The Icelandic Horse – All you Need to Know About this Beautiful Breed

Written By: The Planet D

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

Iceland Horses
The Beautiful Mane of the Icelandic Horse

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

Deb with an Iceland horse
Deb loved her horse

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.

riding an iceland horse
Dave’s riding an 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

iceland horses in front of a mountain
Horses were used on the rugged Iceland terrain

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?

Iceland horse painted
The Iceland Horse is a Hearty Breed

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

Icelandic horses
Iceland Horses are beautiful

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

young icelandic horse
A young horse not ready to be ridden

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

Icelandic Horses experience
The farm

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

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

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55 thoughts on “The Icelandic Horse – All you Need to Know About this Beautiful Breed”

  1. Riding a 6 month old horse is impossible, they are still foals and if you as rider cant see that, you are nothing less than part of the problem and very cruel. My foals are 10 months now and they are still clearly babies both in size and looks, you´d be an abuser if you ever wanted to even put a saddle on them. I know some ride at 1 1/2 -2 years but in Iceland 4 years is bare minimum in the case of a horse entered in a breeding show where they have to be shown under saddle. Majority of horses wont be active ridden before age of 5 1/2.
    And that you rode horses that were too stubborn, it doesnt go for the whole breed, most of them are super willing to work for you and to cooperate, stubborn and unwilling horses are usualy send to slaughter because we dont need those horses around. They have been selected on good behaviour and usability for centuries. But yes they are very primitive but, they often know better than us whats the best thing to do next. You have to understand them. I think you simply got some classic beginners horses that will do this ‘I want to go home game’ they are less slaves than most other breeds and know pretty well how strong and smart they are.

    Also most horses in Skagafjörður are bred for slaughtering, some foals even have ear tags as you would see if you check them closer. Many are also ´byproduct´ from bloodmare industry where drawing and selling blood of pregnant mares for medical industry is lucrative business, but its shady.

    • We didnt’ ride a horse that was 6 months old, WE said that it was wrong to ride a 6 month old horse after a woman told us she rode a young horse in Iceland.
      In the article we say:
      “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.”

  2. We’ve been to Iceland multiple times and every time we didn’t lose our chance to see these beautiful animals. What I didn’t know when I first went to the country is that due to their isolation, they’re one of the purest breeds of horses known today and have no disease. And even though they’re smaller they’re still as strong as your everyday equines. What a beauty! Thanks for sharing!!

  3. visiting Iceland has always been a dream for and when I finally visited there with my husband for my honeymoon, a horseback ride was like a fairytale coming true for me. riding these horses with the love of my life was one of the best moments of my entire being 🙂

  4. I like your pictures of these horses. When I visited Iceland, I mostly wanted to take landscape pictures however my horse pictures outnumbered all other pictures from there 15:1.
    Anyways, I want to point out that contrary to your article, Icelandic horses are eaten. Like 10,000 of them a year. I don’t have a website or write anything online, I don’t even comment on articles. However, this misinformation botheres me since I think they are magnificent and super friendly creatures and eating them is eating a dog or a pet cat.
    I hope you correct your article to reflect this fact maybe someday that will lead to maybe 1 less Icelandic horse being eaten in Iceland, France, or Belgium where their meat is exported to. I also fail to see how you guys missed horseman being on the menu in many restaurants around Iceland.
    Anyways, have a good weekend.

  5. Great images! Did you know you can visit and ride Icelandic horses at the Clear Lake Farm, Magnetewan, Ontario, Canada?

  6. My cousin in Norway has three of these & I got to enjoy riding them in the mountains last january. Just shared your pics with her & she loved them

    • Thanks Kari, that is so cool that your cousin owns Icelandic Horses. I’d love to have some horses for myself, but I think that will have to wait until we settle down a bit more. Happy travels.

  7. I used to ride Tennessee Walking Horses when I was younger – and they DO have an “extra” gait very similar to the tolt. But, I have to say, they are not nearly as cute as the Icelandic horses! Horseback riding in Iceland was definitely a highlight for me, too.

    • That is so cool that you used to ride the Tennessee Walking Horse. I’d love to see them. This was the first time I ever heard of this extra gait, but it seems that there are a few horses out there that have this smooth way of running. We’re determined more than ever to learn how to really ride when we have some time. I want to do a long horse trip in the near future.

  8. Not only are the horses beautiful, but those backdrops are incredible. Looks like a great experience (love the photos, too).

    • Thanks Tom, we were so lucky too. The day was raining and miserable and then as soon as we were set to ride, the skies opened up and it was pleasant and gorgeous.

    • Haha, we didn’t even plan that. When we looked at the photo afterwards, we were like “Hey, your hair’s the same colour as the horse! It was way too cute.

