Icelandic Horses are small but sturdy, these gaited horses can carry an adult for hours at a time!

The Icelandic Horse is a small five gaited breed which comes from Iceland. Conditions in Iceland were inhospitable. Although Icelandic Horses encountered no natural predators, they had to adapt to harsh extremes and poor grazing. Environmental dangers such as volcanic activity, treacherous terrain, rock slides, and quicksand insured that only individuals with the ability to assess a situation rather than the instinct to flee would survive. Therefore, the Icelandic is known for its calmness and intelligence. It has little natural tendency to spook.

These small horses have lived in close quarters with humans for much of their history, making them exceptional companion animals. Being isolated on an island they have had virtually no cross breeding for centuries. The rugged climate and close quarters with their handlers insured that only the most tractable and hardy animals would be allowed to breed. Those that did not meet these standards were quickly culled for meat. Therefore Icelandic horses rarely kick or bite, as this trait would have never been allowed.

The Icelandic Horse averages less than 14.1 hands high. Because of their size they are often referred to as ponies, however these are very strong horses and routinely carry full size adults. They are known for their character, which is brave, happy, and confident. The Icelandic tries hard to please his rider. Properly trained, this horse is generally sensible, easy to ride, and easy to handle.

The first Icelandic horses in North America came from England in the late 1800’s. Some of them were crossbred with other breeds, and famous among these was a skewbald pony that belonged to the children of Theodore Roosevelt while they resided at the White House. The first direct export of horses from Iceland to the United States did not take place until 1917.

Scientific Classification

Icelandic horse up close
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Horse Breeds

The Icelandic Horse is a light horse breed, and one of the gaited horses. Light horse breeds generally weigh under 1,500 pounds. They are typically used as riding horses for leisure and trail riding. Being agile and swift, many are also used on the racetrack, in the show ring, and for work on the ranch.
Light horses are grouped in a couple of different ways, one being the continent or country where they originated from. They are also grouped according to training, classified as either a stock type, hunter type, saddle type, or ‘other’. A body type is generally attributed to each class, with the ‘other’ classification being a bit of an odd ball. It includes those that are color breeds or those that may fit a body type of one of the training classes, but not be used for that type of training. The ‘other’ types can also include those that may fit into more than one of the type groups.
The Icelandic Horse fits into the ‘other’ type class. It is a durable horse developed for farm work, and as five gaited breed it is a wonderful riding horse.

Horse Backgrounds

Since the mid 800’s AD, Iceland has been the home of a stout, small and hardy breed of horse. It originated from Scandinavian and European breeds brought by the Viking settlers. Being isolated on an island there was virtually no cross breeding, so for centuries it developed in isolation. Icelandic Horses served as a work horse and as an important means of transportation for people.
Until the end of the 13th century, many horses were exported from Iceland. Stallions were often given as gifts to the Norwegian kings. During this time, few horses were imported into Iceland. It is thought that there may have been bans, decreed by the Icelandic parliament in 930 AD, prohibiting equine imports to prevent overpopulation. However there was probably never much demand for more or different horses on Iceland.
The transportation between Iceland and other countries was limited. In 1563, Danish authorities ruled that no horses were allowed to leave Iceland until the king’s deputy had been given the first right of purchase. Icelandic horses were popular with Danish royalty, who highly valued the smooth gait of Icelandic riding horses.
Finally in 1851, British horse dealers got a permission to purchase horses on Iceland. This began exporting from the island on a commercial basis. During the period 1851–1939 more than 148,000 horses were exported. The first laws prohibiting the import of foreign horses date from 1882. It should also be noted that centuries-old Icelandic legislation prevents any Icelandic horse from returning to the island once it has been taken to another country.
In the period 1910 to 1920 Denmark was the biggest importer of Icelandic horses. In 1915 alone, more than 3600 were sold to Danish buyers. During this period two associations for Icelandic horses were established in Denmark.
The United States Icelandic Congress was begun in 1988. It is the North American representative of the FEIF, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations. It maintains the records of all registered horses in the United States.

group of Icelandic horses
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The Icelandic Horses stand between 12.3 and 14 hands high. According to FEIF, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations, the general aim for conformation is to breed light-bodied Icelandic horses with an emphasis on strength, flexibility, and a muscular body. They should be rectangular in appearance, well proportioned with a straight, clean cut expressive head. A long supple neck attaches to a sloping shoulder which is well muscled. The flexible back attaches to a wide croup.
Icelandics come in every color variation. They are slow to mature and do not generally begin training until age four, but they may then be ridden into their twenties
Icelandic Horses are gaited horses. The breed is five gaited, though not all individuals exhibit all five gaits. There is the normal four beat walk and two beat trot seen in nearly all horses, and a three beat canter. A couple other gaits are:

  • Pace: The pace is a gait where the horse moves both legs of one side at the same time. It is considered a gait for racing.
  • Tölt: The Icelandic is most famed for the tölt . The horse moves its legs in the same sequence as while walking, with alternating one foot / two foot support. This is done at speeds from 5 to 25 mph. The tölt is very even and is pleasurable to ride. This is a gait possessed by the overwhelming majority of Icelandic horses.

Horse Care and Feeding

Icelandic Horses are easy keepers, and should not be overfed. They are very adaptable to most environments. They are easy going enough to put with other horses in pasture, but can also do quite well in a stall living in close quarters with both humans and other animals. Most Icelandics are known to form very close bonds with their owners.

Horse Training and Activities

Icelandic horses are gaining popularity in the United States. They make excellent children’s horses because of their kind nature and lack of spookiness. They are known for their dependability and surefootedness on the trail, and are a popular trekking and endurance horse because their gait is so comfortable to ride. They can also be used for lower level dressage and jumping. There are shows just for Icelandics, in which exhibitors demonstrate the unique gaits.

Icelandic Horse
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Common Health Problems

These horses developed on an island isolated from all other equine breeds. Icelandic horses have been bred only with horses from Iceland since the Viking settler’s arrival. They have virtually no natural immunities since no horses are imported into Iceland, and no horse is allowed to return once it is exported.
Due to their lack of natural immunities, the Icelandic Horses are extremely susceptible to most horse diseases. It is important that vaccinations for all equine diseases, including Eastern, Western and Venezuelan encephalitis, flu, rhino, tetanus, strangles, Potomac horse fever and west Nile disease all be kept up to date.


The Icelandic Horse is fairly available throughout the United States, with prices that vary in range but reasonable.


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