Why Icelanders are Hippophiles

An icon of Iceland, along with waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes
An icon of Iceland, along with waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes

Much as I’d like to witness the open vastness of Mongolia, we won’t be travelling there. When Clare was young, even watching her at Southlands freaked me out. For the same reason, we declined to go on a mountain trip with our friend Marilyn years ago… I’m afraid of horses (there’s a name for it: equinophobia) and horseback tours are the best way to see Mongolia.

Yet, Magellan could hardly get me back in the car when we happened upon a field of horses (twice!) in Iceland. How could anyone resist these small beauties flirting their shaggy manes in such a friendly manner? (Did I mention that both times a fence separated them from me?)

Said to be more curious, intelligent and independent than other breeds, Icelandic horses are considered a national treasure in their home country. They celebrate “The Day of the Icelandic Horse” on May 1 every year. And have special Icelandic words to describe the colours and temperament of their special breed of horse. “Farfús (likes to travel), Háski (daredevil), Ljúfur (dear) or Prakkari (trickster).” Little kids call them gobbigobb, an onomatopoeic word that sounds like a horse’s hooves striking the pavement. As Pegasus is to Greek mythology, Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse ridden by the god Odin, is to the Icelandic sagas.

Sturdy, hardy and long-lived, Icelandic horses graze between glaciers and volcanoes, undaunted by harsh winds or blinding snowstorms. Their resistance to the cold comes from their small size, ability to store nutrients and vitamins from their summer grazing, and double-layered fluffy winter coat. (Check out Gigja Einarsdottir’s photo of a white Icelandic horse in winter in Outside magazine.)

They’re the only breed of horse allowed in the country. As they have been since A.D.982 when the Icelandic parliament first passed a law prohibiting the importation of other breeds. Maybe being geographically isolated in a country with strict breeding guidelines is why they’re rarely sick and considered an “easy-keeper.”

They’re also the only horse with five gaits, two more than other breeds. One of these gaits, the tölt, is ideal for moving quickly over rough terrain, like lumpy lava fields, without jarring the rider.

Iceland has about 80,000 horses. Only about 100 of them roam wild. However, many Icelandic horses live wild in the summertime, grazing freely in herds of up to several hundred. As an article in Outside magazine says,

They are horses that have not had their wildness broken out of them. Icelanders have learned to work in tandem with those natural gifts, and for a thousand years they’ve been culling the untrainable and dangerous horses from the herds, which if anything has skewed the breed even more toward their friendly, cooperative, let’s-get-down-to-business nature.

During our three weeks in Iceland, we saw a few riding clubs, groups of tourists on horseback, horses in fields by the side of the road and some being ridden in a sheep round up. The rest of the world, from Greenland to New Zealand (and Canada), has about 60% of the total population of Icelandic horses.

Don’t call them ponies, we’re told. The Icelandic horse has the weight, weight-carrying ability, bone structure and proportions of a horse, not the shorter legs and wider bodies characteristic of a pony.

Despite their endearing nature, friendly countenance and iconic status, the closest I’ll get to an Icelandic horse is the distance from which I took these photos. But, I am hoping that our friend Elaine, a true horse-lover (there’s a name for it: hippophile) saddles up in Iceland someday and reports back on what it’s like to experience the joy of the tölt.


Bargman, Salvor. “The Icelandic Horse | A Comprehensive Guide.” Guide to Iceland.

Houston, Pam. “My Health and Wellness Plan? Icelandic Horses.” Outside magazine. July 18, 2023.

12 Responses

  1. What an important natural element these horses provide to the identity and story of Iceland.

    They are absolutely beautiful and unique animals.

  2. Thanks! These photos remind me of the Shetland Pony I rode when I was young. He was a Prakkari (trickster). He would lie down in a puddle and get both of us wet. He would wait until we were far from home, then try to dump me. Mostly, he was a fun co-adventurer.
    Riding is a wonderful way to be in the landscape, to see more of the land, and to get much closer to all the wildlife. Horses can teach us many things.

    1. Dumped in a puddle, abandoned far from home…hard for me to see the fun in that—you’re more of a co-adventurer while I’d be thinking of the glue factory…

  3. Interesting Spice is not a horse fancier, I think Grandpa N would also be surprised as well as your dad, of course they new horses well, working with them on a daily basis back in the day.
    No matter not everyone follows family traits to a tee.

    1. I remember getting on “Bob,” our big white horse when I was about six years old and being scared as hell. Dad and Grandpa knew horses all right, but I don’t ever recall either of them riding them—those horses were workers. Being quite fearless as a kid, I probably said I’d like to ride, got on and quickly realized what foolish nerve felt like.

  4. On May 1 I will raise a glass to toast these lovlies..I think they look wonderful. Thanks. 🎶🍷❤️Heather

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