The horses of Iceland, known for their unique tölt gait, are descendants of Norwegian Viking horses that first settled on the volcanic island over 1,000 years ago.
The Icelandic horse is said to be one of the purest horse breeds in the world, having been isolated on the rugged island in the North-Atlantic without any genetic input from other breeds since the island’s settlement.
Due to this geographical isolation, very few horse diseases occur in Iceland and no vaccinations are needed. However, this also means that no horse can enter the country at all, and once a horse leaves Iceland it can never return.
The Icelandic horse is renowned for its great spirit, power and stamina. With no roads, vast distances and rough terrain, the horses were highly depended on when by the first settlers. Although their role has changed quite dramatically in the last 100 years, the horses remain an important part of Icelandic culture.
The Icelandic horse can stand from 130cm to over 150cm. It is considered one of the most colourful breeds in the world, with over 40 colours and up to 100 variations.
All colours are allowed in the studbook and variety is encouraged. While chestnut and brown are the most common coat colours, many other variations exist including skewbald, dun, palomino, grey, silver dapple, splash-skewbald and roan.
The versatile Icelandic horse can be used for competitions at the highest level, while being a safe mount for a young or beginner rider.
These strong, intelligent and smooth horses are successful in endurance racing and suitable for therapeutic riding. Some make excellent jumpers, while others are trained in dressage, carriage driving, polo and barrel racing.
Over 250,000 Icelandic horses are registered around the world. They can adapt to all kinds of environments, from the ice-cold climates of Greenland and Alaska to the warmer temperatures in Australia and New Zealand. They have even made it as far as Hawaii.
The tölt and flying pace
Icelandic horses have two extra gaits to offer besides walk, trot and canter/gallop: tölt and flying pace.
Theses extra gaits come naturally, and new-born foals often show them right from the start. While most Icelandic horses are five-gaited, some are considered four-gaited, and lack the flying pace.
Tölt is the unique four-beat lateral gait, in which the horse’s hind legs move well under the body and carry more of the weight on the hind end, allowing the front to rise and be free and loose. It is very smooth to ride and can be ridden very slowly up to a very fast speed, depending on the horse.
The flying pace, known as the ‘fifth gear’, gives a two-beat lateral movement with suspension. This gait is ridden very fast and used only for short distances of up to 100-200 metres.
Further information about the breed can be found on the Horses of Iceland website.
Photo credit: Horses of Iceland