The characteristics of the icelandic horse

A strong horse can carry any viking. The name of this mare is Gleði from HöllustöðumThe Icelandic horses height ranges between 12.3 (128 cm stick) and 14.3 hands (148 cm stick), with the average horse being ca. 13.3 hands (ca. 138 cm stick).  They are big animals in a medium sized package, and are therefore lovingly called, all over the world, the Icelandic horse.  The feeling of power and personality that glows from the horse is truly special.

The Icelandic horse is enormously muscular, and with very dense bones, often with a heavy head and compact body. This breed is possessed of great agility and is also very sure-footed. It carries grown men, even heavy men, at speed without tiring (the heavyweighter in box, George Foreman, rides big Icelandics, as an example).

The Icelandic is economical and easy to keep. Many horses in Iceland are still kept in semi wild conditions, living in pasture all year round, only given hay out on the snow in the worst winter months.  If there is lots of thick dead grass on the ground, an adult horse that is not ridden can easily live on that here in Iceland during the winter.  The youngsters and nursing mares, or really pregnant mares, need more energy, and in modern times people also feed the horses with vitamins and minerals, when circumstances allow.

In some parts of the world the Icelandic horses don’t need shoes, if they are only ridden in mud, dirt or sand, but shoeing usually benefits the gaits of Icelandic riding horses.  In Iceland the riding horses are shod, it is necessary in the rocky ground here.

Foaling is also easy, the mares will in most cases just go by themselves and have their babies out in pasture, usually in the morning when you are not watching.


A multicolored Icelandic herd.

There are around 40 colors and color varieties in the Icelandic horse.



The state runs an selective breeding program, having breeding evaluations in many places in Iceland each year, and sending judges to other countries. Breeding programs are based principally on the quality of the five gaits peculiar to the Icelandic horse, along with temperament and conformation

As the breed has been isolated for so long, it is distinctive from other breeds in sometimes unforeseen ways. For example, their blood is different, and vets that don’t know the breed often think they are anemic. They can also digest cellulose much more efficiently than other breeds (they’ve got smaller small intestine but bigger large intestine, appendix and colon than other breeds). They also have a much higher ratio of red muscle fibers which use oxygen better than white fibers. Icelandics also have more fat than most other horses in their muscle cells and this fat can be metabolized quickly, which is probably a big part of their enormous stamina (because the Icelandic horse wastes less energy by sweating, and uses the energy to work instead).

Dögg from Langhúsum, one of the brood mares at Langhus, red dun, looking at the highlands. Maybe she’s wondering if she’ll be in a herd there this summer.

The icelandic horse has 5 gaits. The gaits are walk, trot and canter/gallop, like in other horses, but also the super smooth tolt and many of the Icelandics also master the 5th gait, the thrilling and fun flying pace.

The tolt is a smooth four beat gait (similar to the running walk or rack) The rider sits virtually bounce free at both slow speed and high speed (20 mph/30 km/h). You can carry a glass full of beer or your favorite drink while riding the tolt, without fear of spilling it. The tolt is a natural gait, and you often see foals and grown horses tolting in the pasture.

Many Icelandic horses can also show the flying pace, which is also a natural gait. The pace is a lateral racing gait and horses reach speeds of up to 30 mph/50 km/h.

The Icelandic horse is very friendly and safe to have around you. Since there are no natural predators in Iceland, and the horses have been isolated for so long, they have virtually no tendency to kick, compared to other breeds. A majority of Icelandics will never dream of kicking, and those horses that kick people in Iceland are culled.

The Icelandic horse has a very individual character. The Icelandic horse is patient, adaptable, uncomplicated and sometimes very spirited. It has a friendly personality and a special affinity for people. Bred as a riding and working horse for the Icelandic farmer makes it an excellent family horse. With no natural predators in its home country, the horse has shed much of its natural “fight or flight” instinct. The easy going, friendly disposition of many icelandic horses make them ideal family horses. At the same time, the diversity within the breed is enormous. You can both find the safest children’s horses, and the hottest pace race horses within this breed, so take care not to think all Icelandic horses are alike.

Flying pace. Fáni from Hafsteinsstöðum

It is still customary to travel on holidays on horses in the highlands, just as has been done for the last 1000 years in Iceland. The horses are sure footed, which is no wonder in the rough ground in Iceland. They were also used to cross difficult rivers in the old days, as bridges were almost nonexistent in Iceland, and the rivers are many and often big.

Sheep roam in enormous pastures in the highlands in the summertime, and the icelandic sheep are flighty in nature, similar to goats. Horses are still used to herd them back to the lowland in the autumn. In the northern part of the country horses are also roaming in the same pastures, and herded to horsecorrals in the autumn. The icelandic horses are rarely used for herding cows, simply because large scale raising of cattle is rare, but they are not afraid of cows.

It has also been a habit in Iceland through the ages to keep horses in herds (stóð). The horses have thus kept most of their natural herd instincts, and it is rarely any trouble to keep them in herds. In fact these horses have more tendency to become grumpy if they are alone (but any horse, pony or donkey will suffice).

You do not have to be old to get good gaits.

They do a lot of mock fighting in the pasture, playing together without hurting each other. If they disagree about something, they stand rump to rump, trying to push the other horse away, without having any space to kick and hurt the other horse. This way of fighting for status/playing often causes surprice in horses of other breeds, as it seems to be spectacular for the Icelandics.

Breeding is usually done by putting the stallion with 3-20 mares in pasture for 6 weeks, and let nature take it’s course. Young stallions are often kept with other young stallions in herds (with no mares). This way the stallion has a relationship with other horses, and learns how to live and behave in a herd. The stallions are also usually total gentlemens around people and horses, except of course they get fidgety if a mare in heat is in the neighborhood. This results in a very high fertility in the Icelandic horse.

Twins are not unknown in Icelandics, 1-2 pairs of twins hit the Icelandic news every year.

Even though quiet family horses are a common thing among Icelandics, those that like hot, goey horses can also easily find them in this breed. Riding fast for long distances, or pace-racing (riding the horse in the race) is a common hobby and sport in Iceland.

As the icelandic horse matures late, they are not started until almost four years old. But instead they are strong in their old age, and it is not uncommon to ride these horses in their late twenties. The oldest icy, the mare Tulle, got to be 57 years old.