As promised, I’m returning to my series of reports from Iceland.
Icelandic Ponies! These were my primary lure to Iceland. I was probably about ten years old, curious about everything horse related, and studying horse breeds for 4-H when I first learned about Icelandic horses. My teacher and mentor was Jessie, a half Welsh pony who, for reasons I didn’t then understand, was nearly as shaggy as Icelandic ponies, so I was particularly captivated by this breed.
There is no Icelandic word for pony. Natives refer to them as horses, or hestar. (hestur is singular and hesturinn means the horse) Averaging only 13 – 14 hands high (52 – 56”) and exhibiting the compact conformation of a pony, they are commonly referred to as ponies by outsiders.
Icelandic horse history is as fascinating as the animals themselves. Like their even smaller cousins, the Faeroes ponies, Icelandic horses were brought to the island by early Viking settlers. Early inhabitants of Iceland needed a means of carting their “stuff” from place to place over land that was fragmented by frigidly cold, raging rivers. The Norwegian Fjord horse, which looks much like depictions painted on the walls of early ice age caves, would have been a perfect candidate to travel on the cramped quarters of Viking long ships to the Faeroes and to Iceland. Once established in Iceland, these water horses, as they were then called, became a means of transportation, food, and friendship on a lonely outpost. The importance of Icelandic horses to the history and development of the country is richly documented in Icelandic folk-lore and sagas.
Icelandic horses exhibit unique characteristics besides being adorable.
- They are extremely hardy, with a double coat of hair in the winter, and the ability to transform scrub brush and dry grass into nutrition enough to survive harsh winters on their own in the highlands.
- They are free of infectious diseases, thanks to geographic isolation.
- They mature slowly—are not saddle broke till around age 5—and live robustly into their 20s and even 30s.
- They are extremely sure-footed and sturdy. Despite their small stature, they can easily carry a 6’2” man over hill and dale and across rocks, tufts, sand, and through rivers.
- They are extremely comfortable to ride, thanks to their special gaits. Their most popular and mile eating gait is the tölt, which is a four beat gait that varies in speed from a fast walk to a near gallop.
Hestar play an important role in Iceland’s economy. Since the 9th century, Icelandic horses have adapted to their environment. They are a uniquely pure breed thanks to both their geographical isolation and to strict and prescient breeding restrictions. (For example, once a horse leaves the island, it will never be allowed back nor are any horses allowed to be brought onto the island.) Their original roles as beasts of burden and as a food source have also adapted to modern needs. As the influx of automobiles diminished their usefulness in transportation, their importance to recreation and pleasure increased. The lure of horse trekking has played an enormous role in Iceland’s quick recovery from a devastating financial collapse in 2008. Although horse meat is still served in Iceland, it is no longer a staple source of protein. It is said that about 80,000 horses share less than 40,000 square miles with 300,000 people. Because I’ve blathered on so long over the breed in general, in my next post I will share my own yeehaa experiences with Icelandic ponies.