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.
The Fákasel Icelandic Horse Park is the only one of its kind in Iceland. Located 30 minutes from Reykjavík, visitors can enjoy tours and shows, as well as an opportunity to get to know the Icelandic horses.
The Legends of Sleipnir performance is a magical theatrical experience that combines a unique blend of special effects and exhibition riding. The show weaves together history, old Norse mythology and a demonstration of the Icelandic horse’s beauty and uniqueness, while paying tribute to its important relationship with humans throughout the nation’s history.
Visitors can also enjoy a barn tour, where they can get close to the horses and learn about each creature’s unique personality. Icelandic horses are relatively small (generally around 13 hands) and are famed for their strength and stamina. For centuries they were the sole form of overland transport, until the arrival of the first car in 1904. Even today, the horses have a vital role during the Autumn round-up when sheep are herded from remote mountainsides.
- Insight Guides: Iceland