Hestur: The Majestic Icelandic Horse and Its Unique Qualities

Gallop into the heart of Iceland's equestrian charm with our guide to Hestur – the Icelandic horse.


blog authorBy Johanna Sigurðardóttir shield verificationVerified Expert

Have you ever gazed upon the rugged, volcanic majesty of Iceland and spotted a creature as wild-hearted as the landscape itself? Meet the Icelandic horse, or 'Hestur'—a living tapestry of Iceland's Viking ancestry, galloping through time with a mane as untamed as the island's spirit. 

Isolated for millennia, these equine marvels boast a lineage as pure as Iceland's crystalline rivers. But what is it about Hestur that captures the hearts of both the stoic Icelander and the avid horse lover alike? Could it be their versatile resilience, a mirror to the land that shaped them? 

Join us as we trot through history, exploring the unique characteristics and cultural imprint of Iceland's cherished steeds. Welcome to the saga of Hestur—the horse that rides through Iceland's soul.

What Makes the Icelandic Horse, or 'Hestur,' So Unique?

What sets the Icelandic Horse, affectionately known as 'Hestur,' apart from the rest of the equine world? Tracing back to the Viking Age, these noble beasts sailed across the seas with Norse settlers, rooting their lineage in the heart of Iceland's history. 

Thanks to the country's stringent importation laws, Hestur has galloped through the centuries with a bloodline as untouched as the Icelandic highlands. But how do these horses flourish where others might falter? It's their remarkable adaptation to withstand the unforgiving chill and wild winds of Iceland. Hestur doesn't just endure the harsh climate; it flourishes.  

Its thick coat and dual-layered fur protect it from the elements. At the same time, its muscular frame enables it to navigate through rocky terrain with ease. And if you thought these horses were all brawn, think again. Their gentle disposition and unwavering loyalty make them a beloved companion for riders of all ages.


What Is the Historical Significance of the Icelandic Horse?

The Icelandic horse, or 'Hestur,' is not just a horse but a storied chronicle on hooves. In the sagas of Norse mythology, these steeds carried gods and heroes across the skies and into battle. 

As settlers anchored on Iceland's shores, Hestur was there, a steadfast companion in carving out a life amidst the lava fields. Woven into the very fabric of Iceland's history, the breed has been indispensable—plowing fields, transporting goods, and providing loyal companionship through the long Arctic winters. 

More than just a mode of transport, Hestur has been a friend to the Icelandic people, sharing in their joys and toils alike.

Viking horses

What Are the Key Physical Characteristics of the Icelandic Horse?

The Icelandic horse stands as a testament to both beauty and strength. Despite its small stature, typically ranging between 12 and 15 hands high (48-60 inches), Hestur boasts a sturdy build that allows it to withstand the harshest conditions of Icelandic weather. It's known for:

  • Variety of Coat Colors: Hestur's coat, thick and weather-resistant, can come in an array of distinctive colors—over 40 different shades and 100 variations, in fact.
  • Longevity: This breed is renowned for its long lifespan, with many horses living well into their thirties.
  • Hardiness: Accustomed to Iceland's tough environment, these horses showcase unmatched hardiness, able to thrive with minimal shelter and forage. 

Icelandic horse

What Gaits Are Unique to the Icelandic Horse?

The Icelandic horse is a gaited marvel, boasting not three but five distinct gaits. Beyond the common walk, trot, and gallop, Hestur graces the earth with the tölt and the flying pace. 

The tölt is a coveted gait, offering a smooth, ground-covering rhythm that can be sustained over long distances, making it as comfortable as it is efficient. The flying pace, a fast and thrilling two-beat lateral gait, is used for racing and can leave onlookers in awe. 

At demonstrations, the tölt's stability is showcased with a rider effortlessly holding a full glass in one hand and the reins in the other without spilling a single drop!

In What Ways Are Icelandic Horses Utilized Today?

Today, the Icelandic horse, 'Hestur,' continues to be as versatile as the land from which it hails. These sturdy equines still play a role in farming; their strength is harnessed for both fieldwork and herding. 

Tourism has embraced the breed's charm, with Iceland horseback riding tours offering an authentic way to explore the island's breathtaking landscapes. Leisure riding has become a beloved pastime, with Hestur's friendly disposition making it a family favorite. 

