The Icelandic Horse: What Makes It So Unique?

|March 6, 2020
Sofie is a free-spirited journalist from Kentucky who lives a nomadic lifestyle, and spends much of her free time in airports on layovers. Hobbies include dancing and sipping bourbon.

What makes the Icelandic Viking horse unique? Is it its incredible soft gait, tölt? Or maybe its friendly demeanor? Is it that they grow up in open fields? Or that they have been purely bread since the Vikings brought them? Let's find out!

The Icelandic horse is a token of the Icelandic nation and its pride and joy. Our modern day steeds are ancestors of the first Viking horses that arrived with settlers between 860 and 935 CE. This horse has been with us through mini ice ages, Viking battles, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Today you’ll find these colorful creatures in meadows around the Ring Road, in the city, and on horse farms in Iceland.

Read on to learn more about this breed’s unique features, gait, and where to see and ride them. Why is this horse so beloved in Iceland and abroad? What is so special about its gait? And where can you go horse riding in Iceland? Get the answers to all your questions about the Icelandic horse and discover fascinating facts you never knew!

So what makes the Icelandic horse so special?

They have a sweet temperament!

Known for their easy-going attitude, the Icelandic horse temperament has made them popular around the world. Typically friendly and curious, they can also be stubborn and relentless. Some say it has to do with the freedom they experience as youngsters, with vast open fields of grass to run around in and little contact with anyone except other horses. Others say it’s their closeness to the Viking people. Whatever the reason may be, the Icelandic horse is a part of Iceland you can’t go without getting to know when visiting.

They are small yet mighty, with a unique gait

The Icelandic horse is most famous for its convenient size, strong build, and, of course, its fifth gait/tölt (way of walking). The fifth gait is a way of riding where three of the horses legs touch the ground at the same time to create a more stable and even pace. The Icelandic horse is the only breed in the world that can perform five gaits, whereas other breeds can only perform three or four.

This results in a comfortable jaunt for the rider, who sits in his saddle without hopping and jumping around in it. This soft gait is one of the many reasons we love the Icelandic horse!

They come in a stunning variety of colors and patterns

The beautiful Icelandic horse comes in over 40 colors and 100 various patterns. There are special words in the Icelandic language for each and every one!  Sometimes the horse even changes color throughout its life span. 

The most common colors are brúnn (brown) and rauður ( red or chestnut), but the rarest color you can find is litföróttur. This roughly translates to “color travelers,” a very good description of this special color variation. If a horse has this color it will literally change colors multiple times a year, often resulting in a splattered in-between color.

Did you know? Icelandic horses can have light blue colored eyes. This is usually caused by either a white color covering the eye or the horse being two-colored. If a horse has blue eyes it is “glaseygður” or “glass-eyed.”  

Fun Facts about the Icelandic Horse

  • There is an Icelandic horse naming committee that only allows horses to be given certain names.
  • The Icelandic horse has been bred in its pure form for over one thousand years.
  • One of its gaits is called skeið, the word for spoon in Icelandic.
  • There have been attempts to mix the Icelandic horse with other breeds in foreign countries, but the offspring is most commonly non-fertile.
  • Sleipnir, the Pagan God Óðinn’s horse, had eight legs.
  • There are about 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland.
  • The Icelandic horse grows extensive hair in the winter and they become complete furballs. In summer they shed their hair and look completely different.
  • No other horse breeds are found in Iceland
  • If an Icelandic horse is brought abroad, it can never return to Iceland.
  • The Icelandic horse is known for its outstanding ability to cross rough terrain.
  • They are excellent swimmers and can read the depth of rivers really well.

Eager to see an Icelandic horse for yourself?  Join a horseback riding tour and see them up close!

Icelandic Horse Day

On May 1, 2015 the Horses of Iceland organization founded the “International Day of the Icelandic Horse.” The annual holiday was created to celebrate the horse and increase awareness about the breed both locally and internationally. In honor of the holiday, horse owners open their stable doors to visitors and clubs around the island organize contests and shows.

The 5 Gaits of the Icelandic Horse and the Unique Tolt

The Icelandic horses can be split into two types of horses: the four-gaited (fjórgangs) and the five-gaited (fimmgangs). 

