If you ever wondered how smooth a horse can run at full speed, you need to experience the beer tölt. These friendly bundles of muscle can carry a rider and a pint of beer without the rider spilling a drop. Tölt is the gait that the Icelandic horse is best known for, and owners of this breed are more than happy to show it off.
Stemming from the horses that came with the Vikings more than a millennia ago, the sturdy and reliant Icelandic horse is a breed that makes the nation proud. Anyone who started reading a little bit about this horse will know that it’s special to have five gaits, but what does that have to do with beer? In this article, we dissect the beer tölt phenomena and give you everything you need to know, from start to finish!
The Icelandic Horse
More than a thousand years ago, the first Norse explorers settled on this odd, volcanic island. With the foundation of Iceland's first Viking villages, ships started to come ashore and bring with them various goods and animals to help them survive. Among these animals, horses became crucial to survival in Iceland, as they were used for transport, labour, and in some cases even food and leather.
Anyone who spent time in Iceland knows that the climate and weather are anything but forgiving. The Icelandic horse grew from the mix of all the different breeds of horses that came with the settlers. They adapted to the harsh environment and became well-known for being sturdy, reliable, calm, and in time, their five gaits.
The Five Gaits
So, the different ways a horse moves forward are called gaits. It’s the horse equivalent of walking, jogging, and running. It isn’t more complicated than that.
The Icelandic horse is known to have five gaits: walk, trot, gallop, tölt, and flying pace. All horses are capable of the walk (which is kind of self-explanatory), the trot (kind of like a jog), and the gallop (the full sprint). Most Icelandic horses can do all five gaits, while some can do everyone but the flying pace. This is good news for us since we are interested in the beer tölt.
Icelandic horses are, however, able to do the beer tölt without the beer. The Icelandic beer tölt has become a thing, since the tölt is such a smooth ride that you can practically put a pint of beer on the horse while it tölts away, without the beer falling off.
An incredibly simple way to describe tölt is by resembling it to walking, but very fast. The brunt of the weight is on the hind legs, allowing the front of the horse to be more relaxed and practically float on the ground without any issues.
The interesting thing about this gait is that it can be done from a “walking speed” to a “sprint speed” without any real difference in how smooth it is for the rider. A good rider can easily hold a pint of beer in his or her hand without spilling, hence the beer tölt!
The other impressive gait that these horses have is the flying pace. It’s a full-sprint gait that they usually only do for 100-200m, and it’s anything but smooth, so you shouldn’t try to recreate the beer tölt here. It will only get your saddle wet and keep your glass dry.
The Beer Tölt
Showing off skills and excellence in various sports has always been popular. In Iceland, they decided the best way to show off how extremely smooth this gait is, is by riding along while holding a big jug of Icelandic beer. Now, we can’t promise this is how the Vikings rode over the lava fields in Iceland, but given the folklore, we wouldn’t bet against it.
What Is It?
So, basically, the Icelandic horse beer tölt started out as a stunt to show off the quality of the steed and rider. Later on, this became more important when the quality of the Icelandic horse became more and more well known around the world. This is because a proper tölt can only be done on a quality Icelandic horse.
As this demonstration became more commonplace, people naturally started to compete in it, and thus the Icelandic horse beer tölt spread like wildfire. In the beginning, it was just on rare occasions and events around Iceland, but now, beer tölt has become an international phenomenon. The slogan of these competitions is “the one who spills the least, gets to drink the most”.
Riding at tölt with beer doesn’t necessarily have to be a competition, though. We strongly advise against overconsumption of alcohol on horseback but holding a beer when you are going full speed on top of 300-400kg of sturdy muscle in the Icelandic wilderness is simply unbeatable. Try to keep it to one (or two) beers, though.
Beer Tölt in Iceland
Icelandic horse beer tölt competitions and shows are organised alongside other shows and competitions all over Iceland. The most common way this is done today is in an internal competition within a local horse club. Here, the beer tölt is a fun and friendly addition to the usual competition without any national or international prestige to it. Within the club, however, the prestige is very real, and winners are often celebrated with more beer.
To keep things child-friendly, beer tölt no longer only revolves around beer. In most competitions, adults will act responsibly and switch out the beer for a pint of milk, soda, water, or any non-alcoholic beverage. This doesn’t just keep the competitions kid-friendly, but also allows them to participate, as the tradition is to drink your drink after a race.
Beer Tölt Outside of Iceland
Over the years, Icelandic horses have become a world-renowned breed with emphasis on their friendliness, mild temper, willingness to work, and suitability for both experienced riders and beginners. But how do you know if an Icelandic horse abroad is the real deal and can measure up to its cousins on the cold island? Well, a beer tölt of course!
Whenever you find a larger number of Icelandic horses outside of Iceland, you will find beer tölt. Competitions and events for Icelandic horses are held by enthusiasts all over the world, but it’s most prominent in Northern Europe and North America. Incidentally, these are the places where the breed is comfortable, and the beer is loved.
Where to See Beer Tölt
This is tricky since beer tölt usually is an addition to regular competitions and shows rather than a headlining event. You are likely to come across beer tölt in Iceland if you seek out horse competitions, but it isn’t a guarantee. The easiest way to get to know for sure is to contact the organisers and simply ask them if there is a chance that a beer tölt will take place or not.
Outside of Iceland, you are more likely to come across an Icelandic horse beer tölt if you find an event or competition that is centred around the breed. However, even in these cases, it isn’t’ a guarantee, and you should contact the organisers to make sure. Most Icelanders abroad will have this as an element when showing off their horses, but non-Icelanders might not be as in tune with the cultural importance of riding at tolt with beer.
Riding a Horse with a Beer
Obviously, we do not condone anyone getting intoxicated when riding a horse. For the safety of both rider and steed, alcohol consumption should be kept to a minimum while riding.
Handling a horse requires some skill, and even if the Icelandic horse is a forgiving breed for beginners, you should keep that in mind if you’re new to it. Unless you have some experience, you will need to use both hands and legs to control the animal. Letting go with one hand can easily be confusing for both you and the horse.
Most of us will have enough on our minds just riding a horse and keeping control, so grabbing a pint of beer in one hand and riding away is not as easy as one might think. Seeing it from the sidelines doesn’t do it justice and even with a gait as smooth as a tölt, it’s hard to not spill your drink.
With that said, there are skilled riders who can do other gaits and balance a pint of beer, milk, or water in their hand, but that has more to do with the rider than the horse.