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From Iceland to Mongolia: The Wild Horse Traits of a Viking Age Horse Breed
August 22, 2020 — The Icelandic horse is a small and sturdy horse breed that primarily hails from Norway, but was first developed in Iceland during the Viking Age. Icelandic horses are small but have big personalities; they are curious, well-rounded, versatile, enthusiastic, and endowed with tremendous stamina. Icelandics are also known to be very friendly. But how did these horses end up on Iceland in the first place?
Over the last millennia, selective breeding helped evolve the Icelandic horses into their current form, and their closest relative is the Shetland pony. Icelandic horses are also natural jumpers and tend to stay healthy and are mentally balanced — they lack the spookiness some other horse breeds have, perhaps because they have been surviving harsh conditions since they first were brought to Iceland by the Vikings. That aside, the horses can also be stubborn and relentless.
Although Icelandic horses are small, at times pony-sized, the circa 80,000 purebreds of Iceland are considered horses. The Icelandic’s stocky build and shaggy mane and tail are similar to the Mongolian horse whose genes it bears, and both are pony-sized (genetic analyses have revealed links between the Mongolian and Icelandic horses.) Icelandic horses are commonly viewed as the closest of any breed in the world to the prehistoric wild horse Equus ferus which is now extinct.
Mongolian horses were imported to ancient Fennoscandia from Kievan Rus’ by Gotlandic traders known as Varangians. The imported Mongol stock contributed to the Fjord, Exmoor, Scottish Highland, Shetland, and Connemara breeds, all of which are genetically linked to the current Icelandic pony. In later times, the Mongol armies of the 1200s CE made use of fear-some war ponies. In pop-culture, large “warhorses” of medieval Europe tend to be used for most movies, shows, and documentaries, which results in mounted Vikings being routinely depicted inaccurately.
COULD THE FINNHORSE BE A MISSING LINK?
In 2019, a team of Finnish scientists discovered a potential relative to the Icelandic horse. The study focused on the Finnhorse, a versatile breed divided into four sections: trotters, pony-sized horses, draught horses, and riding horses.
Surprisingly, the Finnhorse bore genetic links to Przewalski’s horse, which has always been speculated but never confirmed. In other words, the result of the Finnish study supports previous suggestions of a close relationship between the Finnhorse and wild horses of ancient Eurasia. Also, the Finnhorse has been confirmed to be a close relative of the native Scandinavian, Estonian, and Mongolian horses.
Horse breeders in Finland have reported some Finnish horses can tölt if properly trained, just like the Icelandic — although tölt is generally seen as a defect in Finland. It would not amaze me if a relationship between the Icelandic and the Finnhorse will soon be demonstrated!
VIKINGS BRING HORSES TO ICELAND
Between the 860s and 930s, the ancestors of the Icelandic horse were brought to Iceland by Viking Age Scandinavians who mainly sailed from Norway. Around the same time, Vikings and Norse-Gael people of the Norse colonies in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Western Isles of Scotland arrived in Iceland with other ancient breeds (that elsewhere evolve into the Shetland, Highland, and Connemara ponies.) These Norse-Gael horse breeds were crossed with the early Icelandic pony.
There may also have been a connection between the Icelandic pony and Yakut horse. The Yakutian is a native breed from the cold north hinterlands of far eastern Siberia. The Yakut horse is large, and not a pony, although closely related to the otherwise similar Mongolian horse and Przewalski’s horse.
The Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy, and also highly unique since they are the only breed in the world that can perform five gaits (ways of walking.) Other horse breeds can only perform three or four. Common movement patterns are called walk, trot, and canter/gallop, but Icelandic horses can also pace and do what is called tölt (possibly “tǫltr” in Old Norse.) Tölt is the Icelandic word for a speedier version of horse walking, but more impressive as the Icelandic horses lift their front legs up high, and only one foot touches the ground at any time. Tölt is useful for providing a steady ride on uneven ground and was especially needed on Iceland in the Viking Age before roads had developed. Not all Icelandic horses can perform tölt, and those who can often need to be trained to tölt properly.
Horses in the Icelandic Sagas
In Norse culture, quality horses were highly desired, both for practical purposes and as symbols of status. It is hardly surprising horses often feature in Norse mythology, not only among the Æsir who are associated with well-known steeds such as Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir and its father Svaðilfari — but even more so in later Icelandic literature that describes settlement and conflicts between heathen practices and the encroaching Christian religion in Iceland.
To give a few examples where horses are mentioned in Norse sagas; the chieftain Sela-Þórir set up his settlement at the place where his mare Skálm decided to rest. In Hrafnkel’s Saga, Njál’s Saga, and Grettir’s Saga, horses also play important roles, for instance in horse fights, as status symbols, and plot devices. In one tale, the epic hero Gunnar á Hlíðarenda falls off when his horse trips, looks at his beautiful country of Iceland and decides to stay rather than be outlawed, which ultimately leads to his death. In Hrafnkel’s Saga, the young settler, Hrafnkel, lays claim to a fertile valley in Jǫkuldalur which is a district in Iceland. He builds a temple to Freyr, dedicating to the deity his favorite horse Freyfaxi, which means “Frey’s horse.” Hrafnkel swears an oath to kill any man who rides Freyfaxi without his permission. A serious act, for an oath made to a Norse man or deity — especially one made to Freyr — was unbreakable.
How come Icelandic horses have few diseases?
This fact can be attributed to Icelandic law which prevents the import of any horse or pony into the country, whereas any exported horses are never allowed to return. Moreover, the use of hormones is prohibited in Iceland, and antibiotics are strictly regulated — and strongly advised against. The most important factor though, is that 900 years ago, attempts were made to introduce eastern blood into the Icelandic, which immediately resulted in breed degeneration. Consequently, in 982 the Icelandic Alþingi (Althing) passed laws prohibiting horses’ importation into Iceland to end crossbreeding (a “thing” was a political assembly held from time to time in ancient societies of North-Western Europe — like the Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Gothic cultures to give a few examples.)
The Viking-rooted horses have been bred pure in Iceland for more than 1,000 years now — longer than a millennium.