While the mere thought of our trip to Iceland had me starry-eyed and dreamy as I was filled with images of breathtaking sub-arctic scenery, black sand beaches, and cascading waterfalls, there was one thing that I was looking forward to beyond all else, and that was riding an Icelandic horse. I love animals of all kinds and have been riding horses since I was a little girl, so horse riding in South Iceland was an absolute must for me.
Drive even a small way outside of Reykjavik and you’ll see these sturdy little horses grazing in pastures all over the countryside. And they’re some of the most distinctive (and adorable!) horses in the world! There are many characteristics of the Icelandic horse that sets them apart from other breeds. Horseback riding in Iceland is an excellent way to see the parts of the country away from the Ring Road while also experiencing a bit of local culture and tradition. Here are some things to know about Icelandic horses before you go:
It’s a Horse, Not a Pony
Though the Icelandic horse only stands at about 13 – 14 hands (132 – 142 cm) tall — a height that would generally classify a horse as a pony — don’t be fooled; the Icelandic horse is a horse through and through. While short in stature, these little horses are sturdy, stalky, and tough as nails. Throughout thousands of years, natural selection has played its part to allow the horse to withstand and persevere through the harsh Icelandic climate. Their sturdy builds, spirited temperaments, and ability to carry immense amounts of weight all are reason enough to classify these equines as horses. So pay the Icelandic horse a bit of respect and remember that it’s not a pony!
Icelandic Horse Gait
Another idiosyncrasy that makes the Icelandic horse unique among other breeds is their distinctive gaits. The horses are a five-gaited breed, meaning that they have five different speeds and ways of moving. While Icelandics share the walk, trot, and canter with most other horse breeds in the world, there are two other gaits that make the Icelandic horse different from the rest. The first being a gait called a tölt. The tölt is similar to a trot and is the most natural gait for an Icelandic horse. At a speed that lands somewhere between a trot and a canter, it is also incredibly smooth so it eliminates the need to post while riding and there is no chance that you’ll be bounced out of the saddle.
The other gait that sets the Icelandic horse apart is called flugskeið, or flying pace. The flying pace is the fastest gait in the Icelandic horse’s repertoire at one step above a canter. In this gait, the horses are able to reach speeds of nearly 48 km/hour and, because of the breed’s incredible sure-footedness, they are able to sustain it for long periods of time.
Where to go Horse Riding in South Iceland
With approximately 80,000 Icelandic horses throughout the small island nation combined with the fact that they’re as ingrained and important in Icelandic culture as anything makes going horseback riding in Iceland an unmissable thing to do. If you’re driving the Ring Road and are looking to see a side of the country that few tourists make it to, then I strongly suggest horse riding in South Iceland.
Michael and I had the pleasure of going on a wonderful two-hour ride with the company Hella Horse Rental and cannot recommend a better place to go horse riding in South Iceland. Our group only included another Icelandic couple plus the guide and it was perfect for both absolute beginners and experienced riders alike. We were able to spend a lot of time in the different gaits, rode to a gorgeous waterfall where we were the only people for miles around, waded through streams, and got a good dose of history from our informative guide. They offer a variety of rides, though they are only operating between the months of April – September. If you happen to be driving the Ring Road at this time and are interested in horse riding in South Iceland, I would highly recommend going for a ride with them.
The Icelandic Horse: Fun Facts
- The Icelandic horse is descended from the Faroe pony and the Norwegian fjord horse and brought to Iceland by the Vikings. There are also genetic links between the Icelandic horse and the similar Mongolian horse.
- According to Norse mythology, the god Odin is said to have ridden an eight-footed Icelandic horse called Sleipnir.
- In the early 20th century, Icelandic horses were exported to Britain and were used as pit ponies during the mining boom.
- There are about 80,000 Icelandic horses in the country, meaning that there is one horse for approximately every four people.
- Icelandic horses have passports, but once one leaves Iceland, they are not permitted to return.
Horse riding in South Iceland was one of the highlights of our adventures around this amazing and beautiful country. There is something magical about experiencing the awe-inspiring scenery atop one of these fascinating animals. If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, make sure to spend some time on horseback while you tölt through the pristine countryside.
Would you go horseback riding in Iceland? Have you been? Let us know in the comments!