A History of the Icelandic Horses
– by Jill Merkel
Icelandic Horses are one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world. They were brought to Iceland long before any of the European Breeds that we are so familiar with had been established. The Icelandic Horse, along with only a couple of other rare breeds, represent the closest link we have to the first domesticated horses.
The Norse horses that first arrived in Iceland with the Vikings were compact, sturdy animals, slightly larger than today’s Icelandic Horses. The horse had helped the Norse people to succeed and prosper by allowing them to travel long distances, carry heavy loads, and plow their fields, at a time when most Europeans were still plowing their fields by hand. The Vikings recognized the value and political power of their horses and gave them a place of great honor in their history and culture. They took them every where they went. So, when the first Vikings set sail to explore Northern oceans, along with them went the strong little horses.
The domesticated horses in Europe at the time were born gaited, meaning they had four and five gaits. The nomadic people who first domesticated them encouraged both pacing and other flying gaits which could carry them long distances without tiring the horses. So, the horses that came to Iceland were excellent riding horses as well as being capable of hard work.
Iceland is not an easy place to make home. There are no trees (actually, these days there are a few). The island is volcanic so, although it provides an unusual abundance of life for it’s northern latitude. The ground is a mass of large grassy hummocks overlaying rock, and does not turn easily into farmland. It is certainly not an ideal setting for the horse. Both horse and people have had to face cold and starvation on more than one occasion in Iceland. As a result, horses and people have become specialized in Icelandic living over the years. The Vikings also used a good number of horse for food, this they still do. The horses that were not top quality were used to supplement their diets since red meat was, and still is, scarce in Iceland.
When Europeans started dying in mass numbers from the plague, Iceland quarantined itself. For many years, nothing and no one came to Iceland. Even today the flow of live animals and plants is forbidden or strictly restricted. One of the results of this quarantine has been that Icelandic Horses have never been cross-bred with other horses. They have remained pure for over a thousand years.
Icelandic people are very proud of their horses and Icelandic horses in fact, seem very proud of themselves. The hardships they survived have given a horse that is not afraid to face the world. They are friendly. sure footed, strong, and willing. Their unique gaits make them a joy to ride, and they appear to enjoy the experience as much as we do ! I encourage any and all who love horses to ride an Icelandic. You will never look at horses in quite the same way again.