From the time Viking Age Scandinavians first brought them to the rugged shores of Reykjanesskagi in the 9th century, the prized Nordic horse has been a central component of Icelandic life. Over the last thousand years, this particular breed of horse, now commonly known as the Icelandic, has found itself woven into the social and cultural fabric of the country’s history.
In the Viking era (late 8th to mid 13th centuries), the horse was venerated both as a symbol of the Nordic gods and, on a practical level, as a means of transport and traction in agriculture. When the settlers landed in Iceland, they brought their beliefs with them, and the horse’s symbolic legacy continued. Icelandic literature through the ages vividly depicts the eminence of horses in society. In her essay on Icelandic horse burials, Meave Sikora illustrates this acclamation by citing Hrafnkel’s Saga in which the eponymous protagonist kills a man for committing the sacrilegious act of riding his blessed horse. As a possession, a horse was a sign of status; when a chieftain died, his horse would often follow him to the grave. This is particularly illuminating since meat was a limited luxury even for the richest Icelanders.
The restricted space on the Scandinavian knörr boats meant that only the most essential items for pioneering in the island’s savage environment could be taken aboard. That the Vikings brought hundreds of horses on the journey to their new home speaks volumes of the trust they had in their short, sturdy steeds. The Icelandic is a stocky, deep chested, and coarse haired creature, strikingly dissimilar to the cart, or war horses of central Europe, but wonderfully adept at trekking across the cruel, vertiginous lands of the north.
Iceland’s mountainous terrain meant that few roads could be built, and as a result, Icelandics quickly became essential for the day-to-day functioning of society, as researcher William B Collins points out:
‘From the time of settlement until the beginning of the 20th century, Icelandic horses represented the sole means of transportation for people and goods.’
They dragged carts, pulled ploughs, and swam through deep glacial rivers. If a doctor needed to tend to a patient, he would get there on horseback. Icelandics carried midwives to women in labour, and transferred coffins to the graveyard.
In the year 982 AD, the Althing, Iceland’s ancient parliament, signed a decree that prohibited the importation of horses onto the island, ensuring that the breed remained pure. Remarkably, this law endures to this today; if a horse leaves the island, it can never return, for fear of bringing with it foreign diseases that could very easily wipe out an entire population. As a result, Icelandics are extremely healthy and, through the scourge of natural selection and selective breeding, have developed an ability to survive the most ferocious blizzards and volcano induced droughts. According to John Brooks III:
‘With the exception of the Yakutian horse found in Sibera, no other breed is known to exhibit such special adaptation to severe environments.’
Perhaps the most notable feature of the Icelandic’s extreme genetic purity is its retention of five distinct gaits, while all other breeds have three, or occasionally four. The most famous of these additional gaits is the tölt, a four-beat sequence with at least one foot on the ground at any time. The lack of suspension resulting from this movement allows for the rider to sit in the saddle without discomfort for prolonged periods, and was prized by shepherds and journeymen. The fifth gait, known as the skeið, or ‘flying pace’, is a two-beat lateral gait used solely for racing.
To visit, ride, and experience the Icelandic, many people recommend Íslenski Hesturinn Tours, based just outside of Reykjavík. These day long trips allow visitors to experience the undulating valleys around the capital and learn more about the horse. While known for having a spirited temperament, Icelandics are aslo naturally calm and interactive.
Today, the horse is still very much part of Icelandic national identity. While they do not play such an integral role in driving the engine of the country’s economy, they remain a deeply embedded part of life on the island, used for racing, shepherding, and leisure riding. More importantly, Icelandics generally enjoy an adequate standard of living, often being brought up in free roaming herds, which must account, in part, for their healthy demeanor and strong, enduring characteristics.