The Icelandic horse is a breed of horse that has lived in Iceland since the mid-800s, having been brought to the island by Viking settlers.
There are roughly 100,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland, and relatively few abroad, owing in large part to centuries-old Icelandic legislation that prevents any Icelandic horse from returning to the island once it has been taken to another land.
They are considered small (average 13 horse hands high, or 4'4", or about 1.32m, roughly 800 pounds) but very strong for their size. They can carry roughly one-third of their weight.
It is thought that the horses the Vikings brought with them had a broad variation of looks and many colors, and as such there is today a large variation in color in the Icelandic horses, they can have more than 40 different colors. The horse has been very important as a means of transport, work animal and food source throughout Iceland's history. Since around 1920 the horses have been recorded in pedigrees. Jeeps and tractors have largely replaced the horse as a work animal after World War II. The horses are today sometimes used when collecting sheep, but mostly for horse-racing or riding trips.
Icelandic horses are bred in closed pedigrees because they must be traceable back to icelandic ancestors. Icelandic horses have been bred only with horses from Iceland since the Middle Ages. Icelandic words are used as names for Icelandic horses, words which describe their color etc. and sometimes names from Norse mythology and Icelandic nature are used. Some examples includes Grána which means "grey mare"; Teitur, which means "the happy one" or Frostreykur which means "frost fog".
Icelandic horses were earlier used as work horses around Europe, as they were persevering and low cost maintenance. The Icelanders exported many horses at the end of the 19th century, especially to England and Poland where they were used in mines. In Sweden and Denmark farmers used them as work horses, and women and children rode them. In Europe at the time there was widespread ignorance about how to handle the horses. For instance, many purchasers didn't know that one shouldn't ride an Icelandic horse until it is five years old, whereas most other horses are ready from age three. The Icelandic horses weren't used to being in stables; on Iceland they stay out all year. As Europe became more industrialized, the need for work horses declined.
Since there was no longer a use for so many horses, in the 1950s many horses were slaughtered. In 1954, there was an increased interest in Icelandic horses in Germany and many horses were sold there to avoid slaughter. These horses turned out to be good, fun riding horses, and so breeding was started, and horses were sold to Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In the early 1960s, a few horses were sold to Denmark. There they were at first met with scepticism, but before long they were accepted as a breed of good riding horses.
Icelandic horses are known for their special gaits. Apart from walk, trot and canter, Icelandic horses can also do tölt and pace (skeiđ). Pace is a gait where the horse moves both legs of one side at the same time. Pace/skeid is solely concidered a gait for racing, and ridden at the proper speed is called flugskeid, which means "flying pace". A slow pace, like that used in riding for example certain peruvian horse races, is in Icelandic horses considered useless. Tölt is a gait unique to the Icelandic horses, which they are well known for. It actually moves its legs in the same sequence as walking, changing between having one or two legs at the ground, only faster, so it looks like a running walking pace. Many horse breeders work to breed these gaits. Breeders have also bred the horses to get larger; it is thought that they have become about 10 cm higher during the second half of the 20th century.
Many things have happened in Icelandic horsesport during the last thirty years. Riding clubs and associations now exist in so many countries that, in addition to the national championships, championship competitions are held at the world level. In championship competitions, the horses' gaits (among other qualities) are judged.