The Icelandic Horse is a breed of horse developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Norse settlers, probably Viking Age Scandinavians, between 860 and 935 AD. Although they are at times pony-sized, most breed registries refer to it as a horse: it could be for the breed’s temperament/personality and/or because its weight, bone structure and weight-carrying abilities classify it as a horse, rather than a pony. Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy: in their native country they have few diseases, and Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country, as well as exported animals are not allowed to return. As a result, native horses have no acquired immunity to disease: an outbreak on the island would be likely to devastate the breed. About 900 years ago, failed attempts to introduce eastern blood into the Icelandic breed resulted in a degeneration of the stock: as a consequence, in 982 AD the Icelandic Althing (parliament) passed laws prohibiting the importation of horses into Iceland, thus ending crossbreeding. The breed has now been bred pure in Iceland for more than 1000 years. Also popular internationally, it is the only breed of horse in Iceland (although sizable populations exist in both Europe — 50.000 in Germany alone — and North America), and is still used for traditional sheepherding work, for leisure, showing, and racing. Horses were venerated in Norse mythology as a symbol of fertility (white horses were slaughtered at sacrificial feasts and ceremonies), a custom brought to Iceland by the country’s earliest settlers, and the breed is mentioned in literature and historical records throughout Icelandic history — the first reference to a named horse appearing in the 12th century (Skalm, a mare mentioned in the Book of Settlements).
Several horses played major roles in the Norse myths, among them the eight-footed pacer named Sleipnir, owned by Odin, chief of the Norse gods. Horses also play key roles in the Icelandic sagas Hrafnkel’s Saga, Njal’s Saga and Grettir’s Saga — written in the 13th century, but set as far back as the 9th century. Over the centuries, both Selective breeding and natural selection played a role in developing the breed into its current form: between 874 and 1300 AD (during the more favorable medieval warm period) Icelandic breeders selectively bred horses according to special rules of color and conformation; the harsh Icelandic climate eliminated many horses through cold and starvation; during the 1780s, 70% of the breed was wiped out in the aftermath of the 1783 eruption of Lakagígar, killed by volcanic ash poisoning and starvation. The population slowly recovered during the next hundred years, and from the beginning of the 20th century selective breeding became important again: the first breed society was created in Iceland in 1904, and today the breed is represented by the ‘International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations’, parenting organizations in 19 different nations. The Icelandic Horse has similarities and/or genetical connections with: the Shetland, Highland, and Connemara ponies; the Yakut pony; the Nordlandshest of Norway; the Faroe pony and the Norwegian Fjord horse; the Mongolian horse. Horses were considered the most prized possession of a medieval Icelander and were indispensable to warriors. Icelanders arranged for bloody fights between stallions, described in both literature and official records from 930 to 1262 AD, which were used for entertainment and/or to choose the best animals for breeding. Stallion fights actually were an important part of the Icelandic culture: physical and verbal brawls among the spectators were common and the conflicts gave rivals a chance to improve their political and social standing, and also had wide social and political repercussions, sometimes leading to the restructuring of political alliances. However, not all human fights were serious, and courting between young men and women was also common at horse fights.
Icelandics were exported to Great Britain before the 20th century to work as pit ponies in the coal mines, however, the first formal exports of Icelandic horses were to Germany in the 1940s. Great Britain’s first official imports were in 1956, and the ‘Icelandic Horse Society of Great Britain’ was formed in 1986. The number of Icelandic horses exported has steadily increased, and 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. Icelandic horses still play a large part in Icelandic life: many races (both gallop and pace races) are still held from April through June; performance classes showcasing the breed’s unique gaits and winter events — including races on frozen lakes — also take place frequently. Some horses are still bred for slaughter (much of the meat is exported to Japan), and farmers still use the breed to round up sheep in the Icelandic highlands, but most horses are used for competition and leisure riding. The breed comes in many coat colors, so much so that there are over 100 names for various colors and color patterns in the Icelandic language. Characteristics differ between various groups of Icelandic horses, depending on the focus of individual breeders: some focus on animals for pack and draft work, some on animals bred for work under saddle, others are bred solely for horsemeat. Icelandics are not usually ridden until they are four years old: structural development is not complete until age seven, their most productive years are between eight and eighteen, and they are highly fertile, as both sexes are fit for breeding up to age 25. The horses tend to not be easily spooked, probably the result of not having any natural predators in their native Iceland, and also tend to be friendly, docile, easy to handle, enthusiastic and self-assured.
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