Sturdy and sure-footed the little Icelandic horse has made itself a home in one of the most challenging environments in the world. The breed has survived the harshest of winters and the devastating results of volcanic explosions. Today it is one of the most popular breeds in the world, ridden by children and adults alike.
The foundation of the Icelandic breed were horses brought to Iceland by early settlers from Scandinavia in the 9th and 10th centuries. Only the hardiest of these survived the brutal winters and poor grazing. These were followed by settlers from other Norse colonies in Scotland and Ireland, who brought with them the ancestors of what are now known as Shetlands, Highlands and Connemaras. There is speculation that some other breeds were also involved in the development of the Icelandic horse, most notably the Norwegian Fjord.
The degree of selectivity involved in breeding Icelandic ponies has varied considerably depending on local conditions. The end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 14th century saw relatively benign weather conditions in Iceland, with corresponding benefits in the availability of food and grazing. This led to the Icelandic people working hard to improve the breed as horses played a huge role in their traditional culture in both war and peace. From then to the beginning of the 20th century, however, the climate became much harsher causing the deaths of both humans and horses. There was a further disaster in 1783 when the Lakagigar volcano erupted continually over an 8-month period. It covered much of the country with toxic ash, poisoning the air and destroying sources of water. Only about 30% of Icelandic horses managed to survive this catastrophe. As the only saying goes, however, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger and it was the strongest of these sturdy horses which survived to breed and slowly repopulate the island.
The 19th century was an era of industrialization and Icelandic ponies were known to have been exported to the UK for use in the pits. Unfortunately there is only sporadic information about this activity. It is known that exports to Germany began in the 1940s and Germany is now home to about half the registered Icelandic horses outside of their homeland. Indeed there are almost as many Icelandic horses living in Germany as there are living in Iceland. The UK began importing them officially in 1956 with a UK breed society established in 1986. Sadly once horses are exported from Iceland they are never allowed to return to their home country as the Icelandic government continues to ban all horse imports. This law was introduced in the late 10th century as there were justifiable concerns that the breed was being weakened by the introduction of blood from more refined horses. The law is still in force some thousand years later to protect animals in Iceland from imported diseases. It now applies to all animals. Tack and equipment can be imported but must be either new or completely disinfected.
In spite of their names most Icelandics are pony-sized. They typically stand between 13HH and 14HH although there are a number who are slightly bigger or smaller. With the exception of spotting, all colours and markings are permitted, including palomino, dun, roan skewbald and piebald. One explanation put forward for why these animals are called Icelandic horses rather than ponies is because they look like miniature horses rather than ponies. This is most clearly seen when they are in their sleek summer coats rather than their thick, winter double coats. In terms of strength they can easily carry the same sort of weight as larger horses do and are just as likely to be ridden by smaller adults as by children. Icelandic horses have very compact and strong bodies and although their legs are relatively slender they are “pony type”, meaning short with dense bones. Their manes and tails are very full, indeed their manes can sometimes look more like lions' manes than ponies' manes. Not only are they famously sure-footed but all Icelandic horses have an extra gait called the tolt. This is a natural gait similar to that used by the old pacing horses and is essentially a super-charged walk, the speed of which can vary from that of a brisk walk to a canter. Although all Icelandic horses can tolt from birth it generally takes training to bring out the best in this pace. Some Icelandic horses can also learn the flying pace which is similar to the dressage movement passage except that the legs work in pairs on the same side rather than in diagonal pairs as in the standard trot. One quirk of Icelandic horses is that breeders treat canter and gallop as one pace, so in terms of Icelandics “four gaits” means, walk, trot, told and canter and gallop togther and “five gaits” means all of the above plus the flying pace.
Icelandics are generally friendly to people and animals. They are also intelligent and self-confident. Beginners will find them safe and trustworthy, while more experienced riders will find them fun and outgoing mounts.
There are a few quirks that prospective owners should understand. First of all, Icelandic horses are relatively slow to develop which means they often only start their education until they are at least 4, 5 or 6 is far from uncommon. This means that at that age they will usually be greener than many other animals. The flip side of this is that they are also amongst the longest-lived of horses, the record currently standing at 56. Horses bred in Iceland need to be treated with great care to begin with as the Icelandic government has done such a good job of keeping the country free from disease that the native horses do not have any immunity to it. Icelandic horses bred elsewhere do tend to be healthy although they can be prone to sweet itch. They also need to have their weight watched carefully. While there are accurate ways to check a horse's weight, a variation of the human “pinch more than an inch” method works well for most horses. This means that the owner puts their hands on the horse's body where the ribs are. If they feel them straight away, the horse is too thin. If they have to push hard to feel them, the horse is overweight. A little gentle pressure should be all that's required to feel them. With Icelandics however, weight is often stored on the neck so this needs to be checked as well. A wobbly neck when the horse is moving is a sign it needs to go on a diet. Any hint of stiffness or lameness should be checked by a vet immediately as it may be the early onset of laminitis.
Caring for a Icelandic
Icelandics are very easy to care for. They can live out all year, although stabling does increase an owner's options and require little to no food. They do however need regular worming and foot care and, as previously mentioned, watching their weight is crucial which may mean restricting their access to grazing in summer.
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