There is only one breed of Icelandic horse and it is the purest breed of horse in the world. It was introduced by the first Nordic settlers and is a stocky, thick-set and muscular horse. Archeological studies have shown that the Icelandic Horse is a descendant from an ancient breed of horse that is now extinct outside of Iceland, where it has been preserved in isolation. Locally, these horses are known as Þarfasti þjónninn, meaning ‘most useful servant’.
Today these horses are protected with strict regulations, which forbid the import of horses into Iceland and which state that Icelandic horses that are sent out of the country can never return, for fear of importing diseases to which the local breed would have no immunity.
The horses are known to be surefooted, intelligent, affectionate, home-loving and sometimes headstrong. What they are most famous for, however, is their five gaits. In addition to the traditional walk, trot and canter/gallop, Icelandic horses have two additional gaits; the tölt (running walk) and the skeið (flying pace). The tölt is virtually unknown in other horses and is an extremely smooth gait that does not shake the rider about in the saddle, making it particularly popular for long distance travel. The skeið is a two beat gait, in which the horse’s legs move laterally with a moment of suspension, giving the rider the sensation of flying. This gait can reach speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour (30 miles per hour) for short distances over flat ground.