The Icelandic Horse is legendary. Brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Icelandic Horse is one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world.
It was our goal to see these pure beauties during our drive around the Ring Road, and it didn’t take us long before we saw plenty of horses running over the volcanic terrain.
Icelandic Horse – What You Need to Know
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We didn’t realize that these horses are everywhere. There are 80,000 horses in a country that has a population of only 300,000 people.
Why so many horses in Iceland?
It took us a while to realize what the horses are used for. Iceland is a popular tourist destination, but not popular enough to keep 80,000 horses occupied.
Do the Icelandic people eat horses? Maybe they breed their horses for food? While some horses are bred for food, it is the least eaten meat in the country and only some are raised for slaughter.
The majority of Icelandic Horses are used for companionship and simply for enjoying the ride. They are a huge part of the life and history of the people of Iceland. They are also used for breeding and exporting. The Icelandic horse is in high demand around the world.
There is even an International Federation of Iceland horses comprising of 18 countries including Canada. It’s no wonder, they are so beautiful.
About Icelandic Horses
We had the chance to ride the Icelandic Horse and it was a highlight of our road trip through Iceland. It was beautiful to saunter through the Iceland countryside while we traced the route of the Norsemen. Okay, it was a small route, but as we rode, I imagined what life must have been like back then.
Icelandic Horses Tölt – The Fifth Gait
Not only is the Icelandic Horse the prettiest horse in the world (in my humble opinion), but they are also the only horse that can tölt. While other horses have the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, the Icelandic horse can tölt. It is an ambling gait known as the 5th gear.
The tölt is the gear in between a trot and cantor. It is a quick gait that is a smooth ride and allows the horse to cover long distances without getting tired.
There are other horses in the world that have a 5th Gait. My mom told me that the Tennessee Walking Horse also has a similar gait and there are others with that extra gear, but the tölt is unique to the Icelandic horse.
Their 5th gear helps too. During our ride, when the horse reached the tölt we couldn’t believe how smooth it was, it felt like we were gliding. It makes for a comfortable ride for the rider and makes travel easier for the horse.
The tölt comes naturally to Icelandic Horses, it isn’t trained, it is a behavior that is a part of the Icelandic Horse.
Our guide told us there are theories as to why the Icelandic horse has the tölt. She believes that the horses of Europe had this gait bred out of them to accommodate horse carts. The trot worked well for pulling carriages and there was no need for the tölt so as more horses were used to pull carriages the tölt disappeared. It makes sense to us.
For nearly 1000 years, no other breed of horse has stepped foot on Iceland soil thus keeping out disease and creating the ultimate pure bread. No other horse is allowed in the country and when a horse is exported from Iceland, it is not allowed back in.
The Icelandic Horse is the only breed of horse allowed in Iceland and horse carts weren’t a part of Icelandic history. Icelanders used their horses to cross the rugged country riding through rivers, lava fields, and even glaciers.
Riding Horses in Northern Iceland
You can go on a trail ride anywhere in Iceland, but we wanted to ride near Skagafjörður, located in the North of the country. Skagafjörður is known as the cradle of the Icelandic horse and it is here that you will see beautiful herds of horses set out to pasture.
Our drive through the area offered the most beautiful views of herds of horses running by or grazing in front of stunning scenery. After doing our high mountain trail ride in Alberta, we felt confident riding and were excited to be able to get back on a horse again and ride one in an entirely different setting.
But these Iceland horses had a mind of their own and we soon realized that we aren’t pros. We had a hard time controlling our stubborn horses who had a mind of their own.
What Makes the Icelandic Horse Unique?
I can’t believe how man and horse survived in the unforgiving terrain and harsh weather of the country. But the Icelandic horse is sturdy and was made for these conditions.
Strong Will of Iceland Horses
Iceland horses are set out to pasture when they are not being used and they almost have a wild feel about them. These guys think for themselves. If you don’t show them whose boss from the start, you’ll be stuck fighting them the entire ride.
My guy was beautiful, but he decided many times that he didn’t want to move or that he wanted to go in the opposite direction. I was struggling, but I loved it. Strong personalities are one of my favorite character traits.
The Icelandic horses reminded us of the horses in Mongolia and it’s no wonder, the Iceland horse is believed that they are descendants of the Mongolian horse. They are small, almost like ponies, but they are sturdy and strong. They have beautiful long manes and their markings are extraordinary.
We were amazed that they were so unique. Each and every one of them looked completely different from the other. Every chance we got, we’d pull off on the side of the road to see Icelandic horses. They were friendly too and seemed to love having their pictures taken.
Choose a Reputable Horse Riding Company
We saw many horses in large corrals during our trail ride. We were told that the company we rode with “HestaSport” doesn’t saddle their horses until they are two years old. (We’ve since been told that it is at least three) This gives them time to truly develop. Their bones and backs are strong and able to carry people with ease.
Most people in Iceland take great care of their horses and don’t ride them until they are ready. This was something we were happy to hear; especially after a fellow traveler told us that she rode a horse that was only 6 months old on her trail ride, that’s crazy! I believe that is way too young and it’s important to ask the proper questions.
Riding with a reputable company is key for us in our travels and we were happy to hear that Iceland Travel, who we toured the country with takes great care in choosing the operations that they work with during their self-drive tour.
Horse Corrals of Iceland
HestaSport must be one of the tops because it is here that they run only one of their national annual horse shows. There are only two such corrals in Iceland and this one attracts people every year to show off their best breed while having judges rate their skills and beauty.
HestaSport offers long multi-day rides out to the glacier and into the mountains, plus short rides ranging from one hour to a full day. It’s a great way to see the landscape and to immerse yourself in the culture. Riding is a part of Iceland and to ride while visiting the country will allow you to truly feel like you are have experienced a real and true Icelandic moment.
To book your own riding tour visit the HestaSport Website or make it a part of your Self Drive Tour around the country. Iceland Travel set everything up for us, all we had to do was show up at HestaSport and enjoy the ride.
Our tour through Iceland was courtesy of Iceland Travel. The Iceland Odyssey and the Wonders of the West self-drive tour around the ring road give the traveler freedom to explore on their own while staying in comfort at hotels and B&B’s