As I stated in my previous column, only one horse breed exists in Iceland.
Protected by law since 940, the Icelandic horse traditionally gets fewer viral and bacterial infections than breeds in other countries.
It is likely that its isolation is the reason for this.
But isolation could also be the reason for its sensitivity to summer eczema, worms and other parasites common in the Icelandic horse.
Summer eczema is caused by Culicoides, or biting midgets, a fly that is about one to three millimetres in size.
But biting midgets do not thrive in Iceland; the Icelandic biting mosquito is a Simulium, or a blackfly.
So summer eczema a problem that only occurs once the Icelandic horse is exported.
The numbers vary on how many Icelandic horses get eczema, but most veterinarians suggest about half of those born in Iceland are prone to it due to an allergy to the Culicoides fly.
In comparison, that number is only about three to seven per cent in most foreign breeds.
However, interestingly, the number of Icelandic horses prone to the eczema goes down drastically in horses of Icelandic breed born in other countries.
The symptoms of the eczema are irritated areas around the mane and tail, which itch, and when the horse scratches itself and rubs itself against trees, walls or fences; they create hairless patches and sores, that can get infected.
The eczema appears to be worst in hot, humid weather conditions — the same conditions the fly thrives best in.
If nothing is done, the symptoms can get so bad that the horse must be put down.
The cause of the disease is thought to be a protein that is spread by the Culicoides mosquito.
This mosquito doesn’t live in Iceland — hence, the disease does not exist here.
The eczema is, however, quite common in Icelandic horses abroad, particularly in those that were born in Iceland and exported.
In fact, in Nordic countries, it is more common in the Icelandic horse than in most other breeds.
This, of course, has caused much worry among horse breeders.
If you were to import a horse, would you import one likely to get sick?
So Icelanders and lovers of the Icelandic horse have been searching for a solution.
A widespread study in Denmark, Sweden and Germany took place in the latter half of the 1990s, which followed about 350 Icelandic horses sired by 17 steeds in Iceland and then exported at some other country after birth.
These horses were studied, blood and DNA tests taken, and their disease, when existent, described at length.
Information was also gathered on the horses’ surroundings, how far they dwelled from running water and lakes, and what they ate on a regular basis.
(Their DNA samples are now kept at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket in England.)
The study proved that of these 350 horses, 34.5 per cent suffered from eczema — but of those who had lived for more than two years abroad, nearly half suffered from it.
The most important factors regarding the disease appeared the amount of years from export, humidity and wind in their fields.
The studies are not completed yet, and more are underway both in Iceland and elsewhere.
In the meantime, the Icelandic government has financed the research of a possible creation of a vaccine.
In the vaccine study, the horses are tested for their immunity to eczema (in a similar way as humans are tested for allergies), and if they prove positive, they could be vaccinated prior to export to another country, and over the summer time.
For now, a sensitivity test has been created in Hannover, Germany, and some foreign importers have begun to voice their desire for this test prior to purchase — perhaps understandably much to Icelandic exporters’ dismay.
But former editor of Eidfaxi, the Icelandic horse magazine, pointed out in an editorial a few years back that as there are about 80,000 horses in Iceland, and only about 2,000 are exported each year, it shouldn’t be too hard to find good, exportable horses for export among the horses in Iceland, even should the demand increase.
“If half of Icelandic horses are little or not at all prone to summer eczema, then we have plenty of healthy outstanding horses for the 2,000 needed for export,” said the editor.
Furthermore, sensitivity test would quickly cause an increase in demand for foals from immune parents, which would within a few years lessen the high percentage of Icelandic horses prone to the disease.
If this is done quickly, foreign horse breeders will not develop prejudges against horses born in Iceland, the editor said.