The Horses of Iceland

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I've always had a bit of a soft spot for horses.

There's just something about these gentle giants that melts my heart — their big eyes, their personalities, they way you can make their top lip wiggle if you tickle their nose… I even volunteered at a horse barn up the street from my house when I was in middle school and junior high.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I made sure to get to know some of Iceland's unique horses during my first trip there.

Icelandic Horses

Icelandic horses are such cool animals. Not only do they have long, shaggy coats and adorably thick manes and forelocks (fringe), but they also are some of the sweetest horses I have ever “met.”

Not to mention that they are genetically unique, too — they are directly descended from the horses the very first Vikings brought over to Iceland back in the 9th and 10th centuries. Since they haven't been introduced to any other horse genes over the years, the result is a hardy breed that can withstand Iceland's often-harsh climate with no problem.

Plus, they're freaking adorable.

Icelandic Horses

But this genetic uniqueness also means the horses in Iceland have to stay contained to Iceland. At one point, some other horses were brought over from mainland Europe, only for people to discover that Icelandic horses were not immune to the same diseases that the European horses were. This resulted in nearly half of the Icelandic horse population dying from disease. These days, no foreign livestock is allowed in the country, and any Icelandic horses that leave the island (such as for an international competition) can never return.

Icelandic Horses

The Icelandic horse is also unique in that it has 5 different distinct gaits. Most horse breeds have 3 — walk, trot, and canter/gallop. The Icelandic horse, however, also has a gait called tölt, which is a smooth, very fast walk; and a gait known as skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace,” which is a quick gait that's often used in pacing races.

I was lucky enough to try out the tölt for myself (as well as cuddle plenty of horses) when I booked a 2-hour horseback riding tour through lava fields with Ishestar (literally “ice horse”), a stable located just outside of Reykjavik.

Icelandic Horses

I settled on Ishestar because I'd heard good things about the stable and the treatment of their horses — something any horse lover should care about. And I definitely feel like I made the right choice.

Icelandic Horses
How is THIS for a location??

Riding horses in Iceland

Upon arriving at the riding center, everyone who was planning to ride was asked to watch a short safety video and stow away all bags and valuables. Then we quickly suited up — helmets were required, and they also offered boots and warm jumpsuits. Even though the jumpsuits looked ridiculous and the sun was actually shining, I put one on anyway for the warmth.

Icelandic Horses
This is the definition of sexy.

Then we were paired up with our horses. Since I have a bit of riding experience, I was paired up with a lovely mare name Fryk, whose big brown, intelligent eyes made me fall in love with her right away.

Icelandic Horses

After getting some help mounting up on our small horses (they're not much bigger than ponies, but don't call them ponies!), we headed off in a straight line into the surrounding lava fields, the sun shining strongly for the first time since my arrival in Iceland. It was magical.

Icelandic Horses

Icelandic Horses

Icelandic Horses

The horses in our group were some of the sweetest, most even-tempered horses I've ever seen. Usually on nose-to-tail trail rides like this, you see horses biting and kicking one another, and others totally disregarding the commands of their riders.

Not these horses, though.

In fact, Fryk was so responsive and obedient that I was able to snap plenty of photos and let my mind wander a bit every now and then. I can't remember the last time I felt so comfortable on a horse.

Icelandic Horses

Halway through the ride, our guides had us dismount to give the horses a break. I've never known a riding company that did this before, but I loved it. Just a further testament to how well the Ishestar horses are treated. Plus, it didn't hurt for us humans to be able to stretch our legs, either.

Icelandic Horses

On the way back to our stable, we had plenty of opportunity to try out the tölt gait. It was so smooth and fast that I couldn't help but grin stupidly each and every time Fryk got going. You could tell she didn't want to stop, and neither did I!

Icelandic Horses

We got back to the stable far too quickly, and I wished I had booked a longer ride than what the Lava Tour provided. Everything was just so perfect on this ride — from my horse to the weather. And of course it didn't hurt that we had just ridden through some truly stunning Icelandic countryside.

Icelandic Horses

Icelandic Horses

Icelandic Horses

This is definitely something I'd love to do again someday!


Want to go horseback riding in Iceland too? Here are a few tours to choose from:

Would you add Icelandic horseback riding to your Iceland itinerary?


