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Horse Breeds
First Posted: July 13, 2009
Aug 25, 2016

Icelandic Horse (Sometimes Referred to as the Icelandic Pony)

Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horse performing the tölt


T1 Tölt B-Final, WC Icelandic Horses, Islandpferde-WM, VM Islandshästar, 2013

Distinguishing features: Sturdy build, heavy coat, two unique gaits.

Breed Standards

The Icelandic Horse Society of Great Britain: Breed Standards - The Icelandic horse is a breed of horse developed in Iceland. Although small and often pony-sized, they are considered horses by most Icelandic breed registries. The breed develops late, but is long-lived and hardy. The Icelandic displays five gaits, rather than the typical three displayed by most other breeds. Horses living in their native Iceland have few diseases, and laws prevent animals from being imported to Iceland or returning to the country after they are exported. The breed is popular outside of Iceland, with sizable populations in Europe and North America. They are still used for traditional farm work in Iceland, as well as for leisure, showing and racing.

The breed was developed from ponies brought to Iceland by Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Horses were worshipped in Norse mythology, and these beliefs were brought to Iceland by the original settlers. The Icelandic breed is mentioned in both literature and historical records throughout Icelandic history, from the 9th century on, with the first historical reference to an individual horse appearing in the 12th century. Selective breeding has been used over the centuries to develop the breed into its current form. Natural selection has also played a role, with the harsh Icelandic climate killing many horses through cold and starvation. In the late 18th century, much of the breed was wiped out in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. The first Icelandic breed society was created in 1904, and today the breed is represented by organizations in 19 different nations, organized under a parent association named the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.

Breed Characteristics

Icelandic horses stand an average of 13 and 14 hands (52 to 56 inches, 132 to 142 cm) high, which is often considered pony size, but breeders always refer to it as a horse. The breed comes in many coat colors, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, gray, palomino, pinto and roan. There are over 100 names for various colors and color patterns in the Icelandic language. They have well-proportioned heads, with straight profiles and wide foreheads. The neck is short, muscular and broad at the base; the withers broad and low; the chest deep; the shoulders muscular and slightly sloping; the back long; the croup broad, muscular, short and slightly sloping. The legs are strong and short, with relatively long cannon bones and short pasterns. The mane and tail are full, with coarse hair, and the tail is set low. The breed is known to be hardy and an easy keeper .The breed has a double coat developed for extra insulation in cold temperatures.

Characteristics differ between various groups of Icelandics, depending on the focus of individual breeders. Some breeders focus on animals for pack and draft work, which are conformationally distinct from horses bred for work under saddle and which are carefully selected for their ability to perform the traditional Icelandic gaits. There are other horses that are bred solely for meat. Some breeders focus on favored coat colors.

The breed develops late, and individual animals are usually not ridden until they are four years old, with development not complete until age seven. Their most productive years are between eight and eighteen, although they retain their strength and stamina into their twenties. One Icelandic mare, living in Denmark, reached a record age of 56,while another horse, living in Great Britain, died at the age of 42. The horses are highly fertile, with both sexes fit for breeding up to age 25, and mares having been recorded giving birth at age 27. The horses tend to not be easily spooked, probably the result of not having any natural predators in their native Iceland. Diseases in the breed within Iceland are mostly unknown, except for some kinds of internal parasites, due to their isolation from other horses. The low prevalence of disease in Iceland is maintained by laws preventing horses taken from the country from being returned, and by requiring that all equipment taken into the country is new and unused. Due to the lack of disease on the island, horses taken off the island are susceptible to illness, and an outbreak of disease on the island would be devastating to the breed, as native horses have no built-up immunity to illness. This presents problems with showing native Icelandic horses against others of the breed from outside the country, as no horses can be imported into Iceland, and once horses leave the country they are not allowed to return.

Update: *Abstract: Age-at-onset of bone spavin (BS) in horses was defined as a double-censored survival variable. A small material of binary responses to a radiographic examination of the distal tarsus in 439 Icelandic horses sired by 17 stallions was analysed. In order to test different models larger simulated data were generated according to an exponential proportional hazard model and subject to censoring. The resulting survivor functions were similar. The bias in survivor functions caused by double censoring in the material was reduced by use of the self-consistency (S-C) algorithm. Using a binary threshold model and the Weibull regression model, an analysis of age-at-onset of spavin resulted in severe underestimation of sire variance components in the simulated data. Survival analysis with model led to less biased estimates. Application of this method on the real data resulted in an effective heritability estimate of h2=0.33, which can be compared with an estimate of h2=0.1 based on an analysis of radiographic signs (RS) using the binary threshold model. These results indicate that the age-at-onset of RS, which reflect the predisposition of BS, is a trait with medium-high heritability.

