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The Icelandic Horse: What Makes It So Unique?

Learn all about Icelandic horses before seeing them live

|July 11, 2023
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, 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 the 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.

Illustration of Icelandic horse farm

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!


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 grass fields 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 horse's 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

Icelandic horses in different colors

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 lifespan

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 change colors multiple times a year, often resulting in a splattered in-between color.

Icelandic horse with blue colored eyes

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.”


Icelandic horses in the field

The first horses were brought to Iceland by the Norse settlers between 860 and 935 AD. There are many theories as to why particularly this breed was chosen. One of them is that because of the sturdy structure and relatively small size, these animals were easier to fit into boats and endure long overseas travel. And we have to admit, that sounds about right.

After that, the breed of Icelandic horses slowly developed into what we see today. It adapted well to its surroundings - for instance, it started growing a thick coat during the cold winters and shedding it during the summer. They also became capable of traveling through rough terrain and crossing glacial rivers. These tough horses are unbothered by strong winds and other daunting weather conditions.


As the Norse settlers imported the horses, they also imported the myths that came around them. Icelandic myths and legends state the long-lasting admiration for this breed. It was always considered not as a servant, but more as a friend and companion.

According to the first Icelandic book of laws, the theft of the horse was strictly punishable, and the offenders of the law were banished from the community to become outlaws. And if you're an outlaw in Iceland during the Viking Age, you could be legally (!) killed right on the spot without any explanation. Needless to say, there were very few who dared steal a horse during those times.

Animation of Odin riding an eight-legged horse

There was also a famous myth of Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse who belonged to Odin, the main god in Norse mythology. Sleipnir was also said to be the one behind the creation of Ásbyrgi Canyon in North Iceland. According to the legend, as the horse stepped one of his eight legs onto the ground, it left a horse-shaped canyon we can still see and admire today.

Interesting 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.

Pagan God Óðinn’s and his eight-leg horse

  • 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 be returned 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 five 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. 

Icelandic horse gaits:

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 manner.

  • Stökk – Canter/Gallop
funny GIF


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 miles or 48 kilometers per hour. The gait skeið can only be performed by those horses who are five-gaited (fimmgangs). 

During the 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 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.

Guided horse riding tour in Iceland

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 that includes other activities and where in the country you are traveling. 


What do you wear on a horse riding tour?

Picking the proper 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 is required!

What is the Icelandic Horse weight limit?

Due to their small stature, people often want to know whether Icelandic horses are considered to be 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?

Group of wild horses running in Icelandic fields

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! 


Icelandic horses are still used for traditional sheepherding, as well as for leisure, shows, and racing.

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?

While the average lifespan of the Icelandic horses is 20 to 30, this breed can live much longer. In Denmark, an Icelandic horse named Tulle was reported to live to the age of 57! Icelandic horses mature later than other horses and typically are typically not trained until age 4. It is not unusual to ride these horses well into their 20s. 

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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