The Icelandic horse is a popular breed of small equine from Iceland that are famous for their unique tölt, a four-beat lateral gait. With over a thousand years of integration into Icelandic culture, these gaited horses are a beloved icon of their native country.

Descended from ponies brought to Iceland by Norse settlers in the Viking Age, Icelandic horses are hardy equines that evolved to thrive in a unique landscape. Tens of thousands of these horses still live on the island, but the breed is also popular abroad.

Icelandic horses are often featured in tourism advertisements, but these horses’ talents aren’t limited to marketing campaigns. Riders worldwide enjoy Icelandics as competition and pleasure mounts. With quality care, they can live long, healthy lives.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Icelandic horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Icelandic horses.

Icelandic Horse History

Icelandic horses are the only breed of horse native to Iceland. Having evolved in isolation over centuries, they’ve become one of the world’s most distinct and recognizable equine breeds.

Laws prohibiting horse imports to Iceland preserve the breed’s purity today.

Origin

Norse settlers first brought domestic ponies to Iceland between 860 and 935 AD. The Viking horses that accompanied these settlers were the foundation stock of the Icelandic breed. Norwegian Fjord horses are the most direct descendants of ancient Norse horses alive today.

Settlers from Norse colonies in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man followed in later years. Horses accompanying these settlers shared ancestry with Shetland, Connemara, and Highland pony breeds that developed later in those regions.

The Icelandic government prohibited importing foreign horses to Iceland in the late 10th century. Since then, Icelandic horses have developed in isolation from the rest of the world’s equine population.

Research into the evolution of ambling gaits tracked the origin of gaitedness in horses to England between 850 and 900 AD. The presence of the corresponding gene in Icelandic horses suggests that Norse settlers brought ambling horses from the British Isles to Iceland. [1]

Historic Use

Horses play a significant role in Norse mythology. Early Norse settlers exported these spiritual beliefs to the lands they conquered, and many references to horses appear in medieval Icelandic religious texts. During the Viking Age, it was common to bury horses alongside warriors and for horses to participate in battles. [2]

While horses were prized possessions for medieval Icelanders, they also served practical purposes. The Icelandic horse’s modern gaits are likely the result of selective breeding that favoured ambling horses as comfortable riding mounts for long days in the saddle. [1]

As the lone horse breed in Iceland, these horses were the only means of transportation for centuries. The population grew rapidly until a massive volcanic eruption led to their collapse in the late 18th century, with 70% of Iceland’s horses dying from starvation and ash poisoning. [3]

Despite several population crashes over their history, the Icelandic breed has persevered. The breed grew in popularity as recreational horses, and exports to the rest of the world began in the 1940s. While the breed is popular internationally, exported horses cannot return to Iceland. [4]

Breed Registry

Breeders established the first breed societies for Icelandic horses in the early 20th century. The International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations, or FEIF, represents 22 Icelandic Horse Associations in several countries and organizes international breed competitions.

The United States Icelandic Horse Congress and Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation maintain breed registries in North America.

Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.
Apple Podcasts Spotify Youtube
Mad Barn - Equine Nutrition Consultants | Mad Barn USA

Breed Characteristics

One thousand years of geographic isolation and selective breeding solidified the breed standard seen in Icelandic horses today. Their unique gait is a defining feature of the breed, but these horses share several other desirable characteristics.

Conformation

Icelandic horses typically range in height from 12.2 to 14.2 hands at the withers. While their size technically makes them a pony breed, most breed organizations refer to Icelandics as horses.

Icelandic horses have compact conformations and rectangular bodies. Distinct features include a sloping croup and thick hair. Modern breeding programs aim to produce athletic, light horses with supple and strong bodies.

The ideal Icelandic horse has a well-defined, proud head and a muscular neck. The back should be well-muscled and of average length. Legs are short, and hind legs may turn out slightly.

Colours

All colours and markings are found in Icelandic horses, and the preservation of all coat varieties is an official breeding goal.

