The Icelandic horse is a unique breed, and has been central to Icelandic culture for centuries, since the earliest settlers brought horses over from Scandinavia. The horses were highly regarded in Nordic mythology and this regard continued in Iceland. They have being featured strongly in literature and folklore throughout the ages as well as serving multiple purposes, being indeed called þarfasti þjónninn (“the most needed servant“).
In former times the horse would serve as a means of transport, a beast of burden and would also be harnessed for wagons and plows. Today it is rather used out of interest, for recreation, racing, and somewhat for traditional farm work. It is also in high demand internationally and people flock to Iceland from all over to see it, ride it and photograph it in various seasons. In our own photo tours, we do indeed always try to photograph horses.
Throughout the centuries, the Icelandic horse has been shaped by both selective breeding and the often harsh Icelandic climate. This is a small and beautiful horse, about the size of a pony, renowned for its bravery, its strength, resilience and stamina, its sure-footedness and good temper.
A particular distinction of the Icelandic horse is its five gaits. This means that in addition to the typical walk, trot and canter/gallop, it has tölt and skeið. Tölt is a four-beat lateral ambling gait, characterized by an explosive acceleration and speed, while still being comfortable and ground-covering. This gait in turn has its own varieties. Skeið or flugskeið (“flying pace“) is very fast and smooth and may reach up to 48 km per hour, though not all Icelandic horses are able to perform this. This is a two-beat lateral gait, footfalls are suspended, each side has both feet land almost at the same time. This requires a well trained and balanced horse and seasoned riders.
Another distinction of the Icelandic horse, in addition to those already mentioned, is its many coat colors, indeed Icelanders have over a hundred names for them. In wintertime it will develop a double coat to protect it against cold weather.
The Icelandic horse is a noble creature and one of true beauty. As such, it is highly photogenic, though I advise utmost respect towards these noble creatures. Do not use flash and approach them carefully and gently. Horse riding is an ever popular activity in Iceland and tours are available all over the country. If you haven‘t ridden the Icelandic horse before, it is definitely an experience to savor.