The Icelandic Horse

The Icelandic Horse is one of the oldest and purest of equine breeds. Descendants of horses originally brought to Iceland by the Vikings, the 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, treasured in its homeland and, increasingly, around the world.

“Riding Icelandic Horses in Iceland was a horse lover’s dream,” says Andrea Barber of Mendon, New York. “Next to every main road is a road for horses to travel. If you need a spare horseshoe – you can buy them at any gas station! Everybody rides in Iceland; it’s a horse culture. And all Icelandic Horses are trail horses – you won’t find any kept just for show.”

Barber is the current president of the United States Icelandic Horse Congress. She and her husband, Steve, own Sand Meadow Farm, home to a dozen Icelandic Horses.

The couple’s love affair with the breed began 10 years ago when they went trekking on Icelandic Horses in Vermont. Halfway through one day’s ride, Steve took Andrea aside to say that he didn’t intend to leave without his horse.

“It took nearly nine months, but he finally persuaded the owner to part with [the horse],” she says with a smile. “One of our favorite places to ride is South Haven Park on southeastern Long Island, New York. I’ll never forget one early autumn evening, riding on winding trails through pine forest when we rode right into the middle of a herd of deer. Without a pause, my Icelandic continued to run with them for quite a distance. It was awesome!”

Increasing numbers of trail riders are drawn to the Icelandic’s naturally smooth gaits, intelligence, and hardy constitution. Read on to learn more about the Icelandic Horse – a big heart wrapped in a small, very handsome package.

Trail Rewards

Amy Goddard of Patterson, New York, owns two Icelandics and oversees the USIHC Pleasure Riding Program. “All USIHC members can enroll in the program; a high percentage participates. The horses must be registered Icelandics, but riders don’t need to own the horse that they ride. We have three regions – Western, Central/Mountain, and Eastern – and year-end prizes are awarded to first, second, and third place riders in each one.”

There are two ways to log points in the program: the Freedom Ride Time Log and the Special Events Log. In the former, one records hours spent riding, driving, ground driving, or ground training the horse. As hours accumulate, riders earn patches and vests.

Enrollees in the Special Events Log earn points by participating in, auditing, or planning clinics, horse evaluations, or other special events (excluding shows). Those with the highest combined point totals in both the Freedom Ride and Special Events Logs earn annual awards, including Mountain Horse riding jackets and decorative medals.

Avid trail riders also network through the programs. Goddard met Lisa Leeper of New Mexico through the program. When the New York resident took a vacation, Leeper invited her to join a party of 18 trail riders – all onboard Icelandics – to explore high desert country in the Cibola National Forest near Gallup, New Mexico.

“We rode past terracotta rock formations and Anasazi ruins, and tˆlted along 1870s logging roads,” she says. “We climbed to 7,800-feet on McKenzie Ridge, and serpentined down the other side. It was a trail rider’s dream.”

Don’t Call Them ‘Ponies’!

Although the Icelandic Horse’s size, between 12.2 and 14.2 hands high, would technically qualify them for the “pony” category, Icelandics are definitely “horses” notes Karen Winhold, owner of Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm, which offers daily trail rides and riding holidays aboard the breed.

And never, ever go to Iceland and call their proud equines “ponies.” Winhold tells us that the word “pony” is used in conjunction with the small breeds that evolved in the United Kingdom, such as the Welsh, Shetland, Connemara, Dartmoor, and Exmoor. The word is probably derived from the French word poulenet, the diminutive form of poulain, for colt.

However, in Iceland, which developed its distinct written and spoken language while Europe still used Latin, the natives’ beloved equines were described by one word, “hest,” for horse: the Icelandic Horse.

Four-Wheel Drive

“These horses are like having a four-wheel-drive sports car,” says Canadian Phil Pretty. For 30 years, he and his wife, Robyn Hood, have owned and bred Icelandic Horses on their farm, The Icelandic Horse Farm, in Vernon, British Columbia. Hood is the sister of internationally acclaimed clinician Linda Tellington-Jones. (See “Spirited Away,” Trailblazers, March/April ’05.)

“In the early 1970s, Linda convinced some European owners to send 15 Icelandic Horses to the States to compete in an endurance event called the Great American Horse Race,” Pretty explains. “Robyn and I signed on to condition these horses in the mountains near Yosemite National Park, and crew for them during the ride.

“The first day, we rode 10 miles. Afterwards, we felt like collapsing, and the Icelandics went into the pasture and started to play. We immediately wondered who would benefit most from the conditioning!”

Pretty and Hood were so impressed, they purchased five of the horses; Tellington-Jones bought two. “They were wonderful on the trail, very calm, and conscious of the job at hand,” Pretty says. “And when they went into a rest stop, they rested. Some horses don’t, and their pulse-and-respiration recovery time is much longer.