The most common colours in the Icelandic breed are:

  • Chestnut
  • Black
  • Bay
  • Grey

Gaits

Some Icelandic horses can perform a tölt and pace in addition to a standard walk, trot, and canter. The pace is a fast two-beat lateral gait seen in other breeds.

The tölt is an even 4-beat lateral gait with long strides and high action. Horses can tölt at all speeds.

Temperament

Icelandic horses should have willing temperaments. Many owners find these horses give all their effort during riding and training without needing encouragement.

They are generally bright and social horses with outgoing, confident personalities. While these horses are generally sensible and easy to handle, all horses need appropriate training to reinforce good behaviour.

Disciplines

While modern transportation has taken over many of the roles once held by horses in Icelandic society, the Icelandic breed remains a popular choice for exploring the country’s breathtaking landscapes on horseback. Additionally, some highland farmers continue to depend on these horses for sheep roundups.

Icelandic horses are a significant attraction for visitors. The breed is commonly featured in advertising campaigns promoting the country, and horseback riding tours are a popular recreational activity.

However, most modern Icelandic horses are competition and leisure riding horses. Riders can also participate in breed shows with their Icelandic horses, including the World Championship for Icelandic Horses, which is held every other year.

Health Profile

There is ample published research that features Icelandic horses as study subjects. While genetic studies offer promising insights for the breed’s future, some research indicates these horses are susceptible to unique health problems.

Genetic Diseases

Icelandic horses have a relatively small gene pool, owing to their isolation and history of population crashes due to natural disasters in Iceland. Despite their large numbers today, breed enthusiasts previously worried that reduced genetic diversity could increase the risk of genetic diseases in these horses.

However, research suggests that the Icelandic breed’s effective population size and genetic profile have remained stable for the last 150 years. [5]

One study also found an unusually high level of heterozygosity and haplotype diversity in genes associated with adaptive immunity in Icelandic horses. [6] This may provide these horses a broader range of defenses against diseases and infections, but more research is needed.

Health Problems

The main infectious diseases that affect horses in North America and Europe are not found in Iceland, thanks to a long-standing import ban.

However, this also means that Iceland’s horse population is more vulnerable to these diseases due to a lack of acquired immunity. Strict biosecurity is essential to protecting these horses.

In 2010, an epidemic of respiratory disease occurred due to an opportunistic pathogen similar to the bacteria responsible for strangles. The disease affected almost the entire population of 80,000 Icelandic horses and led to a temporary export ban. [7]

Icelandic horses also have a high incidence of degenerative joint disease in their distal tarsal joint, also known as bone spavin. Research is ongoing to determine the heritability of the disease in Icelandic horses and the factors that contribute to its development. [8]

Many exported Icelandic horses show signs of summer eczema, which is associated with an allergic reaction to insect bites. This is also commonly known as “sweet itch” and can result in large areas of inflamed skin and lost hair, commonly on the hindquarters. These horses aren’t exposed to biting midges in Iceland, so they may be more sensitive to these insects after being relocated to a new environment. [9]

Care and Management

Icelandic farmers often raise horses in large herds turned out in natural conditions. While riding horses are kept in stables over the winter, many graze and live on summer pastures the rest of the year.

Even though some of these horses have limited human interaction during parts of the year, they still need quality basic care to fulfill their physical and behavioural needs. Icelandic horses used for riding in other parts of the world have more rigorous management, consistent with typical practices.

Work with your veterinarian and other equine practitioners to implement a preventative care program that includes:

  • Veterinary Exams: Regular veterinary check-ups are important for monitoring your horse’s health so you can address potential issues promptly.
  • Vaccinations: Consult with your veterinarian about which vaccines are most important for your horse. Vaccinations are essential for Icelandic horses living abroad, as they don’t have immunity to infectious diseases found elsewhere in the world.
  • Dental Care: Regular dental exams and teeth floating are essential for horses to ensure proper chewing, prevent dental issues, and support digestion. Dental care is particularly important for senior horses.
  • Parasite Management: Keep your horse safe from internal parasites with a comprehensive deworming program.
  • Hoof Care: Regular hoof trimming from a qualified farrier is important for maintaining hoof balance and soundness. Studies show poor hoof balance can increase the breed’s risk of lameness and hoof pathologies. [10]

These horses also need daily grooming to prevent debris from building up in their thick coats and causing skin irritations. Using insect control strategies and fly protection gear can also help manage skin hypersensitivity in exported Icelandic horses.

