Icelandic horses are one of the most popular gaited horse breeds
Today's Icelandic Horse is a result of a thousand years of breeding for good riding qualities - stamina, speed and comfort... It's small - about 13 - 14 hands, making it easy to mount and dismount. It is a gaited horse, which means in addition to the usual walk, trot, and canter that most breeds have, Icelandics possess two unique gaits - the tolt and the pace- which provide a remarkably smooth way to travel over rugged terrain. Combined with a gentle, friendly disposition and calm manner the Icelandic horse is a delightful gaited horse for anyone to ride.
Through our associations with Icelandics we've come to see their calm ways as just a part of our equine life. However we've had a number of life-long horsepeople marvel at this calmness.Our video page shows a clip of Jon Petur Olaffson cutting a horse out of a herd has gotten a bit of comment. (By way of full disclosure let it be known that we own several horses bred and trained by JP). Here's the video page (opening in a new window)
When the Vikings settled Iceland in 874 they brought along the kind of sturdy mounts that they would need to survive in Iceland's rugged landscape. By the tenth century they were breeding horses sufficiently to give up the practice of including them as passengers on the difficult ocean crossing in their open boats. Iceland's government, the Allthing, also banned importation for fear of bringing in disease to the isolated horse population. The thousand years of isolation since then has developed those characteristics that the Icelanders most prize in the Icelandic horse: ridability, character, and stamina. Gaited horses are increasing in popularity worldwide. While there are now thousands of Icelandics who live outside of their homeland, they remain one of the world's purest breed of horse.
Their several gaits, now quite rare in horses, were thought to be very common in the times before the world was industrialized and horses were used mainly to pull carts and carriages. As industrial countries built roads and used those roads to move people and, mainly, goods and commodities the strength and speed of a horse in harness was worth much than a horse that was smooth-riding. Only in a few instances was a breed of horse singled out and bred and trained for its smooth riding gaits. Usually it was those cultures where large farms were the rule, and overseers and owners had to spend long hours looking over the fields and laborers from their horse's backs, that preserved gaits in their breeds (Pasos, the Rocky Mountain horse, Tennesse Walker, etc.) One of the earliest representations of gaited horses may be the Elgin Marbles the were part of the Greek Pathenon . Many savvy riders and trainers have said that in these sculptures the collection and balance of the horses depicted as being ridden show very definitely that the horses are being ridden in a gait like a "running walk," "single foot" or tolt. This was before 400 BC! Iceland went through the industrial revolution without changing much from an agricultural and fishing society and without much need for good roads or cartage of materials or finished goods within the country. Travel was not at all uncommon, however. Government and justice required people to travel to "Things," parliaments and courts held both regionally, and once a year at the "Althing" the whole nation convened, with folks riding for as much as a week to get there. Riding on horses that couldn't cover a lot of ground in a hurry or that pounded the rider on every step wouldn't make much sense so the Icelanders made sure that their horses kept all their gaits. In these modern times we pleasure-riders and travelers are the ones to gain by this heritage.
Natural selection, breeding and a philosophy of training work together to shape the Icelandic horse. Iceland's only predator - its only native land mammal - the little Arctic Fox, is too small to wreak much havoc on a horse. This means that the flight response, so common in other breeds, hasn't had much reinforcement. The real dangers to a horse in Iceland come from the land itself - raging rivers, immense snow fields, rocky volcanic slopes. The Icelandic horses who survive have had to be able to work their way around danger, rather than simply running away from it. Running might just take the horse into a worse situation. This has developed a logical outlook, not always seen in horses.
Herd life in Iceland's huge valleys and fields shapes the horses' early years.
The pace is an astoundingly smooth 2 beat gait that allows horse and rider to cover smooth ground very quickly, the front and back legs on each side moving forward together . This fifth gait is not developed in all Icelandics, and these days it's used mostly for short sprints in competition. It can be tiring for the horse because the balance isn't natural (at least with a human being sitting astride!) It is a very good ride at a moderate rate, which is still quite fast. Owners of most touring horses work for a very good tolt.
The TOLT is what makes Icelandics such a pleasure. In this flowing 4-beat gait the rider stretches down in the stirrup, sits back and enjoys the sensation of floating while seated firmly on the back of an athletic horse. Particularly suited to Iceland's glacially shaped terrain, it's secure high steps allow the Icelandic horse to move easily over rough landscape that would stop other breeds in their tracks. The TOLT allows nearly anyone to enjoy riding. A friend, who's ridden all of her life, once leaned over, as we neared the end of a long day's ride, and said.."If you'd never ridden a horse before the tolt is what you would imagine riding was like."
Travel on the Icelandic horse makes a horse back rider realize how this marvelous gaited horse fits into Iceland's countryside. It may be adventure travel for us, but the Icelandic horse is just doing what it has been bred and trained for. Riding through this strangely beautiful country you'll understand how a land can form a horse and a horse can be bred for its land.