  9. These are simply gorgeous pictures of Icelandic horses. Traveling to Iceland and experiencing the tölt is on my bucket list.

  10. They are beautiful and riding an Islandic horse in Iceland is definitely on my bucket list.

    However I can’t imagine someone riding a six month old horse. Also two years old is way too young to start riding them. Normally a good age to start riding is 3,5 to 5, depending on the horse’s speed of development.

    • Thanks for the heads up Sophi. The person who told me she rode at 6 months surprised me as well, but I’m not an expert, so I took her word for it. She must have been mistaken. Now, the guide at the stables in Iceland, did say 2 years, but she may have been meaning, they start working them at two, getting them used to a bridle etc. I could have sworn she said they rode at two, but I too could have been mistaken. I’m happy that most people wait until they are 3-5. But I do know that there is a category to race thoroughbreds at 2 years, so I’m thinking that it is not out of line. I’m also wondering how young they start riding the thoroughbreds if they have them racing by two?

      • They do train in various stages, foal training within the first year when they learn to be handled walk on halter and picking up feet and such. Then pre taming usualy when they are 2 where they learn to carry a saddle and move on command, they might also get a rider on their back for short time on a line, but depends on their build and age. Then the real taming where they also get a bridle and bit and they will be ridden loose and in all gaits but not extensively. This is for age 3 and necessary if you bring your mare or stallion to a FISO breedingshow where they need to be shown under saddle. And after that they can continue being trained for whatever is needed. If they have the fifth gait (pace) they best be 6 years old to be trained into that for them having the right balance to perform this gait.

  11. Thank you for the nice things you have to say about our horse, but there are a couple of serious errors in that text. No one EVER rode a six month old horse in Iceland. That is simply impossible. A six month old is still just a tiny foal. So, some misunderstanding there. And we do not start our horses at two, they may be handled at that age, but the youngest we start them under saddle is three and a half, but most not until four or five years of age.
    Here you can read some more about the Icelandic Horse. All the best from Iceland!

    • Thanks Hulda, that is what a person told us, so she may have been mistaken. We found it odd too, but that is what she said and she seemed very confident that it was 6 months. We were told by our guide two year, but I may have misunderstood her about when you start them in the saddle. She may have been referring to the age they start to handle them instead of saddling them. Thanks for the clarification.

  12. I did get to see a few Icelandic horses on my layover, but only from a distance. Reading this makes them all the more interesting to check out on my next trip to Iceland. Thanks for sharing, guys!

  13. Great pictures you posted here! Thank you very much for sharing this. It is so nice to know that you had the chance to ride the Icelandic Horse.

    • I’m not sure if there are other breeds with long bangs, I think there are, but these are truly beautiful and the first horses I’ve seen with such long bangs and manes.

  14. Gorgeous horses! I think horses are one of the most elegant animals on earth and wow with a scenery like that, no doubt it was an amazing experience!

  15. I love these photos so much; they’re such beautiful horses, really unique. Never seen anything like them. Must have been amazing to hang out with them in person!

    • It really was. We kept an eye out for them everywhere. If you went down back roads you’d see them all over the place. We spent so long getting from place to place, because we kept getting off to look at the horses.

  16. Great post, and gorgeous photos! Looks like you got some sweet light. These horses aren’t thoroughbreds, but they are beautiful in their own way. The landscape there has its own rugged beauty, too. Love to see them one day.

  17. Very interesting read here. I am by no mean knowledge about the horse in any way but this particular Icelandic Horse definitely seems to be in a league all its own. I love how Iceland has kept it pure by not allowing the importation of other breed, that is very rare to find these days. Looks like you had a great time in Iceland Deb and Dave! Another great place to add to my list now.

    • Thanks Dave. It’s pretty amazing that they had the foresight centuries ago to not allow any more horses in. We were amazed with how unique each horse was, they all had different markings, manes and looks. Pretty spectacular.

  18. Icelandic horses are hands down the most beautiful. I’ve loved them since I went through the ‘horse stage’ so many girls seem to go through. It’s awesome that you got to ride them.

    • I didn’t know anything about them before Iceland. It was when we started telling people that we were going, that we heard “You have to ride an Icelandic Horse” Ooh, you’re going to see the Icelandic Horse. Now I know and I can’t believe I didn’t know before. You are way ahead of me.

  19. Isn’t riding an Icelandic horse the best?! I so want an Icelandic horse of my own. Because of their small size, they are perfect for a short little lady like myself!

  20. A friend of mine visited Iceland recently, and as soon as she mentioned her horseback ride, I knew I had to go. I’ve been riding a few times, but never with scenery like that!