While many horses are kept in individual boxes, research indicates that group housing systems are better for the welfare of Icelandic horses. One study found group living increased periods of activity and time spent lying down, suggesting improved well-being and comfort. [11]

Housing your horse outdoors or ensuring ample turnout promotes natural behaviors and supports overall health in Icelandic horses. Regular activity and exercise also support bone strength and healthy body condition. [12]

Nutrition Program

A balanced diet is vital for maintaining overall health in Icelandic horses. These horses share a predisposition for metabolic issues with their British pony ancestors, , making it essential for owners to monitor their feeding program closely.

Weight Maintenance

Icelandic horses are easy keepers, which indicates that they are efficient at extracting nutrients from their feed and can maintain their weight on minimal feed.

Research comparing Icelandic horses to Standardbreds on identical diets revealed that the Icelandic horses gained weight while the Standardbreds lost weight. The same study also found higher plasma insulin levels in Icelandics, which could explain the metabolic differences. [13]

Icelandic horses also have an increased risk of equine metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, which can predispose these horses to laminitis. Feeding a low-HC diet with limited sugar and starch can help mitigate these risks.

One study found that Icelandic horses able to maintain their body condition over the winter when pasture is scarce. Temperatures as low as -31°C (-24°F) were well tolerated. [18]

Sample Diet

The following sample feeding program is based on a 800 pound (360 kg) mature Icelandic horse at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 15 g (1 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 100 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 104%
Protein (% of Req) 125%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.5%

 

Several studies confirm that Icelandic horses can easily maintain weight on a forage-only diet. [13][18] These horses don’t need grain or commercial concentrates to meet their energy needs.

However, forage-only diets are typically deficient in essential vitamins and minerals that are missing in hay. A concentrated vitamin and mineral supplement can help balance forage-based diets without increasing dietary starch or calories. [14]

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement that provides essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to fortify forage-based diets. This formula also contains biotin to support hoof health and and yeast for gut health in Icelandic horses.

Omneity – Premix

5 stars
88%
4 stars
6%
3 stars
4%
2 stars
1%
1 star
1%

Learn More

  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
  • Our best-selling equine vitamin

Forage

Forage is the foundation of the equine diet and essential for supporting your horse’s digestive health. One study found that providing hay throughout the day reduced gastric ulcer incidence in Icelandic horses brought into training off pasture. [12]

An average 800 pound (360 kg) Icelandic horse should consume 16 pounds (7.2 kg) of average quality, low-starch, low-sugar grass hay dry matter daily. Low-calorie forages are ideal for easy keepers because they add bulk and fiber to the diet without contributing to excessive weight gain. Choose hay with less than 10% hydrolyzable carbohydrates (HC) to maintain lower insulin levels. In comparison, NSC contains fractions that have no impact on insulin levels.

Horses should have free-choice access to forage to minimize time spent with an empty stomach. However, some Icelandic horses may become over-conditioned with unrestricted hay. A slow feeder can slow down hay intake and prolong access to forage.

Some lush pasture grasses are too high in starch and sugar for this breed. Consider using a grazing muzzle to regulate your horse’s grass intake or turning your horse out on a dry lot with appropriate hay provided. [15]

Feeding Recommendations

High-starch grains can contribute to digestive upset in Icelandic horses. Instead of complete feeds and ration balancers, opt for concentrated vitamin and mineral supplements to eliminate concentrates from the diet.

