The Icelandic horse is a breed of horse developed in Iceland. Although the horses are small, at times pony-sized, most registries 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 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 sheepherding work in its native country, as well as for leisure, showing, and racing.
Icelandic horses weigh between 330 and 380 kilograms (730 and 840 lb) and stand an average of 13 and 14 hands (52 and 56 inches, 132 and 142 cm) high. The breed comes in many coat colors, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, gray, palomino, pinto and roan. 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.
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/gallop, 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 first additional gait is a four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt. This is known for its explosive acceleration and speed; it is also comfortable and ground-covering. Some Icelandic horses prefer to tölt, while others prefer to trot, but the tölt is a natural gait present from birth.
The breed also performs a pace called a skeið, flugskeið 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 (48 km/h). 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. 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.