The modern-day has also seen a surge in breeding and showing, with enthusiasts keen to preserve the purity and showcase the breed's beauty. From a practical workhorse to a symbol of Icelandic heritage, the Icelandic horse gallops on as a treasured national icon.

Icelandic horse riding

What Should You Consider When Buying an Icelandic Horse?

Investing in an Icelandic Horse, or 'Hestur,' isn't just a purchase—it's an adventure into a rich heritage. However, it's essential to understand the breed's specific needs, individual temperament, and commitment required to ensure the well-being of these noble steeds. 

  • Temperament: Ensure you're familiar with their temperament; they are known for being friendly, willing, and hardy, but they also thrive on companionship and regular activity.
  • Awareness of Diseases: Educate yourself on common health issues like metabolic syndrome, laminitis, and bone spavin, and ensure you have access to veterinary care that understands these risks.
  • Long-Term Commitment: Owning a Hestur is a long-term commitment, given their longevity and the depth of care they require, including managing their risk of summer eczema and other conditions if located outside of Iceland.
  • Purchasing from Reputable Breeders: As with any breed, ensure you are purchasing from a reputable breeder with a track record of ethical practices and dedication to preserving the Icelandic Horse's purity.**

Icelandic horse breed

How Do You Properly Care for an Icelandic Horse?

Caring for an Icelandic Horse, or 'Hestur,' involves a commitment to their physical and emotional well-being. Various elements play a crucial role in ensuring their health and happiness. Here are some tips to ensure proper care:

  • Balanced Diet: Keep your Icelandic horse, or 'Hestur,' happy with a diet that's as balanced as a Viking's sword. Low-NSC hay is the bread and butter, but don't let them feast like kings, or you'll have a round-bellied steed!
  • Shelter: Even though they're as tough as the Icelandic winters, a cozy shelter will keep them snug and dry. A simple, stable, or thick hedgerow can be sufficient. 
  • Veterinary Check-ups: Regular vet visits are essential for vaccinations, dental examinations, and to monitor potential health issues.
  • Companionship: Hestur thrives on social interaction. Ensuring they have companion horses and daily human interaction promotes their emotional well-being.

training Icelandic horses

What Are the Best Practices for Training an Icelandic Horse?

Training an Icelandic horse necessitates a deep understanding of this breed's unique characteristics and inherent traits. Patience and consistency are the cornerstones of successful training, ensuring the horse understands what is expected, thereby fostering trust between the horse and trainer. It's crucial to engage a trainer well-versed in Hestur's specific gaits. 

Harnessing the horse's natural ability to tölt and perform the flying pace requires nuanced knowledge and skill, capitalizing on the breed's unique strengths and ensuring the horse remains comfortable and content throughout the learning process. This tailored approach ensures the Icelandic horse excels in all its unique glory.

Training an Icelandic horse

What Are Some Tips for First-Time Riders of the Icelandic Horse?

Embarking on your first ride with an Icelandic horse is as exhilarating as catching the Northern Lights. It's essential to familiarize yourself with the breed's unique gaits, particularly the tölt and flying pace. 

Maintain a relaxed, upright posture, allowing the horse to move freely beneath you, and keep a gentle hold on the reins without pulling back. Starting with a well-trained horse under the guidance of an experienced instructor can make a significant difference. 

These seasoned experts can provide real-time feedback and adjustments, ensuring a safe and enjoyable riding experience. Remember, patience and practice are key as you navigate this new adventure.

Northern lights in Iceland

How Are Icelandic Horses Showcased in Competitions?

Icelandic horses are celebrated at various competitions and events worldwide, with gait and beauty contests being particularly popular. 

In gait competitions, horses are judged on their ability to perform the unique tölt and flying pace, underscoring the breed's versatility and impressive athleticism. Beauty contests focus on the horse's conformation, color variety, and the elegance of their movements. 

Prestigious events like the World Championships for Icelandic Horses attract enthusiasts globally, offering a platform to admire this magnificent breed. Whether for agility or aesthetics, these competitions honor the Hestur's heritage and contribute to the ongoing efforts to maintain the breed's purity.

