🐎 The Icelandic Horse Breed

Icelandics were first brought to Britain to work in the coal mines as they were small but very strong. However, these horses were never registered as Icelandics and now little sign remains of them.

A Scottish farmer named Stuart MacKintosh worked in Iceland and received as payment a group of horses which he brought to Scotland in 1956. These formed the basis of a breeding herd which he used at his trekking centre. Along with his good Icelandic friend Gunnar Bjarnason, he did a great deal to try to promote the breed, but met with resistance from local pony breeders who felt threatened by the introduction of this “new” breed.

The breeding program produced a promising stallion, Eldur from Alnwickhill (who was actually imported from Iceland in utero), in 1961 but sadly in 1962 Stuart MacKintosh drowned while crossing a river in Iceland so he was unable to appreciate the numerous progeny which resulted.

The trekking and breeding continued under the care of Stuart’s widow, Margaret Buchanan-Smith, and when she retired the horses were dispersed. The stallion Eldur (f Baldur frá Bóndhól, m Rauðka frá Svignaskarði) went to Caithness, then on to Garry Gualach, an outdoor centre in Invergarry. John Holman of Stonehaven imported the stallion Gustur 754 frá Hrafnkellstaðir and a number of mares, mainly from Ólafsvellir. Along with a couple of mares from Caithness, and the homebred stallion Þrystur (f Nasi frá Laugarvatn, m Stjarna frá Ólafsvellir), these formed the basis of a breeding herd which produced many excellent horses.

One of the Caithness mares was Æg from Woodhouselee , who was eventually sold to Jackie Elias of Dorset in Southern England. Jackie knew Icelandics from her time in Holland, and was very enthusiastic about them. Thanks to her dedication, and that of several other people who had “caught the bug”, the idea of forming a society for Icelandics in Britain was born. In the autumn of 1986 a group of eight enthusiasts met at Stonehaven for the inaugural meeting of the Icelandic Horse Society of Great Britain.

Since then there have been many changes. The centre at Stonehaven has closed down, and many of the horses went to another trekking centre in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. Here there are several stallions, and many foals born each year. Many more horses have been imported, and several more breeding herds set up in the South of England, Northern Scotland, the Midlands and Wales. Icelandics can be found thoughout the length and breadth of the British Isles, from the Shetland Islands to the moors of Cornwall, from Anglesey to Cambridge.

There are around 500 Icelandics now registered with the IHSGB. These include many imported horses, mostly from Iceland, and some excellent stallions have been used such as Hrafn vom Roetgen, Skotti vom Wiesenhof, Krummi frá Ýtra-Dálsgerði and the famous Stefnir frá Sandhólaferju (left) who was imported to Britain as a youngster but trained and ridden by his British owner until he went on to be the highest-scoring ever 4-gaited stallion to be presented at a World Championships.

Home-bred horses are doing just as well – stallions include Drífandi from Oakwood (son of World 4-gait champion Boði frá Gerðum) and Drópi from Salisbury. Two British-bred horses have competed at the World Championships and there are many promising young horses all over the country. Last June, the young stallion Flytir from Siamber Wen, bred and owned by Janice Hutchinson, gained the overall mark of 7.95, with 8.37 for conformation. This is an exceptional mark for a young four gaited horse. Flytir was born in 1998 and is by Stefnir.

As well as good stallions and youngsters, there are some excellent imported mares. These include several exceptional first prize mares such as Árdís frá Litla-Hvammi and Komma frá Rifkellsstöðum. Other good mares include Lotning frá Þingeyrum, Ísafold frá Gíli, Rák frá Byrgisskarði and Dísa frá Ingólfshvóli.

Icelandics are becoming well-known in Britain. In addition to many individual horses, there are several thriving areas of high activity for Icelandic horses, particularly in Southern England and around Edinburgh in Scotland. IHSGB members give demonstrations at events all over the country and there have been plentiful magazine articles and TV appearances. British-bred horses are popular abroad both as family horses and for competition.

IHS members give displays at many local and national shows, including the Royal Bath and West and the Royal Highland, as well as having stands at the British Equine Event and the Devon and Midlands Equine Fairs. More displays and Breed Society stands are in the pipeline – the IHS has purchased an exhibition trailer to give our stand a more professional look. There was a huge display at the Horse of the Year Show last autumn, with a team of professional riders with Champion horses from Iceland and Europe!

Breed Description

Icelandic Horses are extremely hardy and athletic, with five natural gaits: walk, trot, canter, tolt, and pace. Though they are usually small in stature, they are bred to carry adults long distances over rugged terrain.

