World Horse Appreciation Day
“There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.”
~ Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1871
The ancestors of the Icelandic Horse first arrived with Viking settlers from the British Isles, between 860 and 935 AD. These small but hardy and sure-footed horses share the same the ancestors as Shetland, Highland and Connemara ponies. The Icelandic Horse is unique as it is the only horse breed in the world that can perform five gaits, as opposed to the more common three or four. In addition to the common gaits walk, trot, and canter, Icelandic horses can also pace and tölt. Tölt is the Icelandic word for a sped up version of walking in which the horses lift their front legs up high, and only one foot touches the ground at any time. Tölt is very useful for the often uneven ground of Iceland, providing a steady ride. 🐴
This tartan, designed by Carol A.L. Martin, was inspired by the Icelandic horse, a long-lived and hardy breed developed in Iceland from horses taken there by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.
This special breed of horse comes in many coat colours including: chestnut, dun, bay, black, gray, palomino, pinto and roan. There are over 100 names for the various colours and colour patterns in the Icelandic language.
Icelandic horses 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, and the mane and tail are full, with coarse hair, and the tail is set low. These horses have a double coat developed for extra insulation in cold temperatures.
The ancestors of the Icelandic horse were probably taken to Iceland by Viking Age Scandinavians between 860 and 935 AD. The Norse settlers were followed by immigrants from Norse colonies in Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles of Scotland.
About 900 years ago, attempts were made to introduce eastern blood into the Icelandic, resulting in a degeneration of the stock. In 982 AD the Icelandic Althing (parliament) passed laws prohibiting the importation of horses into Iceland, thus ending crossbreeding. The breed has now been bred pure in Iceland for more than 1,000 years!
The earliest Norse people venerated the horse as a symbol of fertility, and white horses were slaughtered at sacrificial feasts and ceremonies. When these settlers arrived in Iceland, they brought their beliefs, and their horses, with them. Horses played a significant part in Norse mythology, and several horses played major roles in the Norse myths, among them the eight-footed pacer named Sleipnir, owned by Odin, chief of the Norse gods.
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 founded a settlement at the place where Skalm stopped and lay down with her pack.
Horses also play key roles in the Icelandic sagas Hrafnkel's Saga, Njal's Saga and Grettir's Saga. Although written in the 13th century, these three sagas are set as far back as the 9th century. 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.
For more about this unique breed, click the horses!