THE ICELANDIC HORSE
The history of the Icelandic Horse can be traced right back to the settlement of the country in the late 9th century. Viking settlers brought with them their best horses, from various origins, though mostly of Germanic descent. Some sources say that the Icelandic Horse is a descendant of a Northern European breed, “Equus Scandinavicus”, while others claim that the horse is closely related to the English Exmoor pony. Although the origin of the breed was mixed, today this is one of the most purebred horse breeds in the world, due to its isolation. The breed has remained pure for over a thousand years and thus today there is only one breed of horse in Iceland – The Icelandic Horse.
The Icelandic Horse has played a key role in the life of Icelanders from the beginning. In heathen times the horse was highly regarded and renowned in Norse mythology. Several of the Norse Gods owned horses that played major parts in the mythical stories. The most famous of these mythological horses was Sleipnir, the eight footed pacer. The influence of the Norse myths can still be seen in Icelandic horsemanship, as many riding clubs bear names of mythical horses, as do several horses in modern day Iceland. The horse is also often mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas where it played a vital role in the time of Viking warfare.
The Vikings treated their horses with great respect and to a warrior a good horse was indispensable. A slain warrior would often be buried alongside his mount. For centuries the horse was the only means of transportation in Iceland as well as being the most important working animal in the days before machinery. Therefore the horse was called “the most useful servant” and it literally followed man from birth to grave, fetching the midwife as well as pulling the coffin to the cemetery. When the first automobile arrived in Iceland in 1940 the horse rapidly became redundant.However, a few enthusiastic individuals who were interested in the horse´s riding abilities kept breeding good horses and Iceland´s first horse breeding association was formed the same year the automobile arrived, but up until that time horses had mainly been bred with strength and stamina in mind, rather than riding abilities or gaits.
Today, there are close to 80,000 horses in Iceland which is an incredible number for a nation that counts 300,000 people. Ten thousand people are enlisted in riding clubs, but it is estimated that close to 30,000 people are active horsemen in Iceland. The horse is used for pleasure riding, traveling and competition purposes and it still plays a practical role in the annual sheep and horse round-ups where farmers use horses to round up sheep and horses in the highlands. Horse breeding is very popular and there are many ambitious breeding farms in Iceland, as well as individual breeders who breed horses for pleasure.
The first breeding shows were held in 1906 and since then horse breeders in Iceland have concentrated on improving this versatile breed which is suitable for children and adults alike, whether people like to compete or enjoy nature on horseback. Each year thousands of foals are born in Iceland. Most of them are born outside in grassy fields where the breeding mares roam in herds all year round. Natural breeding, where the stallion is with a group of mares in a field for a certain breeding season, is the most common
breeding method in Iceland, although artificial insemination has been available for a few years in parts of the country.
It is magical to witness the birth of a foal during a bright summer night in Iceland´s beautiful
nature and to many a breeder that is their favorite time of year. Breeders like to watch their foals closely in the beginning and they believe that the movements and spirit presented by the foal during its early days will predict their outcome in the future. Experienced breeders easily pick out future stallions and breeding mares within a week from their birth.
Foals will follow their mothers for the first few months of their lives, sometimes longer, but some are stabled during their first winter. After that the young horses are put in a herd where they will learn to live within a group and find their place in the chain of command.
During the summer they graze in lush green fields and during winter they are fed hay and provided with shelter. If they are properly attended to, Icelandic horses can easily be kept outside all year. Horses that are being ridden should however be stabled during the colder months. In parts of northern Iceland horses are still allowed into the highlands during the summer and autumn months. In late September or early October, they are rounded up and sorted out in corrals where each horse breeder picks out his/her horses
and then drives them home to the farm. Raising horses in this manner, in herds that roam free in wide open fields and highlands, is the key to shaping the personality and character of the Icelandic Horse. These horses will treat humans with respect as they have only been handled occasionally, when their hooves are trimmed and they are given worming medication, and they learn to behave within the herd.
The outcome is a spirited and forward going horse with much respect for the rider. The landscapes also play a major role in shaping a sure-footed and muscular horse, toughened by harsh weather and wide open spaces.
Training of the Icelandic Horse does not start until their fourth year. Research has shown that their leg bones are maturing until the age of 3 ½ and they should not be started earlier. Not all horses are started at the age of four, but those who are, are usually trained a little, taught to work with a saddle and bridle, shod and ridden a little. In their fifth year their training is continued and more demands can be made. However, four year old horses can be presented for breeding judgment in Iceland. No breeders and trainers start training earlier than in the horse´s fourth year, but handling and halter breaking youngsters is common and sensible.
The Icelandic Horse usually leads a long and healthy life and their natural life span is 25-30 years, but some have grown much older. In general the Icelandic Horse is a fertile, healthy breed. Since the breed has been isolated in Iceland for a thousand years none of the major infectious horse diseases are found in Iceland. Bone spavin has been researched thoroughly in Icelandic horses and has been proven hereditary. Therefore all rated stallions are now x-rayed and tested for spavin. Sweet Itch (summer eczema) is non-existent in Iceland, but the breed may be vulnerable to it abroad, so horse owners must take precautions in areas where sweet itch is a problem. Special Sweet Itch blankets are available and stabling horses during dusk and dawn may also help.
Also, imported horses should be allowed time to adapt to new surroundings and it is necessary to vaccinate imported Icelandic horses against all major international horse diseases.
The five gaits
The walk is a four-beat gait. When walking the horse should be relaxed, moving ahead briskly, putting each foot down independently. The walk is also good for releasing tension and to teach the horse to work in a more focused manner.
The trot is a two-beat gait where front and hind legs on opposite sides move together. The trot is one of the so-called basic gaits and is used a lot in basic training before the horse masters tölt.
The canter/gallop is a three-beat gait, ridden at different speeds. A slow canter is comfortable and is common all over the world in different horse breeds. A fast gallop can liven up the horse and increase its willingness, positive attitude and enthusiasm to work.
The tölt is the specialty of the Icelandic Horse. It is a smooth four-beat gait in which the horse´s hind legs should move well under the body and carry more of the weight on the hind part, allowing the front to rise and be free and loose.
The flying pace is a two-beat gait, well known in the international racing world. When pacing the horse moves both legs on the same side together. In Iceland pace horses are ridden in races, not raced in front of a sulky like in other countries and pace racing in Iceland is one of the oldest and most respected equestrian sports.
Expoort of the Icelandic Horse
Icelandic horses were first exported as working animals decades ago. They were used for farm work and mining and tens of thousands of horses were exported for that purpose. The 1950s saw the first exports of riding horses, and since then the Icelandic Horse has grown in popularity in Europe and North America.
An international association of Icelandic horse owners, FEIF, comprises 18 member countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the Faeroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA.
There are more than 100,000 Icelandic horses abroad, most of them in Germany and Scandinavia. The growing popularity of the Icelandic Horse has made horse breeding a valuable business and it has boosted the agricultural community in Iceland.
Source: The Icelandic horse, published by The Horse Breeders Association of Iceland (Félag hrossabænda) 2006
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