Average Height

The Icelandic has an average height that typical ranges between 13 – 14 hands.

Colors

  • Bay
  • Black
  • Buckskin
  • Champagne
  • Chestnut
  • Cremello
  • Dun
  • Grey
  • Grullo
  • Palomino
  • Perlino
  • Pinto
  • Roan
  • White

Temperament

The Icelandic Horse is spirited and independent.

Members of this breed often excel in the following disciplines:

  • Trail
  • Gaited Events
  • Dressage

Breed History

The Icelandic Horse is Iceland’s only native breed. These horses are the direct descendants of the horses that were taken to Iceland by the Vikings in the dark ages. The Vikings traveled by sea in narrow boats with limited space, so only the best horses were selected to make the journey.

The horses brought to Iceland during this period were probably Norwegian Dole Horses and Celtic Ponies (the ancestor of the British Exmoor and Shetland).

The Icelandic breed has had no outside influence since 982 AD, when the Icelandic Parliment passed a law prohibiting the importation of horses from foreign nations. The law was meant to prevent the introduction of new diseases, but it also helped contribute to the evolution of a completely unique breed that has remained unaltered by crossbreeding. Today the law remains, and Icelandic Horses that leave the country are not allowed to return.

Feeding Icelandics

Icelandics are generally very easy to feed. The main problem is not allowing them to become too fat. If you have good grass throughout the year they will probably not need any extra food unless you are working them hard. In the spring and summer, you may need to restrict your horses’ grazing time to stop him getting too fat. Provide a salt and mineral block with free access, and of course plenty of fresh water that won’t freeze in the winter.

If you have a “real” winter, then your Icelandic will need good hay or haylage. Silage is too rich, but good quality straw can be used as a “filler” for greedy horses. If you are working your horse hard, or using it for breeding, or it is very old, then it may need extra food. Avoid food which is too high in protein, and remember that even though Icelandics are tough, any food which they have must be of good quality.

How to tell if your Icelandic is overweight

Weight tapes and weigh bridges are fine but there’s a quick and easy way to check your horse’s waistline. To know if your horse is fat or thin, you need to touch him. Unless he is grossly overweight and on the verge of laminitis, or half-starved, you cannot do it just by looking at him. Put your hand flat on his side, mid-way between his shoulder and his flank. With a little pressure you should be able to feel his ribs. If you need to press really hard or use just your fingertips, your horse is probably too fat. If you can easily feel every rib, he’s on the thin side. If you can see his ribs he’s definitely too thin.

This method isn’t totally infallible as a few Icelandics carry much of their fat on their necks, so check the crest is soft and wobbly just to make sure. If your horse is losing weight, the skin over his ribs will be very loose. If he’s gaining weight it will feel quite tight.

Should I clip my Icelandic?

If your horse is sweating up a great deal in the autumn and winter you may need to clip him. A wet sweaty horse should never be turned out if the weather is cold or wet; he should be kept in a stable until he is dry or he will be at risk from cold and chills. A clipped horse does not sweat as much and dries much quicker. A bib clip (clipping the hair on the underside of the neck and on the chest) will keep your horse cooler when working but he will still have enough fuzz to keep him warm in bad weather. A more radical clip (a trace or full clip) will mean that you may have to put a rug on your horse in cold, wet or windy weather.

Sweet Itch

This allergy can be a problem, particularly in horses imported from Iceland, and it is thought that around 25% of horses imported from Iceland may get it. It is much less common in Icelandics born in Britain or Europe, and does not appear to be passed on through the generations. It is caused by an allergy to the saliva of Culicoides midges, and affected horses experience intense itching, particularly on the mane and the top of the tail. Some horses will also rub their faces, bellies and chests – occasionally the itching is so bad that the horses will rub themselves raw, causing bleeding sores and eventual thickening and ridging of the skin. Sweet itch is an allergy and is not cureable. A horse which is prone to sweet itch will sometimes not show symptoms for several years after importation, and in some areas of the country sweet itch is almost unknown. It is more common in damp, low-lying areas with plenty of trees and little strong wind.

Sweet itch is relatively easily managed, with care. Many Icelandics with sweet itch wear blankets which prevent midges from biting at all. These are very effective and available to IHSGB members at a special discounted rate through the IHS shop. Blankets can be worn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during the midge season, and owners can apply fly repellent to areas not covered by the blanket. Bringing the horse into a stable at dawn and dusk will also help. Occasionally, in very severe cases, it may be necessary to give the horse steroids (from the vet) to suppress the immune system and prevent the allergy.

