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Why are Icelandic horses not called ponies? All you need to know about the Icelandic horse

By Staff

  • The Icelandic horse is not a pony The Icelandic horse may be small in stature but please refrain from referring to it as a pony. Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

The Icelandic horse may be small in stature, but a pony it is not! So, please refrain from referring to it as one. In addition to being incorrect, Icelanders also tend to get insulted when someone refers to their proud steeds as ponies. 

The Icelandic horse is hardy, surefooted and long-lived and through the ages it was fondly termed “the most useful servant”, seeing as it made life in this barren country just a tad bit easier. Horses were used for riding and farm work, but they were also eaten. Today horse meat continues to be a part of the diet of Icelanders, and you can get horse meat at many Reykjavík restaurants.

Read more: Traumatized by horse meat in Iceland Kim Kardashian now claims she only ate French fries

One of the features of Icelandic horses is their small stature. But while Icelandic horses are at times pony-sized, they are not referred to as ponies but as horses. Why?

Strength, character and tradition

Horse on the bus
Taking the bus Icelandic horses tend to be calm and friendly Photo/Fréttablaðið

There is no exact and undisputed definition of a pny breed, but the official definition is any breed of horses that are smaller than 14.2  hands (roughly 58 inches, or 147 cm) at the withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades of the horse). The Icelandic horse stands on average between 13 and 14 hands, which would qualify the Icelandic horse as a pony.

Yet, the Icelandic horse is not referred to as a pony, making it one of the many exception to the definition.

The reasons include the temperament and character of the Icelandic horse. While they are friendly, the Icelandic horse is also a very spirited animal. A final theory is the strength and weight carrying capability of Icelandic horses. The Icelandic horse does everything that a horse does, and Icelandic horses make for excellent riding horses.

Read more:  Photographer Gígja Einarsdóttir captures the strength and grace of the Icelandic horse

The most important reason is tradition: Icelandic horses have always been referred to as such. Breeding registries all agree that the Icelandic horse should be referred to as such. 

A unique breed
The unique characteristics of the Icelandic horse include its wide range of colors and the thick winter coat. There are over 100 different recognized color variations, each with its own Icelandic name.

ravens, icelandic horse

Ravens and a horse Both animals play an important role in Norse mythology. Photo/Heiða

The most important unique characteristic of Icelandic horses is that they have five gaits, rather than the three gaits most horse breeds perform. In addition to the walk, trot and canter or gallop, the Icelandic horse has two unique gaits, the tölt and skeið, both of which are particularly suited for comfortable riding on uneven Icelandic ground.

Tölt and skeið
Tölt is a four-beat ambling gait, and skeið, or flying pace is fast and smooth pace. Tölt comes naturally to Icelandic horses, as they are able to do this gait from birth. Tölt is a form of fast but very smooth walking, similar to the gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse. Tölt is very graceful, as the horses lift their front legs up high, and only one foot touches the ground at any time.

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Tölt is very useful for the uneven ground of Iceland, including the tussocks of Icelandic fields and rough heaths, providing a steady ride on long distance travel across the wilderness of Iceland.

Skeið is a two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls, where each side has both feet land almost simultaneously on the ground. 

horses, winter coat

Icelandic horses in winter The thick winter coat allows the horses to survive the hars Icelandic winter. Photo/Vilhelm

Not all Icelandic horses can do skeið, and it requires significant training. Good horses who can do the skeið are usually highly sought after. Some horses are able to reach up to 48 kilometers per hour (30 miles per hour). 

Isolated and pure-bred for a millennia
Like other small horse breeds the small stature of the Icelandic horse breed evolved as a result of living on the margins of livable horse habitat. The first horses came to Iceland with the Viking settlers in the ninth century. These horses came from Scandinavia, but also from Viking colonies in the British Isles.

Read more: The Vikings left their mark on the European map: Here is our guide to help you find them

The settlement of Iceland had been completed by the middle of the 10th century, and we can assume that the ancestors of the Icelandic horse had all arrived in Iceland at that time, because in 982 AD Alþingi, the Viking Age commonwealth of Iceland, passed a law banning the importation of horses.

The ban has been strictly enforced since and is still in effect. As a result the Icelandic horse has been bred absolutely pure for more than 1,000 years. The law also applies to Icelandic horses living abroad: This means that an animal that has been exported is never allowed to return. 

Hestar, stóð, réttir, hestur, horses
In their native habitat The Icelandic horse is uniquely suited to Icelandic conditions. Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

The reason for this law is to protect the breed from any diseases: It is also illegal to bring any used riding gear to Iceland. As a result of this isolation the Icelandic horse is not only pure bred, it is also almost completely free of any diseases. 

A closely controlled breed
The Icelandic horse is a pure bred stock, which is closely tracked in breeding registries. Around 300,000 Icelandic horses, alive and dead, are included in the worldwide registry of the Icelandic horse. There are about 180,000 Icelandic horses in the world, 80,000 living in Iceland, 100,000 abroad. Most of these are in Germany where the Icelandic horse enjoys significant popularity.

Read more: Horse Naming Commission was created to curb inappropriate or sexually suggestive names

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