A road trip in Iceland isn’t complete without a close encounter with the stunning Icelandic Horse. This breed, one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world, is completely unique and only found on this modest island. The Icelandic Horse is not only immensely important in Icelandic culture, it has also become a popular tourist attraction in its own right. These horses are gentle and benevolent, yet strong and sturdy.
The horses wander freely, roaming the wide-open spaces. It is not uncommon to pass them as they graze on the side of the road. The sight is amazing, as the magnificent creatures run free against gorgeous backdrops of glittering glaciers, gushing geysers and lush green fjords.
The History of the Icelandic Horse
The origin of the Icelandic Horse can be traced back to the Vikings. Small herds of the Icelandic Horse’s ancestors were brought to the land of ice and fire by the Vikings during their settlement in the years 874 – 930. The horses were mostly of Scandinavian origin, but as the Vikings made stops in Scotland, Shetland Island and Ireland, they most likely also brought the ancestors of Shetland, Highland, and Connemara Ponies.
These breeds were initially crossed with each other, however, in an attempt to prevent degeneration of the stock, the Icelandic Parliament, Alþingi, enforced a law that prohibited the importation of any additional horses into Iceland in 982. This law put an end to crossbreeding. For centuries and centuries, no more horses have been brought to the country, and as a result, the isolation enabled the breed to remain pure for over a thousand years. Today, the Icelandic Horse remains the one and only breed of horse in Iceland.
Long-Lived and Muscular, with a Spirited Temperament
As the horses were often left to fend for themselves outside in Iceland’s grim and cold environment, they had to adapt to the ever-changing weather conditions, volcanic eruptions and the harsh landscape. Natural selection played out its role; the horses that were not able to develop a resilience for such harsh conditions were wiped out, whilst the surviving horses only grew stronger and stronger. Ultimately, the breed blossomed into one of the strongest horse breeds in the world.
Whatever the Icelandic Horses lack in size, they make up in strength. They are renowned for their stamina and endurance, and are long-lived and sturdy, with a spirited temperament. Fact is, the Icelandic Horse was the only mode of land travel in the country until the 20th century!
Horseback Riding Tours
The Icelandic Horse remains an important part of Icelandic culture. To this day, they’re not only used on farms, but also as a means of transport. Many horses are used for competition as well as leisure riding.
In a country with a population of 300.000 people, there are 80.000 horses. The horses wander freely, roaming the wide-open spaces. It is not uncommon to pass them as they graze on the side of the road. The sight is amazing, as the magnificent creatures run free against gorgeous backdrops of glittering glaciers, gushing geysers and lush green fjords.
If you’re visiting Iceland and want to guarantee a sighting, there are numerous horse farms and ranches open to tourists and visitors. Some operators offer scenic trail rides year round. Many tours will take you through sensational scenery as you ride to and from some of Iceland’s main attractions, as well as hidden gems and spots that are off the beaten track.
Many times there is no need for prior experience whatsoever. There is an abundance of day tours that are suitable for beginners, as well as countryside tours and multi-day tours for those with some previous riding experience.
Generally, each riding tour starts with detailed riding instruction & guidance for about 30 minutes. After that, you will be matched to a horse based on previous experience and preferences. Next, you’ll be mounted and ready to set off. Tours will take you through magnificent scenery along beautiful green hillsides, enchanting lava beds, and peculiar volcanic rock formations. You will most likely make short stops along the way, offering plenty of photo opportunities.
In contrast to many other horseback riding tours outside of Iceland, you will be allowed to tölt, which is a very smooth four-beat gait of the Icelandic Horse. At 32 kmh (20 mph), albeit not as fast as a gallop, it’s a faster than a walk or a trot and will allow you a bounce-free exhilarating ride.
Riding the unique Icelandic Horse is an experience you wouldn’t want to miss! Enjoy Iceland’s beautiful wildlife, flora and fauna as you ride across rivers, around volcanoes and through extraordinary lunar landscape pitted with volcanic wonders – just like the original settlers did centuries ago.