Breed evolution: The Icelandic Horse is one of the oldest and purest of equine breeds. Descendants of horses originally brought to Iceland by the Vikings, the Icelandic horse breed has remained pure since the 10th century, when a law passed stating that no new livestock could be imported into the island nation. Today, that ancient law still preserves the purity of the Icelandic Horse breed, treasured in its homeland and, increasingly, around the world.
The International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (known by the acronym FEIF, from the association name in German) is dedicated to the breed’s preservation and promotion. It regulates the breeding and registration of Icelandics worldwide, and governs competition. Its members are Iceland, 18 European countries, Canada, and the United States.
In 1987, the United States Icelandic Horse Congress formed as a result of the merger of two breed organizations. Currently, there are more than 3,500 Icelandic Horses registered in the United States. Increasing numbers of trail riders are drawn to the Icelandic’s naturally smooth gaits, intelligence, and hardy constitution.
Ranging from 13 to 14.2 hands high and weighing around 800 pounds, Icelandic horses are surprisingly strong for their size. Possessing tremendous strength and endurance, the Icelandic was bred to carry adults smoothly and efficiently over miles of rugged terrain.
The t?lt is the Icelandic’s natural four-beat lateral gait, which it has in addition to the walk, trot, and canter. Some Icelandics also have a fifth gait, called the skeith. It’s a very fast, lateral gait, in which there’s a brief moment when all four feet are off the ground. Also called the flying pace, this smooth gait is unique to Icelandics.
Owners tell us: Coloradan Ann Mungovan adores her two Icelandic mares. “They’re so calm and friendly, they give me a feeling of peace,” she says. “They’re like fuzzy, four-legged therapists.”
Mungovan’s 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, rides the family’s 14-year-old black Icelandic mare. A member of a local pony club, she has fun showing off her smooth, sensible, sociable mount.
Riding instructor Kimberly Hart is also a fan of the sturdy breed. “Icelandics are four-wheel-drive, off-road horses – they just go where you point them,” she says. “Not only are they smooth and reliable, they’re a nice size for a smaller rider. And you can feel confident while on the trail, because they’re so level-headed and safe.”
Canadian Phil Pretty and his wife Robyn Hood (sister of internationally acclaimed clinician Linda Tellington-Jones) have owned and bred Icelandics for more than 30 years at The Icelandic Horse Farm in Vernon, British Colombia. “Icelandics have great substance, huge shoulders, long stride, and big personalities,” says Pretty. “When you’re riding, they feel so much bigger than they look”
On the trail: Andrea Barber and her husband, Steve, love the Icelandic’s “easy chair” ride. They own Sand Meadow Farm in Mendon, New York, south of Rochester, in the picturesque Finger Lakes region. The farm is currently home to about a dozen horses.
Andrea is the former president of the USIHC and a professional photographer who frequently focuses her lens on her adorable Icelandics. “Our horses are a perfect release from today’s stressful living,” she says. “We can come home from a long day at work and find our horses waiting at the gate to go for a ride. After we each pick one, the hard part, all we have to do is open the trailer door, and they eagerly hop in.”
The Barbers frequently ride in Mendon Ponds Park, near their farm. “We usually have a brisk ride that won’t end until the sun has long set,” notes Andrea. “So, because it’s hard to see in the dark forest, we’ll just drop our reins and let out horses guide themselves back to the trailer on their own. I certainly would not try that with most other breeds!”
Selection savvy: Attend Icelandic Horse demonstrations, and seek out breeders to learn more. Consider heading to a riding-vacation destination that offers Icelandic Horse mounts, such as the Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm in Waitsfield, Vermont
Icelandic Horse Resources
Icelandic Horse Connection
The Icelandic Horse Farm
International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations
Sand Meadow Farm
Sun Land Ranch
United States Icelandic Horse Congress
Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm
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