A conference was held in Iceland to talk about the diseases of the Icelandic Horse. Spavin was a large portion of the meeting. A spavin study showed that 23 skeletons from a thousand years ago were found and 7 of them had spavin. That's consistent with the current heredity figure of spavin at 33%. There was a discussion about the lack of official reports and statistics in Iceland about spavin. A vet from Sweden put forth the information that spavin is three times more common in Icelandic Horses than in other horse breeds. The information came from a vet who works at the animal research institute, who has access to information about all equine breeds in that country. Discussion included medications (not helpful) and surgery for spavin (not feasible). The interesting thing is that Holland has gotten spavin under control, almost eradicating it within a 20 year time frame, by not allowing stallions showing spavin to have a breeding license. The head vet of Iceland suggests that all stallions be x-rayed; the breeding advisor takes that a step further by including mares also. He says the problem is money and resistance by the breeders. Conclusions of the conference about spavin is that it can be controlled and that only Iceland has not addressed the issue. Spavin and Icelandic Horses


The Icelandic is a five-gaited breed known for its sure-footedness and ability to cross rough terrain. In addition to the typical gaits of walk, trot and canter, it performs an ambling gait known as the tölt. This gait is known for its explosive acceleration and speed, but is also comfortable and ground-covering. The tölt is a four-beat lateral ambling gait. There is a lot of variation within the gait among individual horses, being sometimes compared to the rack of the Saddlebred or Racking Horse, the largo of the Paso Fino, or the running walk of the Tennessee Walking Horse. The footfall pattern is the same as the walk (left hind, left front, right hind, right front), but differs from the walk in that it can be performed at a large variety of speeds, from the speed of a typical fast walk up to the speed of a normal canter. Some Icelandic horses prefer to tölt, while others prefer the trotting gait; correct training can improve weak gaits, but the tölt is a natural gait present from birth. There are two varieties of the tölt that are considered incorrect. The first is called a "Pig's Pace" and is closer to a two-beat pace than a four-beat amble. The second is called a "Valhopp" and is a tölt/canter combination most often seen in untrained young horses or horses that mix their gaits. Both paces are normally uncomfortable to ride.

The breed also performs a pace called a skeiô, flugskeiô or "flying pace." The skeiô is used in pacing races, and the gait is said to be fast and smooth, with some horses reaching up to 30 miles per hour (48 km/h). The gait is performed as a two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls and each side having both hooves land almost simultaneously (left hind and left front, suspension, right hind and right front). The skeiô is meant to be performed by well trained and well balanced horses with well trained riders, and is not a gait used for long distance travel. A slow pace is uncomfortable for the rider and is not encouraged when training the gait. In many countries, pacing horses are raced in harness, using sulkies, but in Iceland the horses are raced while ridden. Icelandic horses that can perform all five gaits are considered the best of the breed, because not all animals can perform the pace.


The ancestors of the Icelandic horse were probably brought by Vikings to Iceland between 860 and 935 AD. They were followed by immigrants from Norse colonies in Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles of Scotland. These later settlers arrived with the ancestors of what would become Shetland, Highland Pony, Northland Pony, (aka Nordland, Lyngen and Lyngshest)(They are physically very similar to the Northland pony from Norway.) and Connemara ponies, which were crossed with the previously imported animals. There may also have been a connection with the Yakut pony. At one point, approximately 900 years ago, attempts were made to introduce eastern blood into the Icelandic. The attempt resulted in a degeneration of the stock, and in 982 AD the Icelandic Althing (parliament) passed laws that prohibited the importation of horses into Iceland. Thus crossbreeding ended, and the breed has now been bred pure in Iceland for more than 1000 years.