“It was very early in my riding career, and the Icelandics were great for a relative beginner. When they go into their gait, the tˆlt, they go fast and smooth – no bounce at all. During the tˆlt, the horse has one foot on the ground at all times, so instead of an impact, there’s a gentle transfer of weight.”

The tolt 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 gait is smooth, and unique to Icelandics.

To anyone who might wonder if the Icelandic’s small size – about 13 to 14 hands high – would discourage adults from riding them, Pretty says, “They have great substance, huge shoulders, a long stride, and big personalities. They’re bred to carry adults over rugged terrain in Iceland. When you’re riding, they feel so much bigger than they look.”

There are usually about 140 Icelandics at The Icelandic Horse Farm, including 90 of Pretty and Hood’s own. The couple, who helped found the Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation, often sell their homebred youngsters. Robyn conducts educational clinics and workshops, and they offer a complete line of Icelandic tack. The welcome mat, Pretty says, is always out for those who want to learn more about the breed.

‘All Around Perfect’

Mercy Phillips of Nashville, Indiana, who has four Icelandic Horses in her barn, says, “They’re like potato chips – you can’t have just one!” She, like Barber, went to ride in Iceland. “[It was] the trip of a lifetime: riding through emerald green, moss-covered lava fields,” she says.

Phillips was introduced to Icelandics at a horse expo nine years ago, and liked their size and smooth gaits. Now, she’s in love with the way they take to the trail.

“They’re always ready to go and see what’s over the next hill,” she says. “They’re nimble, surefooted, and have a huge flat walk. There’s never a problem of keeping up with other horses, because they have a lot of reach. They’re also extremely hardy, with hooves like steel. I’ve never had any soundness problems.”

And then there’s the cuteness factor. With their big eyes peeking out from under luxurious, tousled forelocks, “They’re impossible to resist!” Phillips exclaims.

Raven Flores of Roberts, Wisconsin, grew up with Quarter Horses, then owned a beloved Tennessee Walking Horse. When her Walking Horse lost his vision, she went shopping for a gelding – preferably black.

“When I walked into one sale barn, the first horse I saw was a red-and-white pinto Icelandic,” she says. “He had the most beautiful head I’d ever seen. I tried out several horses before I tried him. I’d never even considered a horse that was mostly white.”

At first, the Icelandic’s strong personality intimidated Flores, but she gave it time. “I spent every weekend for the next two months with him: trail riding, grooming, just hanging out,” she says. “We bonded. I’d decided to buy him when his owner told me the story of his name: Huginn.”

In Icelandic mythology, Odin, the god of all planets, had two ravens that sat on his shoulders. Every morning, Odin sent the ravens out to see the world, and at night, they returned to tell him what they’d seen. The Raven of Thoughtfulness was named Huginn.

So, the woman named Raven brought home the Icelandic named for a raven.

Flores and her colorful Icelandic go trail riding nearly every weekend from March to November. They participate in the USIHC Pleasure Riding Program; twice, Flores has been honored as the high-point trail rider.

“My favorite ride was in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois,” she says. “I went there with a group of girlfriends; we call ourselves ‘The Saddlebags.’ There were challenging climbs with drop-offs, phenomenal views, and creek crossings. You need a great partnership with your horse for trails like those, and my good-minded, smooth-moving Huginn never let me down. I’ll have him forever; he’s just all-around perfect.”

The 10,000-Mile Icelandic

In 1994, when John and Marilyn Parke bought a 6-year-old

Icelandic gelding as a Christmas present for their children, they never imagined what might happen over the next dozen years.

In October 2006, the Parkes’ now 18-year-old gelding, Remington, became the 14th horse in American Endurance Ride Conference history to complete 10,000 competition miles – an amazing


Remington joins just two other active competitors with 10,000 miles – both Arabian-bred horses, a breed renowned for its stamina. But an endurance Icelandic?

“Sometimes, it does bring to mind the fable about the tortoise and the hare,” John says with a chuckle. “The Arabians can cover ground, but this great little horse always finishes. He’s refined for an Icelandic – almost dainty looking – and he used to surprise people when he tore down a trail like a bat out of hell!

High Standards

The Icelandic is the only breed with just one breed standard, one set of registry rules, and one set of competition rules – in every country where the breed resides. A horse exported from Iceland will never be allowed to return: The ancient law from 900 A.D. that forbids livestock to be imported into Iceland also protects the purity of one of the oldest of equine breeds.

The International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (known as FEIF, from the German) preserves and promotes the breed. It regulates the breeding and registration
of Icelandics worldwide, and governs competition. Its members are Iceland, 18 European countries, Canada, and the United States.

Because only one official organization is allowed per country, the United States Icelandic Horse Congress was formed in 1987, a result of the merger of two former groups. There are more than 3,100 Icelandic Horses registered in the United States; some were imported, some are born and bred here.

