a horse that is easier to mount, and a horse that
provides a shorter distance from its back to the ground.
Although by American definition the Icelandic is considered a pony, in
Iceland and Europe it is considered a horse.
This is primarily because it carries adult riders, managing weights up to
300 pounds over distance.
second and probably most significant characteristic is gait.
Icelandics are naturally five gaited.
Aside from the standard walk, trot and canter, most of them tolt and many
of them are capable of pace.
tolt is an exceptionally smooth four beat gait similar to the running
walk or rack. The horse moves its
feet in the same order as the walk. The
hind legs move well under the body, the back rises, and the horse becomes light
on the front, generally with high front leg action and head and neck elevated
but collected and on the bit. If you see a tolting Icelandic who is hollow in
the back, his neck vertical and ewed, and with his nose in the air, it is a sign
of improper collection and bad riding, and is unnecessary for the performance of
this magnificent gait. How smooth
is the tolt? In horse shows, the
more sophisticated Peruvian Paso riders may have their gaited class carrying
champagne glasses, but in the true spirit of the Vikings we with Icelandics have
the BEER TOLT. I have ridden in such an event at a demonstration, though not for
competition. It is indeed possible
to ride with a full glass and not spill a drop.
The Vikings knew what was important in a horse!
The speed of the tolt varies greatly, from a slow meander to a much
higher speed comparable to the gallop.
pace is a two-beat lateral gait, in which the horse moves the legs on the
same side forward at the same time. The
fast and comfortable flying pace is primarily ridden in competition races.
Pacing at slower speeds is discouraged in favor of tolt, though it is not
always uncomfortable to ride.
The coat of the Icelandic is long and thick in winter, though individuals vary in the degree of coat they develop. There’s lots of hair around my place in the spring! In summer they have short coats like any other horse, though the mane and tail remain about the same. It seems that just as I get the winter coat groomed out, however, the coat for the following winter starts to sprout.
In Iceland, Europe and now finally in North America, an evaluation system of judging and scores is used to determine how close the Icelandic Horse is to the ideal, as set by FEIF. The best way to describe FEIF is to quote directly from the United States Icelandic Horse Congress web site (www.icelandics.org):
“FEIF is the international association dedicated to the protection and promotion of Icelandic Horses. (The acronym comes from the original German name, and is expanded into English as International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.) Comprised of the National Breed Associations of 19 European countries (including Iceland), Canada, and the United States, FEIF governs competition activities and regulates the breeding and registration of Icelandic Horses throughout the world. The Icelandic Horse is the only breed which has 1 breeding standard, 1 set of competition rules and 1 set of registry rules in all countries in which it is resident.”
I had the pleasure of attending the first ever Icelandic evaluations in the United States held November of 2000. A seminar was offered to help explain what the judges are looking for. Much of the information I will relay is from my notes taken at this time.
The evaluation process is long and involved, so I will try to be brief but clear. In a nutshell, points are awarded between the ranges of 5-10 on all aspects of conformation and gaits (5 is non-existent, 10 is perfect). For example, horses that don’t exhibit pace get a flat score of 5.0 for that quality. More important qualities, such as neck/withers/shoulders in conformation and tolt in gait are weighted more highly, so scores for those traits mean more in the overall score. Horses with overall scores of 8 or above are considered to be exceptional examples of the breed, and are referred to as "first prize."
The accepted breeding goal is to continue to produce a robust, long-lived animal with good health and fertility. Though color is not a primary goal, maintaining the current variety of colors is important. Icelandics come in every known color except appaloosa and some pinto patterns such as frame overo. The do come in a whole variety of common colors, plus the dilutes including cream (palomino buckskin and smoky black) and dun (red, yellow and blue). They also can be seen in silver dapple, pinto including but not limited to splashed white, and roan. Roan is an example of a color that was almost lost on Iceland, so now they are preserving roan stallions in order to revitalize this color in the gene pool. They are still considered rare.
Variation in size is desirable, with the target range between 13 and 14.2 hands. The Icelandic horse should be lightly built but athletic, strong but supple, with a conformation complementary to the optimum performance of the gaits.
