The Icelandic Horse
The Icelandic horse was developed in Iceland. Although the horses are small, at times pony-sized, most registries for the Icelandic refer to it as a horse. Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy. In their native country they have few diseases; Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return. The Icelandic displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly displayed by other breeds. The only breed of horse in Iceland, they are also popular internationally, and sizable populations exist in Europe and North America. The breed is still used for traditional farm work in its native country, as well as for leisure, showing and racing.
Developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, the breed is mentioned in literature and historical records throughout Icelandic history; the first reference to a named horse appears in the 12th century. Horses were venerated in Norse mythology, a custom brought to Iceland by the country's earliest settlers. Selective breeding over the centuries has developed the breed into its current form. Natural selection has also played a role, as the harsh Icelandic climate eliminated many horses through cold and starvation. In the 1780s, much of the breed was wiped out in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. The first breed society for the Icelandic horse was created in Iceland in 1904, and today the breed is represented by organizations in 19 different nations, organized under a parent association, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.
Icelandic horses weigh between 700 and 900 lbs and stand an average of 13 to 14 hands, which is often considered pony size, but breeders and breed registries always refer to Icelandics as horses. Several theories have been put forward as to why Icelandics are always called horses, among them the breed's spirited temperament and large personality, and the lack of a word in Icelandic for "pony". Another theory suggests that the breed's weight, bone structure and weight-carrying abilities mean it can be classified as a horse, rather than a pony. The breed comes in many colors. There are over 100 names for various colors and color patterns in the Icelandic language. They have well-proportioned heads, with straight profiles and wide foreheads. The neck is short, muscular, and broad at the base; the withers broad and low; the chest deep; the shoulders muscular and slightly sloping; the back long; the croup broad, muscular, short and slightly sloping. The legs are strong and short, with relatively long cannon bones and short pasterns. The mane and tail are full, with coarse hair, and the tail is set low. The breed is known to be hardy and an "easy keeper". The breed has a double coat developed for extra insulation in cold temperatures. Characteristics differ between various groups of Icelandic horses, depending on the focus of individual breeders. Some focus on animals for pack and draft work, which are conformationally distinct from those bred for work under saddle, which are carefully selected for their ability to perform the traditional Icelandic gaits. Others are bred solely for horsemeat. Some breeders focus on favored coat colors. Members of the breed are not usually ridden until they are four years old, and structural development is not complete until age seven. Their most productive years are between eight and eighteen, although they retain their strength and stamina into their twenties. An Icelandic mare that lived in Denmark reached a record age of 56, while another horse, living in Great Britain, reached the age of 42. The horses are highly fertile, and both sexes are fit for breeding up to age 25; mares have been recorded giving birth at age 27. The horses tend to not be easily spooked, probably the result of not having any natural predators in their native Iceland. Icelandics tend to be friendly, docile and easy to handle, although also enthusiastic and self-assured. As a result of their isolation from other horses, disease in the breed within Iceland is mostly unknown, except for some kinds of internal parasites. The low prevalence of disease in Iceland is maintained by laws preventing horses exported from the country being returned, and by requiring that all equine equipment taken into the country be either new and unused or fully disinfected. As a result, native horses have no acquired immunity to disease; an outbreak on the island would be likely to be devastating to the breed. This presents problems with showing native Icelandic horses against others of the breed from outside the country, as no livestock of any species can be imported into Iceland, and once horses leave the country they are not allowed to return.
The Icelandic is a "five-gaited" breed, known for its sure-footedness and ability to cross rough terrain. As well as the typical gaits of walk, trot, and canter, the breed is noted for its ability to perform two additional gaits. Although most horse experts consider the canter and gallop to be separate gaits, on the basis of a small variation in the footfall pattern, Icelandic breed registries consider the canter and gallop one gait, hence the term "five-gaited".
The Tolt Gait
The first additional gait is a four-beat lateral broken or ambling gait known as the tölt. This is known for its explosive acceleration and speed; it is also comfortable and ground-covering. There is considerable variation in style within the gait, and thus the tölt is variously compared to similar lateral gaits such as the rack or the largo of the Paso Fino, or the running walk of the Tennessee Walker. Like all lateral ambling gaits, the footfall pattern is the same as the walk (left hind, left front, right hind, right front), but differs from the walk in that it can be performed at a range of speeds, from the speed of a typical fast walk up to the speed of a normal canter. Some Icelandic horses prefer to tölt, while others prefer to trot; correct training can improve weak gaits, but the tölt is a natural gait present from birth. There are two varieties of the tölt that are considered incorrect by breeders. The first is an uneven gait called a "Pig's Pace" or "Piggy-pace" that is closer to a two-beat pace than a four-beat amble. The second is called a Valhopp and is a tölt and canter combination most often seen in untrained young horses or horses that mix their gaits. Both varieties are normally uncomfortable to ride. The breed also performs a pace called a skeiğ, flugskeiğ or "flying pace". It is used in pacing races, and is fast and smooth, with some horses able to reach up to 30 miles per hour! Not all Icelandic horses can perform this gait; animals that perform both the tölt and the flying pace in addition to the traditional gaits are considered the best of the breed. The flying pace is a two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls; each side has both feet land almost simultaneously (left hind and left front, suspension, right hind and right front). It is meant to be performed by well-trained and balanced horses with skilled riders. It is not a gait used for long-distance travel. A slow pace is uncomfortable for the rider and is not encouraged when training the horse to perform the gait. Although most pacing horses are raced in harness using sulkies, in Iceland horses are raced while ridden.
The Flying Pace Gait
About 900 years ago, attempts were made to introduce eastern blood into the Icelandic, resulting in a degeneration of the stock. In 982 AD the Icelandic Parliment passed laws prohibiting the importation of horses into Iceland, thus ending crossbreeding. The breed has now been bred pure in Iceland for more than 1,000 years. The first Icelandic breed societies were established in 1904, and the first breed registry in Iceland was established in 1923. Icelandics were exported to Great Britain before the 20th century to work as pit ponies in the coal mines, because of their strength and small size. However, those horses were never registered and little evidence of their existence remains. The first formal exports of Icelandic horses were to Germany in the 1940s. Great Britain's first official imports were in 1956, when a Scottish farmer, Stuart McKintosh, began a breeding program. Other breeders in Great Britain followed McKintosh's lead, and the Icelandic Horse Society of Great Britain was formed in 1986. The number of Icelandic horses exported to other nations has steadily increased since the first exports of the mid-19th century. Since 1969, multiple societies have worked together to preserve, improve and market these horses under the auspices of the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations. Today, the Icelandic remains a breed known for its purity of bloodline, and is the only horse breed present in Iceland.
The Icelandic is especially popular in western Europe, Scandinavia, and North America. There are about 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland (compared to a human population of 317,000), and around 100,000 abroad. Almost 50,000 are in Germany, which has many active riding clubs and breed societies. Icelandic horses still play a large part in Icelandic life, despite increasing mechanization and road improvements that diminish the necessity for the breed's use. The first official Icelandic horse race was held at Akureyri in 1874, and many races are still held throughout the country from April through June. Both gallop and pace races are held, as well as performance classes showcasing the breed's unique gaits. Winter events are often held, including races on frozen bodies of water. In 2009 such an event resulted in both horses and riders falling into the water and needing to be rescued. The first shows, focused on the quality of animals as breeding stock, were held in 1906. The Agricultural Society of Iceland, along with the National Association of Riding Clubs, now organizes regular shows with a wide variety of classes. Some horses are still bred for slaughter, and much of the meat is exported to Japan. Farmers still use the breed to round up sheep in the Icelandic highlands, but most horses are used for competition and leisure riding.
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