During the photo trip, one of my main goals was to capture the stunning natural beauty that is Iceland; after all, the country is filled with amazing sights, well-known for its glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers, and lagoons. Although puffins were listed among our tour stops, the fauna of Iceland was not my main interest.
So, when we made a road-side stop to photograph some horses in a field, I did not expect to come away with a profound impression of how the Icelandic horse connects to this rugged land and its people.
As I helped several of the other photographers in our group to get some good shots by drawing the attention of several of the horses, I came to feel that there is a strong connection between this land and its horses. It’s as if the horse is a reflection of the country: not large, yet sturdy, able to withstand whatever nature throws at them, and filled with a strong character.
A coat that is able to grow for the tough Winter months, compact size and sure-footedness are some of the key characteristics of the Iceland horse.
The horse was brought to Iceland by the Norse settlers who arrived in the 9th and 10th centuries. From these horses, over the centuries selective breeding, as well as natural selection, developed the breed into its current form. The breed was almost wiped out due to the massive eruption of the volcano at Laki in 1783; the months of spewing of sulfuric aerosols from this event had a profound impact on the climate and landscape, reaching well beyond Iceland.
As these horses stand an average of 13 to 14 hands, many will consider them pony size, despite the fact that breed registries refer to the Icelandics as horses. They are also known for a spirited temperament and large personality, and have another unique characteristic: their gait.
The Icelandic is a five-gaited breed, as they have two additional gaits beyond walk, trot and canter/gallop. The fourth gate is a four-beat lateral ambling gait know as the tölt; this gait stands out due to its explosive acceleration and speed, while still being comfortable. The fifth gait is called a skeið or flugskeið (flying pace); this racing gait is fast and smooth, enabling the horse to reach speeds of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h).
Next time when you’re in Iceland, go check out these horses and don’t be afraid to talk to them; they are great listeners who prefer a good conversation over a handful of grass!