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Horseback riding in Iceland


*Note: I did NOT receive anything from Ishestar in return for this post. But I think they're a fantastic company, and highly recommend them if you'd like to ride horses near Reykjavik!

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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43 Comments on “The Horses of Iceland

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  1. Tiny horses. I think they used these in the live action version of Beowolf and Grendel a few years back. I do recall the movie was filmed in iceland.

      They’re SO tiny! I’m pretty sure they’d be considered ponies anywhere else in the world.

      And yes, I think you’re right about that movie being filmed in Iceland. So there’s a good (read: probably 100%) chance you did indeed some Icelandic horses in that flick, since they wouldn’t have been able to bring any others into the country!

    Those horses would burn up down here in Texas. I’m always interested in seeing animals in other parts of the world and how different they are in relation to the environment they live in. Great pictures, Amanda.

      Yes, they certainly would be very warm during a North American summer! (Even in Ohio, they’d have issues). Though I think they might trim them a bit once it gets warmer…

        During the summer, Icelandics shed out their coats and become as sleek as other horses. There are lots of them in North America, plenty in New England and California, but also in Alabama, Georgia, Texas…even Hawaii! I also used to work for Ishestar, and they are great. If you have more experience, you should pick a day tour, or if you’ve got the time, the long tours are fantastic.

          I like them much better long-haired! They’re so adorable when they’re shaggy! I can understand why you can find these horses all over though – they’re amazing horses!

    So cute! I love their long, shaggy look. This sounds like something fun and unique to do in Iceland too!

      I think shaggy animals of any sort are automatically cuter than their non-shaggy counterparts. And yes, you can’t ride Icelandic horses like this anywhere else!

    Horses kind of scare me but even I would get on one for a tour like this.

      The good news about these horses is that they’re very small — much less scary! 😉

    I did the same tour with the same company when I was in Iceland back in 2005. The pictures bring back memories! I had such a good time, especially since I am far from a confident rider. Glad you had a great time too! I just loved the scenery!

      Oh that’s awesome! I thought they were a great riding company, with some really sweet horses. Good to hear you had a nice experience, too.

    Looks like you had a good time. I’m going to Iceland in a few weeks and thinking about doing a horse riding tour. Do you think it was more like a trail ride or were you able to gallop on your own?

      It was fun, but it was definitely more like a trail ride than going off on your own (mostly because the specific tour I chose was suitable for all riding levels). If you have a lot of experience, though, I know there are some stables that will just let you rent a horse and go out on your own.

    This is one of my wish to ride those horses.Thanks for sharing those pictures.

      You are very welcome – I’m glad you liked them!

    Looks like fun, but they really have to do something about those outfits.

      Hahaha, yeah, the jumpsuits were pretty horrible. BUT, they kept us warm (and probably would have kept us dry if it had been raining), and they saved our clothes from smelling like horse for the rest of the day!

    The horses look so unique! I love the long shaggy fur.

      They are definitely very special! And I’ll bet they never get cold in the winter with all that shaggy hair! 😉

    I’m adding this to my Iceland wish list. I first rode a horse in Colorado this fall and was left wanting more. The horses in your post are gorgeous, would love to experience something like this there as well.

      Definitely add it to your list! Icelandic horses are so sweet, and very easy to ride.

    I’m definitely adding horseback riding to my to-do-list for Iceland! Gorgeous photos–I can’t wait until the day I make it to Iceland! 🙂

      It was so much fun! And I think enjoyable for all skill levels, too.

    Looks like fun; wouldn’t normally be one to add horseback riding to my itinerary but who knows… Really interesting to hear about Iceland’s policy on livestock, such a remote country I can understand.

      You don’t often think about some of those issues (like differing immunities and the like), but it definitely was interesting to learn about.

    Oh how I love horses. I used to do volunteer work with them and honestly they intimidate me (and they knew it). Interesting to learn about their lack of immunity – would love to see them in person one day!

      Ah yes, horses can sense fear!! If you’re usually intimidated by them, Icelandic horses would be perfect for you, though. They’re pony-sized, so they don’t tower over you like other breeds! Plus, they’re so calm and sweet that it’s difficult to be afraid of them!

    Very different from our Indian horses. Have to be for the weather is so different too. But they are beautiful indeed and coupled with the majestic surroundings its a perfect picture!

      Quite different from any horses I’ve seen before, that’s for sure! Still beautiful animals, though, and with such great personalities!

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