The Icelandic Horse is Not a Pony

By Heidi Herman-Kerr |

The Icelandic horse has always been an important part in the Icelandic life and culture. They were brought by the Vikings and were well-suited for the rough and rocky terrain. Since they were used travel, transportation as well as other tasks, Icelanders used to call them Þarfasti Þjónninn, the “most useful servant”.

The Icelandic horse has a lively temperament, strong character and is known for its sturdiness and long lifespan. They are extremely intelligent and affectionate, often forming close attachments to people and other horses. Animal behaviourist Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir says, “We now know that the Icelandic horse is very clever. They identify people and other horses not only by sight, but also by smell and sound.”

There are many characteristics that make the Icelandic Horse unique to other breeds. All breeds of horses have at least three gaits – walk, trot, and gallop. These are natural gaits that horses perform on impulse and do not require training. Some, but not all breeds will naturally have a fourth gait, a canter. Some can both trot and perform an ambling gait, but many can do only one or the other, and five-gaited ability is far less common. Five-gaited horses can walk, trot, and gallop as well as perform two ambling gaits.

Individual animals with this ability are seen in breeds like the American Saddlebred, Arabian, the Morgan, and the Morab, as well as the Icelandic horse. However, the five-gaited Icelandic horse has a different set of gaits than other breeds. In the Icelandic horse, the five gaits are the walk, trot, canter, tölt and the skeið, or flying pace. The tölt is of fast but very smooth walking, similar to the racking gait of the Saddlebred or the running walk of the Tennessee Walking Horses. In the tölt, the horse is very graceful, lifting their front legs up high, having only one foot touch the ground at any time. The fluid tölt provides riders a nearly bounce-free ride, even at top speeds of nearly 20 miles per hour.

In all horse breeds, lateral ambling gaits have the footfall pattern as a walk – left hind foot, left front, right hind, right front. In the Icelandic Horse, the skeið, (flying pace) is a t lateral gait where both legs on one side of the horse simultaneously touch the ground. Since the skeið is a two-beat gait, there are intervals when all four hooves are suspended off the ground. At racing speeds, horses that are able to perform the flying pace can reach speeds close to 30 miles per hour. In Iceland, riding at a flying pace is considered the highest achievement of horsemanship.

Riding Iceland’s blog states, “The Icelandic Horse is unique from other horses in its gaits, and in many other aspects, because it is one of the most purely bred horses in the world. It has remained isolated and exclusive to Iceland for more than a thousand years. No other horse has been introduced to Iceland since the Vikings first settled with their livestock in the 9th century. Any horse that leaves Iceland is not allowed to return, which further ensures the pureness of the Icelandic breed.”

An article posted by Science Daily on August 8, 2016 from Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V. (FVB) poses the theory Vikings started the worldwide distribution of gaited horses. A study by an international research team under the direction of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin revealed that these gaited horses most likely originated in the 9th century medieval England. From there they were brought to Iceland by the Vikings and later spread all over Europe and Asia. These findings were published in the current issue of the journal “Current Biology.”

It was noted that it is unlikely that both the English and Icelandic breeds developed a gaited populations separately. Arne Ludwig, geneticist at the IZW explained, “It is much more likely that the first horses ever imported to Iceland already carried the mutation for alternative gaits. The Vikings recognized the value of the gaited horses and preferentially selected for this trait — thereby laying the foundation for the worldwide distribution,” The article contends while the origin of the Icelandic horse cannot not be positively verified, most people accept that they came to the island with the Vikings.

The Icelandic horse averages between 13 and 14 hands, which would qualify the Icelandic horse as a pony if size were the only determination. The International Federation for Equestrian Sports defines the Pony Breed measurement at 58.27 in, or just over 14.2 hands, however the classification also has specific conformation and temperament requirements. In spite of its size, the Icelandic horse is not referred to as a pony by the equine community or registries. Whereas many pony breeds are suitable mounts for children, the Icelandic horse offer competitive riders a challenging experience. Their spirit, strength and weight-carrying ability make them excellent riding horses.

The mythology of Iceland supports their high esteem of their horses. There is a horseshoe-shaped canyon in northern Iceland, Ásbyrgi, that legend says was made when Odin’s horse Sleipnir touched down one hoof as they flew overhead. Based on the size of the canyon, Sleipnir would have been an impressive size. Just how big would that have made him, assuming he was a Viking ancestor of modern Icelandic horses? Based on calculations of hoof-size-to-height -atio of the Icelandic Horse, Sleipnir would have been about 35,662 feet tall at the withers; making his shoulders about 6 3/4 miles high. That’s roughly a mile and a quarter taller than Mount Everest, but still far below the outer atmosphere, which sixty-two miles above the earth’s surface.

Perhaps the Vikings chose to breed out the excessive size and keep the five-gaited ability, albeit in a four-legged variety equine.

Want to know more about Sleipnir? Read this week’s INLUS folklore post on Facebook about Sleipnir.