Horses in the Land of Fire and Ice

Posted on August 5, 2021

As we head into August (2021) and turn over the page of our In The Saddle calendar, we’re transported to Iceland – the Land of Fire and Ice.

This picture was taken on the Golden Circle ride – a journey through the southern part of the country, to the hot springs of Geysir and the Golden Waterfall of Gullfoss.

Exploring southern Iceland on the Golden Circle ride

What Makes Iceland so Special?

Speak to anyone who has visited Iceland on a ‘normal’ holiday and they will tell you about a place of incredible natural beauty, diverse landscapes and the chance to explore off the beaten path.

But speak to someone who has been riding in Iceland, and their face always breaks into a huge smile. They will tell you about the powerful, cheeky and fun Icelandic horses. How they rode across  remote highlands with a teeming herd of free running horses, or followed ancient routes to the summer parliament at Þingvellir. They might have ridden through lava fields or the beaches of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, or experienced the excitement of bringing sheep and horses down from the mountains during a Round Up.

For anyone who has felt the special ‘tölt’ gait and experienced the wonder of the Icelandic horse in its native land, it’s an adventure never to be forgotten.

Iceland lead horse

There’s a special kind of smile you have when you’re aboard an Icelandic horse (credit: Hestasport)

History of the Breed

Ancestors of Icelandic horses arrived in the country from Scandinavia between 860 and 935 AD. Genetic studies show that there were four main types of animal that formed the basis for these Viking horses. Firstly, the ‘Celtic pony’ whose origins are rooted in the Tarpan (Eurasian wild horse). Secondly, a heavier type of pony from Northern Eurasia – the modern version is today’s Fjord horse. Third was a larger horse originating in Asia and Spain. Finally, a smaller, noble horse, with a fine expression and silky coat that resembles today’s Arabian and Caspian breeds.

Although the Icelandic was originally a mixed breed, today it’s one of the purest in the world – partly due to the island location. In the year 982, the Viking government introduced a law banning horses being imported to Iceland. This ban has been strictly observed ever since. As a result, for over a thousand years, the Icelandic breed has remained pure.

Due to its isolation, the Icelandic is a very pure breed (credit: Hestasport)

Paces of the Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horses have two extra gaits in addition to the walk, trot, canter and gallop typically displayed by other breeds.

In Iceland, since no distinction is made between canter and gallop, you often find Icelandics referred to as being either ‘four gaited’ (walk, trot, canter/gallop and tölt) or ‘five gaited’ (walk, trot, canter/gallop, tölt and skeið).

Tölting in the famous horse region of Skagafjörður (credit: Hestasport)

Tölt is a four-beat gait with the same leg movement sequence as in walk: right hind, right fore, left hind and left fore. But the horse always has one or two legs on the ground, whereas in walk, it has two or three legs on the floor. Tölt may be performed at a range of speeds, from the speed of a fast walk, up to the speed of a canter. This gait is very comfortable for the rider.

Skeið (flying pace), is a two-beat gait, where the horse moves front and hind legs on the same side at the same time. There is a long hovering phase before the next pair of legs hits the ground – that’s why the gait is called flying pace. A horse performing the skeið pace can reach speeds of around 40 km/h. This gait is quite strenuous for the horse, so it’s usually only ridden over short distances.

Here is a lovely video showing the difference between the five paces:

Credit: Horses of Iceland.

Breed Characteristics

Icelandic horses normally stand between 13hh and 14hh, although some modern ‘sport horses’ can be slightly taller. Technically, an Icelandic is a pony. But due to its strength, breeders and breed registries always refer to it as a horse.

This breed has a well-proportioned head, with straight profiles and wide foreheads. The neck is high-set, the shoulder is long and sloping. Whilst the legs are short, long cannon bones and short pasterns ensure they are sure-footed. Icelandics have full manes and tails, and a double coat for extra insulation in cold temperatures.

Icelandics come in many colours including chestnut, dun, bay, black, grey and palomino. Colours are so numerous in fact, that there are over one hundred names for colours and colour patterns in the Icelandic language!

In character, the Icelandic horse is known for being brave, independent, versatile and willing. They are very healthy, easy to keep and generally live long lives.

Icelandics may be small, but they are mighty (credit: Islandshestar)

The Icelandic Horse Today

These incredible horses are still very much part of daily life in Iceland. The majority of today’s Icelandic horses are used for leisure riding, with a smaller number used in competitions and racing. They continue to play a vital role in rural areas – used by their owners to round up sheep in the highlands and bring them down from the mountains for the winter.

Bringing the horses down from the mountains before winter sets in (credit: Islandshestar)

Did You Know?

There is a World Championship, Nordic Championship and European Championship for Icelandic horses. Riders compete against each other in breed standard divisions and classes to showcase their horse’s gaits.

Once an Icelandic horse has left Iceland, it is not allowed to return. So when riders from Iceland participate in international competitions, they can’t bring their horse back home with them. In this way, Iceland continues to protect its horses from external diseases and cross-breeding.

Once an Icelandic has left the country, it is not allowed to return (credit: Islandshestar)

Where Can I Ride an Icelandic Horse?

In The Saddle has a wide range of holiday options in Iceland, from centre-based stays, to trail rides and expeditions. Accommodation styles range between sleeping bag accommodation in basic mountain huts, to comfortable cottages with twin rooms, made-up beds and hot tubs. Whether you want to plan your first trip to Iceland, or are a seasoned ‘tölter’, we’re sure to have the perfect Icelandic adventure for you.

Want to try something different? You can also ride Icelandic horses on the Glaciers and Fjords Ride in Greenland, and on the Explore Winter and Ratekjokk Trails in Sweden.

Please call us on +44 1299 272 997 to discuss your options, or email

A river crossing during the Mountain Challenge ride (credit: Hestasport)

3 responses to “Horses in the Land of Fire and Ice”

  1. Tuxe life says:

    It simply sounds very nice. A great adventure and experience, no doubt.

    Greetings from Spain!

  2. Ana says:

    Wow, this article about exploring southern Iceland on the Golden Circle ride has truly ignited my wanderlust! It’s been a dream of mine to embark on a journey like this, experiencing the breathtaking landscapes and unique culture of southern Iceland. The vivid descriptions and captivating images in this piece have only fueled my desire to make this dream a reality. One day, I hope to follow in the author’s footsteps and create my own unforgettable memories on the Golden Circle. Thanks for sharing this inspiring adventure!

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