Icelandic Horses – Just another remarkable thing that makes Iceland so famous and unique
When I first starting thinking about booking passage to Iceland, I wanted to do a little research on my own to find out some various factoids of what Iceland was famous for, and then see how many of those things of interest I could cross off my list. Not all of these things I knew would interest me, and many of them I already had a sense of, but it was a curious inquiry anyway while preparing. In surfing around on the web asking this question, never did the answer “Icelandic horse” come back to me as a main point. I was aware there were Icelandic horses, but I was not really aware of what that meant, and in the absence of any major distinction about them when asking what the country is famous for, I sort of forgot all about them once I started packing – except for knowing I probably better bring some big glass just in case. Let’s put it this way, if I got to see and photograph some then great, otherwise my feeling was “let’s get to those waterfalls and geysers”. In my very informal research of what Iceland was famous for, I found the following answers:
Geothermal energy (Iceland is the pioneer of this, as well as Hydro-electric power).
Hot Springs and Geysers (the word Geyser is actually an Icelandic word).
The Icelandic sagas of the 13th century (those guys sure loved their sagas).
Their own “Blue Lagoon” (no, Bo Derek was not here).
Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (you can actually stand on 2 tectonic plates at once!).
Some of the most beautiful forms of Nature to be found (those sea stacks along the coast sure are phallic).
The world’s first democratically elected female head of state (former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir).
The world’s first openly gay head of government (Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir), as well as advanced gay rights.
Weird and rotten food (maybe some of that rotten shark I had at breakfast was just a dare).
Unusually common faith in elves, gnomes, trolls, and Norse mythology (it’s crazy how many little gnome houses I found).
A nation-wide collapse of the entire banking system in 2008 (these folks lost almost everything and are just now recovering from that).
Bjork (yawn, who cares), along with some other rock bands.
Its pivotal role in WWII as a way station for Allies to cross the Atlantic (Tom Clancy sure gave it lots of attention in ‘Red Storm Rising’).
Advanced fishing industry (I ate all fish while there, except for some occasional lamb).
Northern Lights (only if you have some clear skies, otherwise quit telling me the storm is spiking above me).
Black beaches with washed up icebergs (watch out for high tide)!
Volcanoes (does Eyjafjallajökull ring a bell?).
The world’s oldest national parliament, known as Alþingi (over 1000 years old!).
The Icelandic language itself (Brutally tough to learn and is still very similar to how it was spoken 1000 years ago).
Well, that is enough, you sort of get the picture. Perhaps what impresses me the most, besides the natural beauty of the country, are the last 2 bullet points…stuff that has been going on and still relatively the same for over 1000 years! And with that in mind, I am throwing Icelandic horses into the list for very good reason.
Icelandic horses weigh between 730 and 840 lbs, standing on average between 13 and 14 hands (52 and 56 inches) high, which is often considered pony size, but don’t you dare say that to an Icelander – breeders and breed registries always refer to them as horses, and you are likely to get scolded if you make the mistake while talking to a local. The legs are strong and short, with tall manes and tails that are full with coarse hair.
I personally think the most beautiful aspect of them are their manes and tails, both long and flowing in the wind, as well as beautifully colored. It is known to be hardy and an easy keeper, with a double coat developed for extra insulation in cold temperatures. The breed comes in many variations of coat colors (42), patterns (over 100), and even differences in eye color (several have mysterious blue eyes that almost look like glass); each distinction exalted by the culture, evidenced by the fact that there are over 100 names for the various colors and color patterns in the Icelandic language. That reminds me of how North American Eskimos have over 100 names to describe their snow…in short the Icelanders are serious and extremely proud of their horses and with good reasons.
