The Icelandic – Is It A Pony Or Is It A Horse?
Article by Crystal A. Eikanger
Known by many names such as Islenzki Hesturinn, Icelandic Toelter Horse, Iceland T?lter, and its own country’s name, Islandpferde, the Icelandic Horse has lived in Iceland since the Nordic pioneers arrived in 865 A.D. and it has been purebred since the 10th century. Since the horse is sacred in Norse mythology, this horse is the only breed in Iceland because of an ancient Viking law disallowing any other horses into the country, and that law is still upheld today. Once an Icelandic Horse has been taken out of Iceland it can never return. Additionally, only unused horse equipment may be brought into the country. This is to prevent an outbreak of equine disease which could decimate the population on the tiny island. Diseases are almost unknown among Icelandic horses that may not be able to fend off something new. But it is this isolation which has led to the breed’s purity. Outside Iceland, the genetic purity of the horses is carefully maintained through national registries in each country to track the breed according to strict regulations of the Icelandic government.
Comparisons between the Icelandic horse at the time of the settlement of Iceland, and the ancient Norwegian and German horses show them to have similar bone structures, and it is possible that there was a separate species of horse, Equus scandianavicus, found in those areas. These Scandinavian horses were later crossed with other European breeds, but not in Iceland, and so the breed remained pure on the island. During the time that the Vikings took the horses to Iceland, the easy gaits were common throughout horse breeds in Europe, but the Icelandic Horse genotype is very different from other European horse populations, so theories of them having Shetland blood, Highland or Eriskay blood are not likely to be true.
The Icelandic is classified as a horse, not as a pony. This is because it is the only equine in Iceland and there is not a word for “pony” in the language, therefore it’s called a horse. But of the 27 characteristics that apply to all pony breeds, all of them apply to Icelandic Horses. So, if someone calls it an Icelandic Pony, they are biologically correct.
In the early 1900’s the Icelandic horse was used extensively for transportation and as a work horse to clear fields and herd livestock. The first breed societies for the Icelandic Horse were formed in 1904 with the first registry being formed in 1923. Then in the early 20th century, automobiles came to Iceland and because the horses were considered obsolete, much of the breed was slaughtered en masse until the 1940’s and 1950’s. Fortunately, rescue organizations worked to protect the Icelandic breed and exported many horses to new homes outside of the country while establishing legal protections for the equines within Iceland. Forty years ago, there were no Icelandic Horses in continental Europe, but now there are 100,000. Only about 3,000 are in the United States but it is a growing breed with more being imported all the time. Around 80,000 Icelandic horses remain in Iceland.
The Icelandic Horse has been rediscovered in its native country and is recognized as a unique family and sport horse in modern Iceland where they are now highly prized and used for recreational riding much more than for fieldwork. Despite its small size, averaging 12.2 to 14.2 hands tall, this Viking Horse is tough enough to carry a 300-pound man and can bear 1.6 times its own weight. The Icelandic Horse can be used in various activities from riding, jumping, dressage and driving. Traditional Icelandic tack (which resembles English tack) is recommended since this style fits the breed physically and allows the horse to move correctly although they are able to perform well under other types of equipment.
Although breeding for show and riding is the main objective, breeding for meat production is also occurring. Horse meat was once a very valuable product, but due to increased competition and decreased popularity much of the meat is now exported to Japan.
Icelandic Horses love to swim and this is a prime example of its gentleness and strength. It is a nice break on a hot summer day and the horse will gently carry its passenger as it swims swiftly and easily through the water with its powerful legs, through a calm lake, a river, or even an ocean. In winter, Icelandic Horses are shod with studs on their shoes. In areas where it is cold enough to ride a horse across frozen lakes, the Icelandic is able to perform all five gaits on sheer ice.
Ponying is the practice of riding one horse while leading others to exercise them or to allow the rider to switch horses when the ridden horse gets tired. The rider is usually in the center with horses being led on either side. Most breeds demand personal space and won’t cooperate well with this closeness, but Icelandic horses naturally bond and travel in communities so they allow this joyful exercise.
Because Iceland has no predators, but instead has quicksand, rock slides, volcanoes, etc, the ability to assess a situation intelligently rather than run away from it appears to have been central to the horse’s survival. Since they have no fear of living things, they seek strong attachments to people and are quite nurturing and affectionate.
Icelandics cannot be ridden until age 5; stop growing at age 7, and perform best when in their twenties. Broodmares often produce foals well into their late 20’s. Even though they mature later, they live longer than most breeds, with 35-40 years being common. The oldest living horse, Thulla, was an Icelandic who died at age 57 when she stopped eating after her elderly owner passed away. This dramatically attests to the phenomenal bonding capabilities of the Icelandic Horse.
Some of the desirable conformation points of an Icelandic horse are a long neck and a full, thick mane, forelock and tail. Their manes and tails are so full and the hair is so coarse that it rarely tangles. The Icelandic coat is sleek in the summer and fuzzy like a teddy bear in the winter, but the abundant flowing mane and tail are kept year round. Over 42 different color patterns and combinations, including white and pinto are acceptable for the Icelandic horse, with only the Appaloosa markings missing from the mix.
Icelandic horses are five-gaited and their greatest asset is the extra surefootedness added by the horse’s ability to move its feet in any order which allows them to maneuver safely through all kinds of terrain. In addition to the Walk, Trot and Canter, the Icelandic horse has two unique gaits and is one of the few horses known to be ridden and driven in all five basic gaits. The T?lt, or single-foot, is an amazingly smooth gait where all four feet move in the same independent pattern as in the walk but with higher action and more speed; like an accelerated high stepping running walk that is smooth and flowing that some equestrians compare to racking. T?lting is often performed carrying full beer mugs without spilling a drop and is a trademark of the breed.
The Flying Pace, known variously as Skeith, skeio or skold, is a lateral gait where the front and hind legs on the same side move forward and back at the same time with such speed that there is a brief period in which all four feet are off the ground as if flying. The Icelandic Horse is the only breed that performs this gait. Like the pace of the American Standardbred, the Icelandic has been clocked at 35 miles per hour, but unlike the Standardbred, the Icelandic’s gait is comfortable to sit, therefore Icelandic Horses are raced at Flying Pace under saddle, not pulling a sulky. Not every Icelandic Horse displays this gait, because it requires careful development in the horse and must not be rushed before the muscles necessary for this powerful gait are fully developed. Training by any artificial methods is strictly forbidden.
All breed standards, registrations and competition activities are strictly regulated by the F?deration Europ?ischer Islandpferde Freunde (FEIF or International Federation of Friends of the Icelandic Horse) that was formed in 1969 to regulate the uniformity of the Icelandic breed world-wide. Currently there are 18 member countries in the FEIF. The United States Icelandic Horse Congress (USIHC) maintains the Registry of purebred Icelandic Horses in the U.S. in accordance with FEIF rules. Other Icelandic Horse organizations within a country are allowed, but only as social or promotional entities.
About the Author
Crystal is a writer for www.HorseClicks.com, classifieds of Icelandic Horses for sale in Iceland, California, etc.