Significance of the Icelandic Horse

10 Intriguing Facts About The Hestur

So, now you've learned about the temperament, care, training, and competitions of Icelandic horses. Let's delve into some intriguing facts that make this breed even more unique and captivating.

  1. Sole Breed in Iceland: Icelandic horses have been the only breed on the island for over a millennium, boasting a lineage as pure as Icelandic snow.
  2. Viking Descendants: These horses are living relics of the Viking Age, having been companions to Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.
  3. Five Natural Gaits: Beyond walk, trot, and canter, they have the tölt and Flying Pace, offering riders unparalleled smoothness.
  4. No Return Policy: Once an Icelandic horse leaves its homeland, it cannot return, preserving the breed's health and purity.
  5. Populous Equines: In a nation of 350,000 people, there are around 80,000 horses, highlighting their prominence in Icelandic culture.
  6. Sturdy, Not Small: Despite their pony-like stature, they're robust and can carry adults with ease, thanks to their dense bone structure.
  7. Remarkable Longevity: These horses are known for their long lives, often active into their 20s, with the oldest mare reaching 57.
  8. Kaleidoscope of Colors: They come in over 100 recognized colors and patterns, each with its own Icelandic name.
  9. Beer Tölt Test: A unique competition where riders showcase the tölt's smoothness by riding with a mug of beer, aiming not to spill a drop.
  10. Amiable Nature: Bred in a land without predators, Icelandic horses are notably brave, calm, and friendly.

Viking horses in Iceland

Why Is the Icelandic Horse Important to Iceland's Culture?

The Hestur is not just a breed; it's an emblem of national identity, deeply intertwined with Iceland's cultural fabric. These equine marvels symbolize the resilience, spirit, and distinctive charm of the Icelandic people, their rich Viking heritage echoing in the hoofbeats of every Hestur. 

They feature prominently in national celebrations, parading their majestic gaits and kaleidoscopic colors in front of awe-struck spectators. Beyond Icelandic festivities, this horse gallops through the nation's art and literature, immortalized in sagas of old and contemporary pieces alike. 

They embody Iceland's unique allure, their presence offering a living link to the island's storied past.

Icelandic Horse, or 'Hestur,'

How Are Icelandic Horses Represented in Icelandic Traditions and Folklore?

The Hestur holds a revered position in traditions and Icelandic folklore. They are often depicted as mythical creatures with supernatural powers, featuring prominently in sagas and folktales. 

For example, in one popular legend, a supernatural horse named Sleipnir, famed for its eight legs and exceptional speed, is ridden by the Norse god Odin. Similarly, another folktale tells of the Hestur using its unique gaits to cross treacherous terrains, helping the heroes of the saga overcome insurmountable challenges. 

These stories underscore the cultural significance of the breed, framing them as symbols of strength, loyalty, and resilience, mirroring Iceland's own robust spirit.

Physical Characteristics of the Icelandic Horse

What Role Does the Icelandic Horse Play in Therapy and Rehabilitation?

The Hestur, with its gentle demeanor and intuitive presence, plays a transformative role in therapy and rehabilitation. These equine therapists trot beyond traditional bounds, offering comfort and connection to those in need. 

In equine therapy programs, Hestur's calm and steady nature provides a soothing balm to individuals grappling with emotional and physical challenges. Their rhythmic gaits, especially the smooth tölt, offer a therapeutic cadence that can help improve balance, coordination, and strength in riders. 

The breed's friendly and approachable personality makes them ideal for building confidence and fostering emotional healing, proving that sometimes the best therapists don't say a word—they simply listen with their hearts and heal with their presence.

Why Will the Hestur Continue to Captivate the World?

The Hestur, with its fairy-tale mane and Viking soul, is set to enchant the world for generations to come. This breed's saga is far from over; its global appeal lies in its unique blend of rugged beauty, spirited gaits, and a gentle temperament that can turn skeptics into equestrians. 

As ambassadors of Iceland's majestic landscapes, these horses embody a living heritage that continues to resonate deeply with people everywhere. Their future is as bright as the Northern Lights, promising to draw admirers from all corners of the earth. 

If you're considering buying a Hestur, then we suggest you come to Iceland, rent a car in Reykjavík, and traverse the stunning vistas where these magnificent creatures reign supreme. Witness the breed's magic firsthand and experience the ride of a lifetime. 

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