Alongside whales and puffins, horses are one of the most iconic and recognisable animals associated with Iceland, but did you know this small, volcanic island sports a breed entirely its own? Here are 6 strange facts about Icelandic Horses.
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1. They were loved by the Vikings.
Iceland’s earliest permanent settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, arrived at the then-empty, volcanic shores of Iceland’s west in the year in the 874 AD. In the following years, hundreds would repeat his journey, travelling from Norway, Sweden and Denmark to begin a new life on this barren Atlantic island. With them, they brought families, and an array of animals; sheep, dogs, cats, birdlife and, of course, European horses.
Given the breadth and inhospitality of Iceland’s landscape, it was the horses that would become the most important creature to Icelanders’ livelihood, serving as the only means of land transport until the 20th Century. For these reasons and more, horses were cherished in early Nordic culture. White horses, in particular, were sacrificially slaughtered during feasts and ceremonies, and war-horses were so indispensable to warriors that after their master’s passing, they were often killed and buried alongside them.
Icelandic horses make a number of appearances in early sagas, the first mention of which is Skálm, a mare who appeared by name in the 12th Century Book of Settlements. According to the story, she belonged to a Chieftain named Seal-Þórir who chose to settle lands at the point where Skálm laid down to sleep with her pack.
According to Norse Mythology, Odin, the all-seeing God of Wisdom, rode an eight-legged steed called Sleipnir through the skies, even creating Ásbyrgi canyon in north Iceland when one of Sleipnir’s many hoofs came crashing down to earth. Sleipnir was birthed from the mischievous demi-God Loki after he shape-shifted into a mare.
2. Iceland has a horse-naming committee.
Do you think you can name your horse whatever you like in Iceland? Think again!
Iceland’s Horse Naming Committee is a regulatory body that determines whether given names abide by the country’s strict naming laws, and is also responsible for accepting or rejecting the names of Iceland’s horses.
Sadly, this Naming Committee was created out of a necessary evil as many horse-owners began naming their steeds names that could be considered, somewhat, rude…
Names must first be permitted by this committee before being allowed entry into the WorldFengur, a breed registry, or studbook, dedicated to Icelandic horses. Names are only permitted if they stick to Icelandic grammar rules. This is a particular problem for Icelandic horse owners overseas who want to name their horse something Icelandic. They may not be aware of the correct spelling, thus causing problems when it comes to registering the animal.
3. Icelandic Horses have been Purebred for over 1000 Years
One of the world’s oldest parliament, known as the Alþingi, was formed in 930 AD at the now-popular visitors’ location, Þingvellir National Park. In 982 AD, a new law was passed that forbid the future import of foreign horses, an act that legislators hoped would protect the domestic stock from poor breeding.
This ruling came after previous failed attempts to introduce and cross-breed eastern blood, or oriental horses, with the Icelandic breed, leading to a degeneration of stock.
By this time, Icelandic horses had already become an integral part of Icelandic culture, both as work animals and transport, and had already begun acclimatising to the harsh seasonal conditions so prevalent in the country. Thus, the breed has now been bred pure for over a 1,000 years in Iceland.
Icelandic horses stand at an average of 1.4 metres tall, pint-sized in comparison to the far larger steeds found elsewhere. Most breeds that measure this height are considered ponies on horse registries, though an exception is made in the case of the Icelandic breed. There are a number of theories as to why this is, from muscular structure to their large personalities.
Icelandic horses are also known to be very muscular, weighing between 330 and 380 kilograms (730 and 840 lb) and come in a range of colours, including chestnut, palomino, pinto and roan. In point of fact, their coat colours are so varied that there are over 100 words in the Icelandic language describing them all. The breed also boasts a double-coat, keeping them extra insulated during the winter months.
In point of fact, there are more Icelandic horses elsewhere in the world as can be found in Iceland, a testament to their enduring popularity among riders. This number stands at around 100,000, whereas currently, there are thought to be around 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland, a staggering number considering the island’s diminutive population size; approx. 340,000 people.
4. There is a horse monster known as Nykur.
If during your travels in Iceland, you happen to stumble across a beautiful grey horse grazing beside a lake, river or even the sea, there is only one course of action you should follow—RUN! You’ve discovered a Nykur, one of Iceland’s most terrifying monsters.
This water demon is infamous for its trickery. Out in the wilds, this horse-like creature appears as though it wishes to be tamed, luring those who discover it to climb onto its back. Once the unfortunate rider clambers atop it, the Nykur will gallop at high-speed into the water, trapping its victim with “sticky skin” and drowning them with a barrel roll.
One way of determining whether the creature is a grey horse or a Nykur is to look down at its hoofs. Nykur’s hoofs are inverted, and they are also able to turn their heads entirely backwards. Their one weakness is to hear their name. Whisper or shout “Nykur, Nykur, Nykur…” and watch as the creature flees back into the water, disappearing from view… at least, for a short while.
Nykurs are known by a great many names, including the Icelandic synonyms Nennir, Nóni, Kumbur and Vatnaskratti. Similar creatures are found in both English and Celtic folklore where they are known as Nix and Kelpies. It is thought that parents invoked this horrifying legend in order to keep their children away from the water’s edge.
5. They are the Only Horse with 5 Unique Gaits (“Walks”)
Gaits refer to the different styles of walking observed in horses. Most horse breeds are only capable of three gaits, known as the walk, trot and cantor. Many horse registrations separate a cantor from gallop, though this is not the case in Iceland, hence why they are considered to be ‘naturally five-gaited’.
The Icelandic horse is the only breed that is able to add the skeið/flugskeið, known as “flying pace” in English and colloquially among equestrians as ‘the 5th gear’, as well as the ambling gait tölt.
There are other horse breeds that are capable of a fifth gait, but none that can achieve the tölt in particular; while it is possible to find others that can achieve a near tölt, none can reach the speed associated with Icelandic horses, making it unique by definition.
The tölt can best be described as a soft, yet faster-walking pace, known to be incredibly comfortable for the rider. The gait is achieved by the rider keeping a positive tension in his posture, leaning forward slightly, thus controlling the horse’s speed through its saddle.
6. Icelanders eat horse meat… sometimes.
Before the Christianisation of Iceland in 1000 AD, early settlers followed Norse Paganism, a spiritual belief in which the ceremonial sacrifice and consumption of horses was a fairly common practice. Pope Gregory III, had banned horse meat consumption in the year 732 AD because of its association with these Germanic belief systems.
This was considered to be one of the major reasons as to why Icelanders initially showed reluctance in converting to Christianity. So to unite Icelanders under a new religion, some amendments to the rules were made—for example, Icelanders were permitted to continue praying to the old gods in secret, and were allowed horse-meat under certain, special conditions.
However, once the ban came into effect across the country, Icelanders gradually began to adopt the idea that consuming horses was taboo. Not only did people forgo eating it, many even felt it was sinful to handle it.
Surprisingly, this ban was still adhered to during Skaftáreldar (“the fires of Skaftá”) eruption in 1783-84 when an estimated 20–25% of the population died in the famine that followed. Though horse meat was eaten by a small minority during this time, those who did were severely reprimanded by others.
Today, horse meat is not popular in Iceland, though can be found on certain downtown menus.
Do you want to learn more about the amazing Icelandic horse? Feel free to read The Icelandic Horse | A Comprehensive Guide at Guide to Iceland.is