Home > Trip > Why Icelandic Horses?

Why Icelandic Horses?

Much of the following information can be found on the USIHC website.

Pete and I are doing the Continental Divide ride on Icelandic horses because we’re interested in further promoting the breed. The Icelandic Horse is athletic, independent, spirited, friendly, adaptable, sure-footed, and has five natural gaits, the walk, trot, tolt, pace, and canter. The average Icelandic is between 13 to 14 hands tall. It’s a versatile family riding horse that has been bred to carry adults at a fast pleasing gait over long distances. They have thick and often double-sided manes, long tails, and come in a wide range of colors. (However, as with any type of horse, one must always remain attentive to their physical and mental-well being.)

The Icelandic horse has an interesting history, which lends itself to their appeal. The first horses came to Iceland in the ninth century with Viking settlers from Norway and the British Isles. Horses were the main form of land transportation until the 1870s, when the first roads for wheeled vehicles were built. Since approximately 1100, the import of horses to Iceland has been forbidden by law, so the breed has remained pure.

In Icelandic mythology, Loki, the Trickster god, became a breeding mare in order to lure away a giant's stallion so as to prevent the giant from winning the hand of Freyja, the goddess of beauty. The result of that union was Sleipnir, the supreme god Odin's eight-legged steed. "Amongst gods and men, that horse is the best," says the 13th-century Prose Edda written by Snorri Sturluson. Sleipnir is shown in one famous image with his eight legs extended in the ultimate flying pace. Other gods also owned horses. The goddess Gna, the messenger, had a horse that ran "through the air and over the sea." Called Hoof Flourisher, it was sired by Breaker-of-Fences on Skinny Sides. The gods of Day and Night drove chariots drawn by Shining Mane and Frosty Mane: The brightness of the sun was the glowing of the day-horse's mane, while dew was the saliva dripping from Frosty Mane's bit. Horses were also associated with Freyr, god of plenty, and sacrificed in his honor.

Other medieval Icelandic works depict racehorses, saddle horses, packhorses, and fighting horses. The first Icelandic horse known by name, the mare Skalm, appears in the 12th-century Book of Settlements. The chieftain Seal-Thorir settled where Skalm lay down under her load. Horses play key roles in some of the most famous Icelandic Sagas, including Hrafnkel, Njal, and Grettir's Saga. The sagas, written anonymously in the 13th century, look back as far as the early 800s. In these stories, horses were first of all riding horses and beasts of burden. But the sagas also tell of horse races and horse fights, both of which often led to violence, and of horses given as gifts to stop or avert a feud. A fine horse was often a medieval Icelander's most prized possession.

Horses are now seen as a way of preserving Iceland’s agricultural tradition while improving its economy. Long-distance horse trekking is popular among Icelanders and tourists, as are horse shows, horse races, horse trading, and pleasure riding. Exports of Icelandic Horses have increased since the first were sent to Germany in the 1940s. Currently there are some 70,000 Icelandic Horses in other countries as compared to 80,000 in Iceland. They are spread unevenly among the 19 member countries of the Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF). Some 40,000 horses are in Germany. By contrast, there are approximately 4,238 registered Icelandics in North America.