The Icelandic Horse: Lord of the Gaits


When people come to visit Iceland, they usually want to get aquainted with our mountains, glaciers, fjords, bizarre delicacies, hot dogs and even volcanoes.

But we have a firm reason to believe that you should add the Icelandic horse to that list.
Here’s Why.

Originally brought to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, this particular breed of horse has been integral to literature literature throughout the years and mentioned countless times in historical records. Over the ages, selective breeding has developed the Icelandic horse into its current form.

Today, there are close to 80,000 horses in Iceland, an incredible number for a nation that counts only 330.000 people.

Since there has been no cross-breeding for more than a thousand years, the Icelandic horse is as pure a breed as you can find.

And the horses are long-lived and hardy as well, since they very rarely carry diseases and the reason can be traced back to Icelandic law, which prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return. The ban still stands today, and has since 982 AD.

The two additional gaits

In 1904, the first breed society for the Icelandic horse was founded, and today that breed is represented by organizations in 19 different nations, organized under a parent association, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.

All sorts of competitions are held, emphasizing the different gaits of the horses, from novice fun classes to top class championships.

Some are known to be almost pony-sized, and most registries for the Icelandic simply refer to it as a horse. But this one, traditionally used for sheepherding work locally, demonstrates two gaits in addition to the standard walk, trot and gallop, most common in other breeds.

Let’s break it down more thoroughly.

The walk is a four-beat gait. The horse should be relaxed when walking, moving ahead briskly and putting each foot down independently.

The trot is a two-beat gait where the front and hind legs on opposite sides move together. It is important to train it as well as the other gaits.

The canter/gallop is a three-beat gait, ridden at different tempo. A slow canter is comfortable while a fast gallop can liven up the horse and increases its willingness.

The tölt is the specialty of the Icelandic Horse. It is a smooth four-beat gait in which the horse’s hind legs move well under the body. The Icelandic Horse can manage this gait naturally and with variations in speed, from a gracious, collected slow tölt up to a very fast and extended tölt. The smoothness of this gait is what makes it so desirable.

The flying pace is a two-beat lateral gait. Not all Icelandic horses can perform the pace, but those that manage all five gaits well are considered the best of the breed


For enthusiasts, Íshestar is a horseback riding tour operator who has been offering horseback riding tours in Iceland for over 30 years. With great emphasis on sustainable tourism, they offer adventurous tours in the unspoiled nature of our country.

Horseback travelling has been growing in popularity in recent years. Some would say understandibly, since few things to the feeling of exploring pure nature with a partner who can get to places few vehicles can. Icelandic horsemen are respectful and considerate when it comes to nature, just as they are with their horse.


Different tones

Some Icelandic horses actually change color. They can be chestnut in winter and white during spring, but anything goes, really, and sometimes the color of their “coats” mixes up. The Icelandic is the most colorful breed in the world, with over 40 different colors and over 100 variations.

A common question is whether horses see in black and white. In truth, they are orange-blue “color-blind” in that although they can see objects with these colors, they cannot differentiate between orange and blue solely on the basis of color since they both appear to be gray-white to the horse.

Horses are known to have terrific memory, and that’s why they are great with bonding with people whom they trust and remember.

When communicating with a horse, they sense tone rather than connect to single words.