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The Icelandic Horse: Everything You Need to Know

You may have heard that the Icelandic people adore horses. In fact, they hold a treasured place in the hearts of this already proud nation. Icelandic horses have evolved and developed, making them not only distinct but completely unique from any other breed.

These horses are not just a mode of transport or a farm animal, but rather a beloved companion and symbol of Icelandic heritage. So not only are these horses incredibly unique, they are friendly and hold a special place in the history of Iceland. 

History of Icelandic Horses

The origin of Icelandic horses can be traced back to the first Viking settlers around 1100 years ago. They were brought over in the 10th century on boats from Norway and became the first and only horses on the island. The Icelandic horse became fundamental in early life in Iceland, and for this, they featured in many ancient sagas from the time of the Vikings and their wars. The Vikings believed that good horses were hard to come by, so they treated these horses with respect. 

Today, every horse in Iceland descends from the first horses brought over, and since then, only the best horses get chosen for breeding.

A grey and black Icelandic horse and a brown and blonde horse on snow between mountains

What Makes Icelandic Horses Unique? 

Iceland's remote location has isolated the Icelandic horses from others; this makes their breed unique. Since the first horses arrived from Norway 1100 years ago, their evolution has been uninfluenced by any other breed, unlike horses on the mainland. In fact, the exact breed from which Icelandic horses originated became extinct in Europe, and as a result, this breed has been preserved in Iceland. To protect them from foreign diseases, it is illegal to import horses to Iceland, even if they originally came from Iceland.

What sets these horses apart from others is their ability to survive the cold Icelandic winters and cross rough terrain. They've adapted and become well-suited for Iceland: thicker fur and sturdy legs to navigate through snow and ice. Although this breed is smaller than the average horse, they aren't classified as ponies - and if you do, Icelanders might take offence! They have a friendly and spirited temperament, and natives are incredibly proud.

Icelandic horses are popular around the world, with 100,000 of them living overseas. They are highly sought-after due to their two extra gaits or walking patterns. Most horses have three gaits: walk, trot, and canter. Icelandic horses have these three, plus two unique gaits: the tölt and the skeið.


A herd of Icelandic horses socializing in a field.

Why are Horses so Important in Icelandic Culture? 

Ever since the first settlers arrived in Iceland, horses have been a part of life here. It's believed that the Vikings wouldn’t have survived the winter without the help of their trusted equine companions. During this time, horses weren’t only used for transportation but also for shelter and food. Icelandic people are proud of this part of their history and the role the horses played in it. 

Despite the import of cars and the development of technology, Icelanders and horses have continued to live hand in hand. Today, the Icelandic horse's main activities are hobbies, tourism, and breeding. With Icelandic horses being flown weekly to new homes across the globe, they spread the name of Iceland, and many visitors come to see this breed in their original habitat. There are many tours and horseback riding trips available across Iceland, offering the opportunity to get to know this special mammal. 

If you're planning to explore Iceland and spot these famous horses yourself, renting a car is an excellent option. At Iceland Car Rental, we offer great service and affordable prices, so you can explore the country of ice and fire in comfort.