The earliest Norse people venerated the horse as a symbol of fertility. When these settlers arrived in Iceland, they brought their beliefs and their horses with them. Horses played a significant part in Norse mythology, and several played major roles in the Norse myths; among them the eight-footed pacer named Sleipnir, owned by Odin, chief (all-father) of the Norse gods in Asgard. To the medieval Icelander, these horses were often considered the most prized and indispensable possession of a warrior, next to their clubs, axes, and swords. War horses were sometimes buried alongside their fallen riders, and great stories were told of their deeds. They played key roles in later-written Icelandic sagas; Hrafnkel's Saga, Njal's Saga, and Grettir's Saga. Although written around the 13th century, these three sagas are set as far back in time as the 9th century. 9th Century??? That is way over 1000 years ago. So how did these horses get here?
The ancestors of the Icelandic horse were probably taken to Iceland by Viking-age Scandinavians between 860 and 935 AD. The Norse settlers were later followed by immigrants from Norse colonies in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Western Isles of Scotland. These later settlers arrived with the equine ancestors of what would elsewhere and later become Shetland, Highland, and Connemara ponies, which were crossed with the originally imported animals. But even before they got to Iceland, these original breed stocks were also influenced by the Mongolian Horse long before that. Genetic analysis has revealed links between the Mongolian and the Icelandic horse, and if you know anything about Mongolian horses, you might start to have an “ah-ha” moment. Mongolian horses are believed to have been originally imported from Russia by Swedish traders, and this imported Mongol stock subsequently contributed to the Fjord, Exmoor, Scottish Highland, Shetland and Connemara breeds – all of which as I stated above have been found to be genetically linked to the Icelandic horse. So with all this variance in the breed’s original stock over 1000 years ago, one might wonder why the modern-day breed is considered so genetically pure.
Over 900 years ago, attempts were made to introduce eastern blood into the Icelandic horse, resulting in a poor degeneration of the stock. In 982 AD the Icelandic parliament of the time (Alþingi – anglicised as “Althing”) passed laws prohibiting the importation of horses into Iceland, thus ending crossbreeding. No foreign breed stock could be imported, and any that were exported were never allowed back. As a result of their isolation from other horses, disease in the breed within Iceland is mostly unknown. The breed has now been bred pure in Iceland for almost 1,000 years!!! From that initial point on, it really came down to Natural selection in such a harsh environment to make the breed what it is today, when large numbers of horses died from lack of food due to volcanism, and exposure to the harsh elements. This Natural selection was combined with selective breeding of the stock that survived to initially produce these hearty and robust beasts. Between 874 and 1300 AD, during the more favorable climatic conditions of the medieval warm period, Icelandic breeders selectively bred horses according to special rules of color and conformation. From 1300 to 1900 when the climate became more severe again with lots of horses and people dying for various reason, selective breeding became less of a priority, as basic survival became paramount again. As a punctuation to this difficult time, between 1783 and 1784, around 70% of the horses in Iceland were killed by volcanic ash poisoning and starvation after the 1783 eruption of Lakagígar. The eruption lasted eight months, covered hundreds of square miles of land with lava, and rerouted or dried up several rivers. During the next hundred years, the population slowly recovered, and from the beginning of the 20th century selective breeding again became important. The first Icelandic breed societies were established in 1904, and the first breed registry in Iceland was established in 1923.
In Europe, where the breed is in high export demand, the Icelandic horse is actually one of the more popular breeds of riding horses. Let’s see, what else…oh yeah, speaking of riding, how about this one…The Icelandic Horse is also the only horse in the world with five gaits. A gait, also known as a pace, is the name given to all of the different speeds a horse has. While most of our common horse breeds have just three gaits (walk, trot, and canter), the Icelandic horse has five different and distinct gaits; the walk, the trot, the tolt, the flying pace, and canter/gallop. The walk and the trot are the same as any horse, but the ‘tolt’ is the gate where we start to see the unique abilities of this horse. The ‘tolt’ is a pace where the horse’s footfall follow the same pattern as a walk, which means that all four feet hit the ground individually one after the other…what is the big deal about that? The main difference between the walk and the ‘tolt’ is that that the ‘tolt’ can be performed at many different speeds, from that of a fast walk to the speed of a canter – it is impressive to watch and hear. The second gait exclusive to the Icelandic Horse is the ‘flying pace’. This is a hard-core racing pace similar to that of standard harness racing horses, with the difference being that the Icelandic is raced while being ridden and clocked as fast as 30 mile per hour.
