Out of the Legends of Norse Mythology, the Icelandic Horse has Captured America’s Heart

Iceland's pint-sized horses can hold their own among America’s super-sized steeds. The Icelandic horse often pony-sized by American standards is considered a horse back in its native country of Iceland. Icelandic horses are hardy with very few diseases. T
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Iceland's pint-sized horses can hold their own among America’s super-sized steeds. The Icelandic horse often pony-sized by American standards is considered a horse back in its native country of Iceland. Icelandic horses are hardy with very few diseases. T

I have been working with a little black Icelandic mare by the name of Ulla. She is the first Icelandic horse I have ever worked with. Typical of her breed, she has not been started under saddle and she just turned five years old. Icelandic horses, like most gaited horses, develop slower than other breeds, but patience always pays off. Many Icelandic owners enjoy saddling their horses and hiking them among the local hills and exposing them to obstacles they will soon find on the trail. This hiking method of training, and being ponied behind a tractor, mixed with a lot of Clinton Anderson ground exercises, has prepped Ulla for her new job as a trail horse. I cannot wait to experience her 20-mile-an-hour tölt over the hills.

Ulla the Icelandic posing before a hike. Photo courtesy of Amanda Nelson

I have learned so much about the Icelandic breed from Ulla’s owner and fellow Icelandic enthusiasts. I sought to know more, so I turned to fellow horse lovers on the internet. According to the Icelanic Horse Wiki, these pint-sized horses can hold their own among America’s super-sized steeds. The Icelandic horse, often pony sized by American standards, is referred to as a horse back in its native country of Iceland. Icelandic horses are hardy, with few diseases. I learned from Ulla’s trainer that Iceland has a strict policy that any Icleandic horse exported cannot return to the country, thus preserving this precious bloodline. They also do not let horses into the country that might bring foreign disease and threaten their native stock.

Icelandic horses are gaited horses, displaying two gaits in addition to the normalwalk, trot and canter/gallop.

The Icelandic Horse Wiki does a great job of explaining the different Icelandic gaits. The first additional gait, characteristic of the Icelandic, is a four-beat lateral gait known as the tölt. This is known for its explosive acceleration and speed: some horses can tölt at 35 miles per hour. It is also comfortable and ground-covering. The Icelandic Horse Wiki phrased the Icelandic’s gait perfectly, “The tölt is often compared to the ‘rack’ of the Saddlebred, the ‘largo’ of the Paso Fino, or the running walk of the Missouri Fox Trotter."

The second gait inherent to the Icelandic horse is called a Valhopp, a tölt and canter combination most often seen in untrained young horses or horses that mix their gaits. Both varieties are normally uncomfortable to ride, leaving the tölt as the preferred gait when riding one of these little horses. Some Icelandic horses are also able to perform a kind of pace named skeið, flugskeið or "flying pace." Used in pacing races, it's fast and smooth, though not every Icelandic is capable of this pace.

Horses in Iceland have been a part of the county’s history as early as the 9th century. Horses are a large part of Norse mythology, which is imbedded in the culture of Iceland. Through selective breeding and natural selection, the breed has developed many noteworthy qualities.

I learned the breed’s characteristics from working with Ulla, through discussions with the Icelandic horse trainers I met at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo as well as through the Icelandic Horse Wiki. Icelandic horses stand, on average, between 13 and 14 hands. Though short in stature, the bone structure of the Icelandic allows them to carry full-grown men with ease.

The Icelandic has a short, muscular neck, and a deep chest. Their shoulders are muscular and slightly sloping with a surprisingly long back for such a small horse. The legs of the Icelandic horse may be short, but they are stronger than any pony I’ve ever worked with. Ulla, typical of her breed, has a full, coarse mane and tail.

Ulla’s owner and I learned from Ulla’s trainer that Icelandic horses can be fed on a single flake of hay per day! Talk about a perfect horse. The breed also has a double coat, like many other breeds from cold climates, developed for extra insulation in cold temperatures. Icelandic horses are perfect for our ever-changing Colorado climate.

Whether you're tall or short, or if you feel safer on a horse closer to the ground, or you love to feel the wind through your hair, the heart and personality of an Icelandic may melt your heart and convert you to this tiny gaited breed.