Human settlers first came to Iceland in 874CE. When they arrived here, they only found one land mammal: the Arctic Fox. The Vikings added to the island’s animal population by bringing rabbits, sheep, and other species with them from Scandinavia. Over the centuries, due to Iceland’s isolation, the local animals diverged from their mainland relatives. Some of them are now considered separate species that are unique to Iceland. One of these is the Icelandic horse.
Are There Horses in Iceland?
Yes; in fact, there is only one breed of horse here; the Icelandic horse. Other species are not allowed into the country; this is because the native horses are largely disease-free. To bring other horses here would mean exposing the native horse population to diseases they are not designed to fight. For this reason, once an Iceland horse has left the country, they are not allowed to return.
To protect this Viking horse breed, the bringing of riding gear into Iceland is also strictly regulated. Leather riding gear such as boots is forbidden, and riding clothes much either be new or thoroughly disinfected.
There are about 80,000 Icelandic horses in the country today, with more spread throughout the world. The Iceland population of these horses has been pure-bred since the 10th century.
Characteristics of the Icelandic Horse
First of all, what’s the Viking horses’ history? Horses were first brought over from Scandinavia in the 9th and 10th centuries. They were used to assist with farming and moving supplies, and as transport. Without roads, hardy horses were needed to traverse Iceland’s uneven, harsh terrain, and they quickly adapted to the island. For a long time, a horse was considered to be an Icelander’s most valuable possession. They held a significant place both in society and Norse mythology, with numerous references to horses in the Icelandic Sagas.
Genetically, the animals are linked to the Mongolian horse, which was passed from Russia to Scandinavia. The horses in Iceland today are the product of centuries of selective breeding. The locals fostered a breed that had no trouble with the country’s weather and lava-covered surface. Strictly speaking, Iceland does not have wild horses. Some herds owned by farmers live without human interaction for months at a time, but they are still domesticated. They have no natural predators and so are docile animals, well known for their calm temperaments.
Icelandic horses are small, standing at around 14 hands (142 cm/56 inches). They are sometimes incorrectly called Icelandic ponies, but they are in fact horses. They have thick, powerful legs and broad withers, and grow thick coats in the winter. These coats give them a cute, fuzzy appearance and serve well to keep them warm. One thing that is particularly special about this breed is the number of gaits they are capable of.
Icelandic Horses Gaits
There are three standard gaits that all horses are capable of: walk, trot, and canter/gallop. Icelandic horses are unique in their ability to perform two additional gaits. The Icelandic horse can ‘tölt’ which resembles a very fast walk. Then there is the ‘flying pace’ whereby the horse moves the legs on each side in unison. Both are smooth, fast gaits, involving less bouncing than the trot or gallop. This takes us to the next topic: riding the Icelandic horse.
Riding the Icelandic Horse
You may be thinking you’re too big to ride these animals, but don’t be fooled. They themselves weigh between 330 and 380kg (728-838 pounds) and are able to carry around 35% of their own weight. Of course, we don’t want to push them to that maximum, so they can comfortably carry an average-sized person. When you book yourself onto a horse riding tour, you will be matched with a horse based on your size. You can take part in a short ride, of an hour or two, or spend several days on horseback.
There are riding centers all over Iceland, so no matter where you travel you can join in. Depending on your fitness and riding experience, there are a range of tours to cater to you. If you’ve never ridden before, you can join a tour in which your horse will walk the whole way. If you have some experience and want a thrill ride, join an intermediate or advanced tour. Icelandic horses are very comfortable in the highlands, Iceland’s uninhabited interior, so a highland tour is the ultimate adventure.
Other Icelandic Animals
The Icelandic Sheepdog
The Vikings also brought dogs with them when they first settled in Iceland. They needed the dogs to assist them with herding their huge sheep herds, and so the Icelandic sheepdog slowly developed. They have erect ears, curled tails, and short powerful legs. They are still used today to assist farmers, but also kept as pets by city-dwellers. You’ll recognize them by their thick fur which, despite being a range of colors, almost always includes a white chest.
Over half of the world’s Atlantic puffin population comes to Iceland every summer to breed; around 8-10 million birds. Although they are not Iceland’s national bird, they have become an iconic symbol for the country. Many visitors’ must-do lists include seeing a puffin colony up close. This is easy to do in summer; they gather on cliffs in large numbers to dig burrows and lay eggs. The puffin’s feathers are black on top with a white underbelly, and they have a large, orange beak. When they are not in Iceland to breed, the puffins spend the rest of their time out at sea.
In the winter, ravens can be commonly seen in Iceland’s urban areas, sitting atop rooves and street lamps. In the summer they disappear into rural Iceland, not to be seen again in Reykjavík until the next winter. Ravens mate for life and are regarded by many as the smartest bird species. The original Nordic settlers looked upon them favorably, whereas their Christian descendants saw them as ill omens. They have a prominent place in Norse mythology; Oðinn has two ravens that he sends out into the world. Every evening, the ravens return to Oðinn and tell him all they have seen. You’ll probably hear them before you see them, making their distinctive croak.
As I mentioned before, this is Iceland’s only native land mammal that humans didn’t introduce. Their thick coats change color depending on the season, providing camouflage. They survive on a diet of birds, birds’ eggs, small rodents, and anything else they can get their hands on. They are known for leaping up and diving snout-first into the snow, to get at the burrows of small animals. While it’s likely you’ll see the other animals on this list, the Arctic fox is more elusive.
With so few people, there’s plenty of space for Iceland’s flora to grow and for its fauna to move around. The independent horse herds, semi-wild reindeer, and domestic sheep roam the open spaces. All have learned to traverse the lava rock ground, weather the snowstorms, and endure the cold temperatures. With no predators on the island, Iceland’s horses and other quadrupeds wander without a care. Do your best to preserve their habitats by not littering and causing as little damage as possible to the landscape.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.