The earliest Norse settlers worshiped the horse as a symbol of fertility and a deity, and white horses were slaughtered at sacrificial feasts and ceremonies. When these settlers came to Iceland, they brought their beliefs, and their horses, with them. Horses played a major part in Norse mythology, with several Norse gods owning horses that played major roles in their stories. The most famous mythological horse was an eight-footed pacer named Sleipnir, owned by Odin, chief of the Norse gods and gods of battle. Skalm, a mare who is the first Icelandic horse known by name, appeared in the Book of Settlements from the 12th century. According to the book, a chieftain named Seal-Thorir formed a settlement at the place where the mare stopped and lay down with her pack. Horses also play key roles in the Icelandic sagas of Hrafnkel's Saga, Njal's Saga and Grettir's Saga. These three sagas, although written in the 13th century, are set as far back as the 9th century. Horses were often considered the most prized possession of a medieval Icelander. Numerous stories include tales of bloody fights between stallions. These fights were used as both entertainment and to pick the best animals for breeding, and they were described in both literature and written records from the Commonwealth period of 930 to 1262 AD. Horses were indispensable to warriors, and warhorses were sometimes buried alongside their fallen riders. This early literature has an influence today, with many riding clubs and horse herds in modern Iceland still bearing the names of horses from Norse mythology.

Throughout the history of Iceland, natural selection played a major role in the development of the breed, as large numbers of horses died from lack of food and exposure to the elements. Between 874 and 1300 AD, during the more favorable climactic conditions of the medieval warm period, Icelandic breeders selectively bred horses according to special rules of color and conformation. During the period between 1300 and 1900, selective breeding became less of a priority; the climate was often severe and many horses and people died. Between 1783 and 1784, around 70% of the horses in Iceland were killed by volcanic ash poisoning and starvation after the 1783 eruption of Lakagígar. The eruption lasted eight months, covered hundreds of square miles of land with lava, and rerouted or dried up several rivers. The population slowly recovered during the next hundred years, and after the beginning of the 20th century selective breeding again became important. The first Icelandic breed societies were established in 1904, and the first breed registry was begun in 1923.

The first Icelandics were exported to Germany in the 1940s, and the number of exports to other nations have increased since then. The first Icelandics were brought to Great Britain prior to the 20th century to work in the coal mines due to their small size and strength; these horses were never registered and little sign of their existence remains today. The first official Icelandics were brought to Great Britain in 1956, imported by a Scottish farmer, Stuart McKintosh. McKintosh began a breeding program that was imitated by other enthusiasts across Great Britain, and the Icelandic Horse Society of Great Britain was formed in 1986. Since 1959, the breed has been improved worldwide through selective breeding, with multiple breeding societies working together to preserve, improve and market the breed. Today, it remains a breed known for its purity of bloodline.

Today, the Icelandic is especially popular in western Europe, Scandinavia, and North America. There are approximately 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland (compared to a human population of 270,000), and around 100,000 horses abroad. Almost 50,000 are in Germany, which has many active riding clubs and breed societies.


Icelandic horses still play a large part in Icelandic life, despite increasing mechanization and road improvements that diminish the necessity for the breed's use. The first official Icelandic horse race was held at Akureyri in 1874, and from April through June many races are held throughout the country. Both flat and steeplechase races are held, as well as performance classes showcasing the breed's unique gaits. Winter events are often held, with races on frozen bodies of water. This occasionally results in both horses and riders falling into the water and needing to be rescued. The first shows specializing in in-hand classes for breeding stock were held in 1906. The Agricultural Society of Iceland, along with the National Association of Riding Clubs, organizes regular shows with many types of classes. Some horse are still bred for slaughter, with much of the meat being exported to Japan . Farmers still use the breed to round up sheep in the Icelandic highlands, but most horses are used for competition and leisure riding.


Today, the Icelandic horse is represented by associations in 19 countries, with the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF) serving as governing international parent organization. The FEIF was founded on May 25, 1969 with six countries as original members: Austria, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. France and Norway joined in 1971, and in 1975 Belgium and Sweden were added. Later, Finland, Canada, Great Britain, USA, Faeroe Islands, Luxembourg, Italy, Slovenia and Ireland became members. Ireland later left the organization, due to a lack of members. New Zealand has been given the status of "associate member," due to the small size of its member base. In 2000, WorldFengur was established as the official FEIF registry for Icelandic horses. The registry is a web database program that is used as a studbook of origin to track the history and bloodlines of the Icelandic breed. The registry contains information on the pedigree, breeder, owner, offspring, photo, breeding evaluations and assessments and unique identification of each horse registered. The database was established by the Icelandic government in cooperation with the FEIF. Since its inception, around 300,000 Icelandic horses, living and dead, have been registered worldwide.

For More Information:

International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations
Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation
US Icelandic Horse Congress (US Breed Registry)
The Icelandic Horse Society of Great Britain

Horse Breeds