The Icelandic Horse’s origins
he story of the Icelandic Horse starts in the IXth century and is linked to the Vikings’ colonisation of Iceland.
This breed is mainly derived from crossbreeding of nordic horses probably related to the fjord and the tarpan with British Isles ponies brought back as loot by the Vikings.
The Icelandic Sagas relate of the vital role of horses in the Viking wars and the Vikings treated their mounts with great respect. A good horse was indispensable to a warrior and very often, rider and horse were buried together.
Because of its isolation, it is one of the purest horse breeds in the world.
A pure breed for over 1000 years
In 982, the Icelandic parliament, “Althing” votes several laws including one banning the importation of horses to Iceland: horse breeding will continue on the island without the use of foreign blood.
It is therefore possible to say that the icelandic horse breed has been pure for over a millennium. Isolated in this way, the breed has kept the tölt and pace, gaits thought to have been common to horses on the european continent until the Renaissance.
A mixture of fire and ice
Very close to the North pole, Iceland is known for its hard terrain; a mix of mountains, volcanoes, lava fields and glaciers… There, horses have been bred in a semi-feral environment for centuries and have been confronted to this harsh land of fire and ice.
Following the Laki eruption in 1783, about 70% of the island’s horses perish, poisoned by volcanic ash or due to famine. Survivors are then forced to eat lichen, seaweed or even fish remnants. They also have to foil natural traps such as crevasses, frozen lakes and rivers and mud torrents. This natural selection will allow the sole preservation of the most resistant individuals. It will then take the next century for the population to reconstitute.
In the late XIXth century, icelandic horses are exported to work in mines in Scotland and Poland. Rapidly, this little horse’s willing and hard working nature as well as its surefootedness bring it out of the mines to be used for leisure.
A national pride
Selective breeding starts again at the beginning of the XXth century: The first icelandic breeding society is founded in 1904 and the first studbook established in 1923.
Until the introduction of cars in the 1940’s, the horse is the only way of transport and the a crucial tool to the country’s development. Forsaken by the icelanders when vehicles are imported on the island, the number of horses decreases from 70.000 to 30.000 in the 1970’s.
However, the icelanders cannot resolve themselves to abandoning their loyal steed and start directing their breeding towards a leisure and sport horse: it is the beginning of a modern equitation discipline.
In Iceland, the icelandic horse is a true national gem. It is an excuse for family and friends to gather for popular festive and sporting events.
Today, a population of around 75 000 horses is found on the icelandic soil.