While riding is also greatly enjoyed in Iceland (evidenced by the many horse farms and stables I passed), their primary role is still quite a functional one, because sheep herding families rely on them each year when rounding up all the lambs previously set out into the mountains. Members of the breed are not usually ridden until they are four years old, and structural development is not complete until age seven. Their most productive years are between eight and eighteen, although they retain their strength and stamina into their twenties. The horses are highly fertile, and both sexes are fit for breeding up to age 25; mares have been recorded giving birth at age 27. The horses tend to not be easily spooked, probably the result of not having any natural predators in their native Iceland.
As a final thought, I would like to suggest that if you really want to get a sense of what the world might have been like 1000 years ago, just hang out with a herd of these Icelandic horses for an hour or so in nearly freezing temperatures with nearly gale force winds. What could they tell you, if you merely just observe? if you let your relaxed mind wander in their presence while exposed in that harsh outdoor environment, here is what you might be left with:
1) They are feisty! Feisty like you would expect an old-world Viking to be like. Feisty as if they are always at battle with the elements. If they are not eating or drinking, then they are probably biting and kicking each other instead. As tough as the Viking Icelanders are, the Icelandic horses are tougher. Surviving centuries of the harshest possible wet and blustery winters, isolation and being used as beasts of burden have molded the horses that survived into a compact and squarely-built horse. In addition to how they were bred through natural selection, the medieval Icelander often fought the best stallions against each other as sport, similar to cock fighting, and with the victor the spoils of living to pass on the genes – call it early selective breeding – and it was a very social event. Regardless of what you think about that, I think some of that fighting spirit with each other persists today, although mostly in a play fashion and never seemingly aggressive toward people thankfully…at least my experience.
2) Think about those Vikings and other medieval types riding around on something the size of a pony…a pretty comical thought, no? It is comical to think about until you realize that these horses have not changed much in 1000 years; and really what changed during that time instead were humans. Today’s person seems slightly too large for these horses, although looks are deceiving. And today’s movie portrayals of Vikings from the old days would make you think they were very tall and large beings, which they probably were as Scandinavians compared to others, but that is all relative to the time periods in question. For example, I love the movie “The 13th Warrior”, which is what I consider to be one of the more “accurate” portrayals of Norse and Viking myth that I enjoy (accuracy in myth is relative too, but I digress). In that movie, the 12 large and feisty Viking warriors went on a quest with a strange and reluctant 13th warrior (played by Antonio Banderas), who was a smaller Persian with a smaller and more agile horse, who had to align with these seemingly vulgar cave-man types. The Norse warriors just waded in swinging with great might and laying waste to their enemies, exalting death like they were the original stock to what we might imagine a Klingon in Star Trek to be like…Real hard core live and die warriors…while the smaller Persian man and horse performed smart and deft maneuvers. Maybe those relative sizes and portrayals were accurate against each other, but relatively speaking, all of them were really much smaller beings…just look at today’s Icelandic horses and you will see. In truth when measuring skeletons from the medieval periods in question, males on average were about 5’5” and women 5’2”. Some of course exceeded the average, and those fellas were probably giants at 6'0". Over the years people have gotten bigger due to environmental and genetic diversity reasons, but these horses haven’t, which is why the idea of big Norsemen riding them seems comical. These horses are still the real deal, and so when you think about large Vikings riding them, you begin to realize those giant men were probably shorter than most of us today.
Well there you go, everything you wanted to know about Icelandic horses and never thought to wonder about. I’m glad I wondered about them and did the research, but above all, I was left with a lasting impression about my experiences with them and I am a better person for it. Please note that the images used in this blog are just a handful of what I captured. If you would like to go to the full gallery to view all the imagery, they can be found at http://johnmoreyphotography.com/icelandichorses
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed.
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