“What makes the Icelandic Viking horse unique? Its incredible soft gait, tölt? Or its friendly demeanour? Is it that they grow up in open fields? Or that they have been purely bred since the Vikings brought them to Iceland?”
We have become enthusiastic about Icelandic horses since our daughter Kerry who, along with her sister Michelle runs Orchard Farm Stables in Woldingham, purchased her first one, Hnnoki fra Einhamri 2, just over 18 months ago. Hnnoki is Nordic for ‘naughty little boy’ and Einhamri 2 is the area he was born in (all Icelandic horses have to have this as part of their registration).
Icelandic horses were introduced into Iceland over 1,000 years ago by Vikings sailing across the Atlantic in longships, the first settlers there. They were restricted by the number they could bring, so it is thought they chose the best of breed to move with them. They have endured battles, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions and have still stayed true to that original breed.
Due to Iceland’s isolated location, few horse diseases occur and no vaccinations are required. This does mean, however, that no horses can enter the country, and when a horse leaves the island it can never return. If you travel to Iceland for horse-related holidays, you are asked not to bring used leather equipment (eg gloves and boots) and all gear (eg riding hats) should be disinfected.
The Icelandic horse is extremely strong for its size and has five gaits: fet (walk), brokk (trot), stökk (canter/gallop), skeio-pace (flying pace, although not all Icelandic horses can achieve this), and the unique tölt, where both legs on one side move together in the same direction, giving a floating feeling when riding. This has made it popular for long-distance trekking, although it is ideal for almost all activities due to its calm and trustworthy nature.
Coming in excess of 40 colours and 100 pattern variations, Icelanders have words for every one. Most common are brunn (brown) and rauour (red/chestnut). Rarest is litforottur (roughly translated to ‘colour travellers’) as their colour changes multiple times throughout the year.
There are in excess of 250,000 Icelandic horses registered across the world, with 40% in Iceland. Due to the cold climate they are very hardy, but easily adapt to most conditions and can be found in places like Australia, New Zealand and even Hawaii.
Much folklore surrounds Icelandic horses, with one of the most endearing being that they were considered not as servants, but more as friends and companions. The first book of Icelandic laws stated that the theft of a horse was punishable, with offenders banished from the community: not good, as during the Viking age outlaws could be legally killed on the spot.