The five-gaited horse can ride skeið e. They are also considered more flexible and soft in their other gaits.  

The Icelandic horse shares the walk, trot, canter, and gallop with most other horse breeds. 

5 gaits of the Icelandic horse
  • Fet – Walk

This gait can be observed during horse shows in Iceland. A walking pace, the more relaxed they are, the higher their grade when competing. It is a good rule to begin and end all horse riding tours with walking.

  • Brokk – Trot

Brokk or trot is the most common gait around the world. It is often counted in two rhythms. When you are riding a horse in a trot,  you will go up and down with each step. A good way to ride brokk is to step strongly into the stirrup and move with the horse.

  • Tölt – Tolt *their unique gait*

Tölt is the additional gait that the Icelandic horse possesses. They are naturally able to tölt from birth. It is a four-beat lateral ambling gait and its speed can vary a great deal. It is a smoother gait and those horses who have all 5 gaits (fimmgangs) ride the tölt in an even softer matter.

  • Stökk – Canter/Gallop

There is a small difference between the canter and the gallop, but most would consider them to be the same. It is common amongst other horses in the world and can be ridden both fast and slow.

  • Skeið – Pace, Flying Pace

Another additional gait of the Icelandic horse is the pace or skeið, flugskeið or flying pace. This is a particularly popular gait in racing as the horses can reach an incredible speed, up to 30 mile or 48 kilometers per hour. The gait skeið can only be performed by those horses who are five-gaited (fimmgangs). 

During flying pace, only two legs touch the ground at a time. This gait is not popular for regular riding as it is quite uncomfortable for the rider. However, it can be very entertaining and is sometimes used by experienced riders to help the horse stretch.

Best Horse Riding Tours in Iceland

There are many different ways to enjoy the Icelandic horse while in Iceland. If you  simply want to pet them in between exploring beautiful attractions, we recommend multi-day tours with Arctic Adventures that take you to the best places to ride horses in IcelandMost riding stables are located in the rural countryside of the Golden Circle and around Reykjavik.

Another option is to go on a horse riding tour. The options are endless. Consider how much time you have in Iceland,  if you wish to do the tour as a combo with another tour, and where in the country you are traveling. 


What do you wear on a horse riding tour?

The right clothing is the most important way to prepare for your tour! Tours operate come rain, snow, or sunshine, so make sure you dress for the forecast. Iceland’s weather is often highly unpredictable, so layers are the best choice. If you plan on going horse riding in Iceland in winter, make sure to bring appropriate winter accessories. All tours include a riding helmet for safety and rubber riding boots. With the right gear you will be all set for a horse riding adventure, no previous experience required! 

What is the Icelandic Horse weight limit?

Due to their small stature, people often want to know, “are Icelandic horses ponies”? The short answer is no, and Icelanders will be offended if you call them as such! Unlike ponies, Icelandic horses have impressive weight carrying capabilities compared to their size. To protect the horses, the maximum weight limit for Icelandic horseback rides is  110 kg / 242 lbs.

Are there any wild horses in Iceland?

There is, or at least used to be, a herd of about 100 wild horses in Iceland.For those who want to know where to find Icelandic horses, your best bet is a horseback riding tour or horse farm in Iceland. 

How many horses in Iceland?

Since the Icelandic parliament passed a law that bans the importation of horses, the only horses in Iceland are locally bred. Currently, there are about 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland, versus the human population of 364,260! 

Do Icelanders still eat horse meat?

Although not as common as before, the answer to this question is yes. It’s  important to stress that Icelanders do not eat the same horses they ride. Some horses are specially bred for their meat and those horses are never tamed or given a name. 

How long do Icelandic horses live?

Icelandic horses mature later than other horses and typically do not begin to train before the age of 4. It is not unusual to ride these horses well into their twenties. While the average lifespan of horses is twenty to thirty, this breed can live much longer. In Denmark an Icelandic horse named Tulle was reported to live to the age of 57!

Searching for where to ride horses in Iceland? Join a horseback riding tour and see for yourself what makes these animals so special!

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