“Once, we came across a bear – and he charged it! Remington is absolutely fearless, and that makes him great on the trail. If you could measure it, he’d have an IQ of 300. He’s a smart prankster, always fooling with people.”

On the brink of the 10,000-mile mark, John headed for the Grand Canyon XP Ride. Here’s his account of that ride into history, in his own words:

“With only 55 miles to go for Remington to reach 10,000 lifetime miles completed in endurance competition, we head off for a multiday ride at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. My son Willie comes, and it’s great to have his company and help. We arrive at the ride camp a little past noon on Friday.

“My friend, Laura Hayes, from New York, walks up to ask if I would like to ride with her to mark 11 miles of trail for the upcoming rides. I want to take Remington for a warm-up ride, so we take off on a single-track trail. The scenery is very wintry. Usually, the leaves on the aspens are turning gold at this time of the year on the Kaibab Plateau, but they have already dropped this year, so everything is bare except the pines.

“Rem is feeling really zippy and the mare is nervous, so we take the lead. We cover the trail in about 1_ hours, but slow down at the end, because the mare is getting tired keeping up with Remington’s pace. This is fine, because, as the trail breaks out of the trees, we are right at the edge looking at the Grand Canyon’s East Rim. Very few people ever see it. The Grand Canyon is not as deep here as it is a little to the west, but it is still gorgeous with a unique view of the desert on the opposite side dropping off the edge.

“We go to bed early, but I wake during the night. It is raining cats and dogs. Even though I clipped him last weekend, Remington is okay, because he’s wearing a waterproof blanket over a warm pile blanket. When I saddle up, it is still raining hard. We head off in the rain at 7:30 a.m.


American Endurance Ride Conference
(866) 271-AERC [2372]

Andrea Barber Photography
(585) 624-4468

Eidfaxi International

The Icelandic Horse Farm
(800) 255-2336;

International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations

M & M Stables
(360) 352-3627

North American Trail Ride Conference
(303) 688-1677;

Sand Meadow Farm
(585) 624-4468;

Tolt News

United States Icelandic Horse Congress
(907) 346-2223;

Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm
(802) 496-7141

Winterhorse Park Icelandics LLC
(262) 594-5152

I’m wearing waterproof clothing, but unfortunately my rain pants have an elastic cuff right above my boot top. The water drains off my coat onto my pant legs and then right into my boots.

“We get to the vet check in under three hours, because the rain and mud don’t slow the surefooted, old pony down. If anything, he goes faster, because the rain keeps his body cool.

“The vet check is miserable. Rem dives into his feed and stays warm under the blanket I sent out to the vet check in our crew bag. But I am wet and freezing. Just as I climb back in the saddle, it starts to rain even harder. Somebody tells me they heard on the radio that they are having flash floods all over Utah and Arizona. We don’t have this problem, because we are up above everything else at 8,000 feet so the water drains off into the canyon.

“Rem moves out really well through the puddles and mud and rain. I think once again how I could never get through country and weather like this without him. I dream about a hot shower and dry clothes and see no reason to tarry. I’m glad I saw the canyon yesterday, because I sure can’t see anything today through my wet glasses and all the rain. We get back to camp in just a few hours and actually finish in (by far) our fastest time for a 50-miler this year. Remington is totally sound at our completion vet check.

“I am so cold at the finish that Willie has to take off the tack and put a blanket on Rem, because my fingers are too stiff to work the buckles. I gobble up some nuts, take a short nap, and jump in the shower.

“Rem now has 9,995 cumulative miles from endurance rides of 50 or 100 miles in a day. We’ll ride out again tomorrow to reach 10,000 miles but at least it won’t be raining as much, according to the forecast.”

The following day, John and Remington rode into the record books.

Shopping Savvy

Icelandic Horses come in a rainbow of colors and patterns, and are generally long-lived, athletic companions, with kind and generous temperaments. The USIHC offers these suggestions to those interested in buying an Icelandic:

• Be honest about your goals and ability to find the right partner. To learn more about the breed, attend Icelandic Horse demonstrations, seek out breeders and owners, and check out the USIHC’s informative brochures and videos.

• Keep in mind that Icelandics are slow to mature, so shouldn’t be started under saddle until they’re approximately 4 years old.

• Try out the horse in a controlled situation, such as an arena, before heading onto trails.

• Take the horse on several trail rides in an environment similar to what you’ll encounter at home.

• Question the seller about the horse’s health history. You may wish to have a veterinarian perform a prepurchase exam.

• Make certain your tack fits and doesn’t impede the horse’s gaits. Specially made Icelandic tack is English-style, and placed a little farther back off the shoulder than normal. This allows for greater freedom of movement. Usually, Icelandics are ridden with a simple snaffle bit.

• Then, welcome to the Icelandic Horse family!

Honi Roberts is a freelance writer and horsewoman based in Washington State. She’s the co-author of Breed For Success: The Horseman’s Guide to Producing Healthy Foals (The Lyons Press;

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