Well, horses, actually. Ask any Icelander who knows a thing or two about these magnificent animals. You see there are some 80,000 Icelandic pon... (oops) horses in Iceland. That’s one for every 3.5 people. These furry creatures are everywhere. It’s part of the “free range” approach to rearing these adorable equines. And the rider is all the better for it. Breeders claim these horses are more accustomed to hazards like ruts and pits, ledges and slopes found in open meadows across this rugged island nation. Hence, they’re a “spookfree” ride, more sure-footed than their counterparts who idle away their youth cooped up in tiny stalls.
Plus, these Icelandic horses ride like the wind.
It’s believed these horses were introduced to Iceland between 860 and 935 AD by Viking settlers. Horse lovers note there’s a strong resemblance between ancient German and Norwegian horses and today’s Icelandics. Due to the island’s isolation, this lineage has remained quite pure, not crossbred as with its European counterpart.
The breed, as it has evolved in Iceland, is extraordinarily strong. They’re compact, measuring only 52-56 inches (13-14 hands) tall, and able to withstand the bitter cold of an Icelandic winter due to their double coat. But they had little protection against the challenges they faced after the violent, eight-month-long volcanic eruption of Lakagigar in 1783, which destroyed their habitat with volcanic ash, lava flows, and redirected rivers. Up to 70% of the herd was wiped out from starvation.
Thankfully, the Icelandic horse is protected from disease due to strong government regulations. Once a horse leaves this island, it may never return, and no saddles or tack can be imported from off-island. These horses have virtually no natural immunity and breeders protect them with everything they’ve got. They also have no natural predators on the island. Makes for a happy horse, this.
But, what’s so special about these little animals other than they’re terribly friendly and adorable? They have five gaits, unlike the standard three of most breeds. Something called the “tolt” is a running walk that looks a bit odd to the uninitiated eye. The tolt is a four-beat lateral ambling gait that some might liken to a Paso Fino’s “largo”, a Tennessee Walking Horse’s “running walk”, or a kid fastwalking with cookies and milk. When they get it wrong, it’s called a “Piggy-Pace.” When right, it’s a “flying pace” reaching 30 miles per hour. In Icelandic, that’s a flugskeid.
In keeping with tradition, the Icelandic people enjoy horseracing whether it’s steeplechase or flat racing. In winter, these races are often held on frozen lakes. Stallion fighting is another pastime enjoyed by locals. A stallion’s courage is celebrated as it has been since Medieval Iceland. In fact, in times past, brave steeds were honored by burying them with their fallen riders. These warhorses were revered in Icelandic literature along with their warriors. Pick up a copy of the 12th century Book of Settlements or the Icelandic Sagas for a closer look at that chapter in the history of the Icelandic horse.