If you need a carrier for your Icelandic horse’s supplements, use high-fibre options such as soaked beet pulp or hay pellets. Fat is a safer source of concentrated calories for Icelandic horses in training that need extra energy. omega-3 fatty acid supplements also support skin health in Icelandic horses with insect hypersensitivity. [17]

All Icelandic horses need access to fresh, clean water to maintain adequate hydration. Providing your horse with free-choice salt also encourages thirst and helps to meet sodium requirements. Our nutritionists also recommend adding 1 – 2 tablespoons of plain salt to your horse’s daily feed.

Nutritional Supplements

Providing a balanced diet with adequate vitamins and minerals is the first priority when designing a feeding plan for your Icelandic horse. Once your horse’s diet is balanced, you can consider adding other nutritional supplements to address individual needs.

  • W-3 Oil is an energy and essential fatty acid supplement that supports skin health, joint function and the immune system in Icelandic horses. This oil contains the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, as well as high levels of natural vitamin E.
  • MSM is a natural supplement used to maintain comfort and mobility in horses who need joint support. MSM is a naturally occurring sulfur compound which supports normal homeostatic regulation of inflammatory responses.
  • Spirulina may benefit Icelandic horses that struggle with frequent allergies or illnesses. This blue-green algae promotes the normal homeostatic response to histamine release, oxidative stress and inflammation that support healthy skin, lung function, metabolic health, and the immune system.

Submit your Icelandic Horse’s diet online for a free evaluation, and consult with our experienced equine nutritionists to get help with formulating a balanced diet.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Wutke, S. et al. The origin of ambling horses. Current Biol. 2016. View Summary
  2. Sikora, N. Diversity in Viking Age Horse Burial: A Comparative Study of Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland. J Irish Archeol. 2003.
  3. Vasey, D. Population, agriculture, and famine: Iceland, 1784–1785. Human Ecol. 1991.
  4. Hreioarsdottir, G. et al. Analysis of the history and population structure of the Icelandic horse using pedigree data and DNA analyses. Iceland Ag Sci. 2014.
  5. Campana, M. et al. Genetic stability in the Icelandic horse breed. Anim Genet. 2011. View Summary
  6. Holmes, C. et al. MHC haplotype diversity in Icelandic horses determined by polymorphic microsatellites. Genes Immun. 2019. View Summary
  7. Bjornsdottir, S. et al. Genomic Dissection of an Icelandic Epidemic of Respiratory Disease in Horses and Associated Zoonotic Cases. mBio. 2017. View Summary
  8. Bjornsdottir, S. et al. The heritability of degenerative joint disease in the distal tarsal joints in Icelandic horses. Livest Product Sci. 2000.
  9. Bjornsdottir, S. et al. Summer eczema in exported Icelandic horses: influence of environmental and genetic factors. Acta Vet Scand. 2006.View Summary
  10. Hebrecht, V. et al. Hoof conformation in Icelandic competition horses and its interrelationship with hoof pathologies and tölt performance. Vet J. 2020.View Summary
  11. Hoffmann, G. et al. Influence of an active stable system on the behavior and body condition of Icelandic horses. Animal. 2012. View Summary
  12. Luthersson, N. et al. Effect of moving from being extensively managed out in pasture into training on the incidence of equine gastric ulcer syndrome in Icelandic horses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2022. View Summary
  13. Ragnarsson, S. et al. Comparison of grass haylage digestibility and metabolic plasma profile in Icelandic and Standardbred horses. J Anim Physiol. 2010. View Summary
  14. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academies. 2007.
  15. Watts, K. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clin Techniq Equine Pract. 2004.
  16. Cipriano-Salazar, M. et al. The Dietary Components and Feeding Management as Options to Offset Digestive Disturbances in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2019.
  17. O’Neill, W. et al. Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) supplementation associated with reduced skin test lesional area in horses with Culicoides hypersensitivity. Can J Vet Res. 2002. View Summary
  18. Mejdell, C. and Boe, K.E. Responses to climatic variables of horses housed outdoors under Nordic winter conditions. Can J Anim Sci. 2005.