Following are the conformation points:
The head should be well defined and not fleshy. Profile should be straight, not dished or roman. (Though I consider their heads to be well proportioned, I do use regular sized horse halters on my Icelandics. The bridles are smaller, however, as the head tends to be shorter.) Ears should be fine and not sagging to the side. Eyes should be bright and well open. The neck should be well carried and high set. Withers high and long. There should be suppleness with good flex at the poll. Shoulders should be long and sloping.
They should have a strong top line with broad muscles. The back should be of average length. The hindquarters should be muscular, the croup sloping to allow the horse to get its hindquarters under itself during tolt, and the thighs should be long and muscular.
The horse should be well proportioned; the front, middle and hind sections should all be equal. The body should be cylindrical; the legs long and well spaced; the withers as high or higher than the croup.
The legs should have strong tendons, with clean separation between the tendon and bone. Joints should be prominent, strong and flexible. The front legs should be straight while in motion. The hind legs may turn out slightly (hocks inward). My understanding is that this latter trait is common in gaited horses. Hooves should have a strong smooth horn and thick heels.
The mane and tail should be long and thick. This is my favorite physical trait of the Icelandic horse. Manes are often naturally split to both sides of the neck.
Now I’ll offer a brief idea of the ridden qualities judged on Icelandics. Tolt must be an even four beats with supple high action and long strides. Judges like to see a range of speeds. Trot should be a confident two beats with long strides, high action and clear suspension. Walk must have even four beats with long energetic strides. Pace should be a fast and sure two-beat lateral with clear suspension. Canter is three beats with clear suspension which easily increases to a fast four beat gallop. In addition to gaits, the judges score for willingness, temperament and general impression.
Most horses in Iceland and Europe are not judged and scored. The highest percentage of evaluated horses would be stallions intended for the breeding of riding horses, though many mares are judged as well.
The Icelandic is a versatile breed. There are individuals suitable for dressage, jumping, endurance, gaming, trekking, pleasure trail and competition trail, hunting (I sold a horse whose new vocation will be hunting coyotes to the hounds in New Mexico) and pretty much anything else you can think of. Though the ideal temperament is a horse who is willing but responsive, and who doesn’t get unduly excited in new situations, there is a lot of power in these small packages and many of them like to use it. Despite their small stature, they are not always suitable for children. However, I have heard of top show stallions who are on fire in the show ring but plod like gentle nags in the warm-up circle with the owner’s 4-year-old child atop them. So you’ll find a wide range of personalities as well.
Icelandics are almost always registered with an Icelandic name, though many have nicknames in the native language of their owners. There are several books and online resources to aid in finding names. The full registered name always includes the farm of origin, no matter what country the horse was bred in. “Fra” means from in the Icelandic language. My gelding is Reykur fra Pegasus Ranch. Bred in the USA at Pegasus Ranch. If the breeder does not have a farm name, the breeder’s last name or the location of the farm is used instead.
Icelandics are generally shown in a bridle, often a single strap which goes from the bit around the ears. When riding, a dropped noseband is common. The bit is usually an O-ring snaffle or double-jointed snaffle, though there is a bit unique to Iceland called the Icelandic bit. It can be a harsh bit with lots of leverage and takes gentle hands to use properly. The saddles are generally Icelandic saddles which are starting to become more popular as all-purpose trail saddles. Many people use standard English saddles and dressage saddles instead. The trick is finding a saddle with a wide tree to allow clearance of the backbone on those wide muscular backs but that is short enough to leave the hips and loins free. The saddle sits back off the shoulder, about three fingers from the point of shoulder. It may appear far back but the purpose is to keep the shoulder free for action.
I feel honored to have been able to share with you information about a breed that I deeply love and admire. When I ride in the company of larger horses, I never feel like I am on something small or inferior, especially when I go tolting past them! The motto of a club I belong to is “Little Horse, Big Ride” and I can’t think of a better way to put it. Friendly, smart, adaptable, yet powerful and fun to ride. This describes what I perceive to be the ideal Icelandic. At this point I can’t see myself with any other breed, now or in the future.