Sweet itch is reasonably common in ALL breeds of horse and pony, and is certainly not unique to Icelandics.

Facts

  • In Flying Pace, a 2-beat lateral gait used for racing, the horse can reach speeds of 30mph. Not all Icelandics have Flying Pace. Those with it are known as “5-Gaited” (walk, trot, canter/gallop, tölt and pace).
  • They’re the most pure bred horse in the world. Their ancestors were taken to Iceland by the Vikings and there has been no importation to the island for over 1000 years.
  • Although they are not tall, Icelandics are HORSES! They may be stocky with lots of hair, but they are fast, powerful and willing, great fun for adults to ride yet gentle, quiet and sensible enough to be handled by the smallest child. The Icelandic is the ultimate family friend – he can be ridden by the adults, and he will never be outgrown by the children.
  • Icelandics are forward-going yet feel very safe. That’s because they go forwards – not up, down and sideways! Add the tölt as well, and you have a horse which is the ultimate in comfort and fun for any rider.
  • Icelandics are incredibly versatile. As well as being excellent family riding horses, they are used for driving, hunting, long distance and endurance riding, racing, horse football, le TREC, dressage, gymkhana, riding for the disabled, trekking and just about any other equestrian discipline except for perhaps show jumping.

Competitions

Of course Icelandics can and do enter competitions for “ordinary” horses. They have been successful in most disciplines (particularly Endurance riding – the horse standing 2nd overall in the USA is a 13hh Icelandic which covered 2500 miles in vetted competitions last year) and can turn a hoof to anything. But there are special competitions for Icelandic horses designed to show off the gaits of the horses.

Icelandics are bred for use, not show. They’re the Border Collie of horse breeds. You won’t find an Icelandic competition with in-hand classes or a great preoccupation with turnout. Instead, classes are designed to show what the horse can do. They take place on a 250m oval track, or on a long straight pace track and there are always at least 3 judges – 5 in larger competitions.

The surface of the competition track is harder than a dressage arena – more like the surface used on a trotting track. The corners of the oval track may be banked to allow for speed. The entrance may be anywhere on the track but the horse must start and finish the test in the middle of the short side. The oval track often has hardly any fencing; white railings placed on the ground on the long sides and a few inches high on the short sides and corners may be used to define the track.

The pace track may adjoin the oval track as shown (left), or be completely separate. Starting boxes are often used for gallop and pace races. The current record for 150m pace is 13.8 seconds.

The oval track classes most commonly found at Icelandic competitions are Tölt, 4-gait and 5-gait. There are different classes within each depending on the level of horse and rider. For instance, in Tölt T1 (an advanced class) the rider must show one round of working tempo tölt, then change the rein and show one round of tölt with extension on the long sides and collection on the short sides, and one round of fast tölt. In a novice class, riders may compete in small groups, and the speaker will direct them. They won’t show extension either. In Tölt T2, another advanced class, the riders show various speeds of tölt and also tölt on a completely loose rein – this class is ridden in a group.

In 4-gait, the riders show walk, trot, tölt (fast tölt too in more advanced classes) and canter. In 5-gait, they add pace on the long sides of the track. In advanced classes riders usually compete individually, but there are also group classes. In the finals, the riders placed 1 – 5 compete together on the track. Sometimes when there are sufficient entries there are “B” finals (for riders placed 6 – 10) and “A” finals (for riders placed 1 – 5, with the winner of the “B” final allowed to compete in the “A” final).

There are several different classes held on the pace track. Pace race, over 150 or 250m, either from starting boxes or with a “flying start”, is fast and exciting to watch, with horses reaching speeds in excess of 30mph. Pace Test is more like a pace version of dressage, with an accurately ridden test contributing towards the final mark.

Some shows include dressage classes, which are much the same as for “ordinary” horses. However, as part of the test the horse must at some point show tölt.

In all classes the judges look for harmony between horse and rider, perfect rhythm in all gaits (especially tölt), speed and reach in the gaits, and an impression of pride and power from the horse. Horses are never plaited up, and any form of artificial aid is frowned upon, though over-reach boots are often used for protection. There are strict rules covering the types of bit allowed, and shoes and boots are rigorously checked to make sure that no abuse occurs – a problem in some gaited breeds. Welfare of the horse is always foremost. Even trimming whiskers and ear hair, or unnecessary clipping, is expressly against the rules.