For a creature just over four feet tall, the Icelandic horse looms large in its country’s folklore. The breed arrived with the Vikings a thousand years ago and was featured in the Norse mythologies that came with them. With the passage of time, the tall tales of Norse gods were replaced by majestic Icelandic Sagas, but the hardy little horses remained.
Typically, a horse this short would be considered a pony, but Iceland has never agreed with the classification, noting the strength and spirited temperament of the breed. First used for sheepherding and other farm work, the breed was developed in seemingly endless permutations for showing and racing. There are now so many colors and patterns that there are 100 Icelandic words to distinguish them.
For all their visual variety, Iceland is keen on keeping its beloved species genetically pure. No Icelandic horse may be bred with any other species, and no other breeds are allowed to be imported. If an Icelandic horse is exported it may never return. The 19 nations lucky enough to have an exported herd must still refer to them as Icelandic.
Aside from their stout beauty, the horses are beloved for their friendly temperament. They are cheerful beasts, known for their enthusiastic personalities and enjoyment of human company. Without any natural predators, they aren’t easily spooked, which makes them easy to handle. Some of their behaviors, too, are distinct. They walk, trot, and canter like other horses, but have two extra gaits: an “ambling pace” (tölt) and a “flying pace” (skeið). The term “flying” references a brief moment when the tiny creature is suspended in the air, all four hoofs off the ground, lending a hint of the magic that earned them roles in the Icelandic Sagas.
In the best known legend, a mighty chieftain vowed that if anyone dared to ride his prized horse Freyfaxi, the interloper would be put to death. When the chief followed through on the threat, he was beaten and chased out of town by locals, who then threw Freyfaxi off a cliff and told the animal to fly to the gods. That act took things too far and the deities were displeased; they restored the chieftain to his fortune, and impoverished the horse’s tormentors. Alas, the gods did not bring Freyfaxi back to life but no one again dared show such disrespect to the value of an Icelandic horse. By the medieval era, such horses were without question the greatest treasure of a household, and warriors were often buried not next to their wives but to their horses.
At Fákasel Horse Park in the northern reaches of Iceland, you can see skilled exhibitions by the four-legged stars of the sagas. But you’ll see plenty of them outside this special equestrian facility, too: They remain highly popular. One census estimates there is roughly one horse for every four humans in Iceland. After a thousand years, this land is truly theirs.