Iceland’s population has just reached 300,000 people, while the Icelandic horse numbers at 80,000 beasts.
Of these, about 2,000 animals are exported each year — and quite a few go to Canada.
Only one breed of horses exists in Iceland, and it is quite remarkable for several reasons.
A breed that prospers for more than 1,000 years without interbreeding with other breeds is bound to be noteworthy.
Few horses in the world are as sure-footed as the Icelandic breed, and the reason is — that for the past millennium, these beasts have had to live on sharp lava that can hurt a hoof quite badly.
Ergo, the horses have been forced to learn to walk carefully.
The animals are also quite pretty, though tiny. They fall just at the borderline of a pony, but beware of calling an Icelandic horse a pony in front of an Icelander.
The human, you see, is prone to take it as an insult.
Icelanders, who are overly proud of their horses, have bred the beasts since settling the land.
Due to limited space on their longboats, it is likely the Vikings only took their best and most beautiful horses with them when they left Norway. Along their way, they probably picked up a few horses in Scotland, Ireland and other places where they stopped to kidnap a human slave or two.
While Iceland was being settled, between 874 to 930, the Vikings regularly went on their robbing trips in North Europe and Britain; there they stole horses along with humans and other goods.
Thus, specialists suspect the Icelandic horse is a mixture of breeds from all these countries.
Horse protection began quite early in Iceland.
Sometime near 940, the Icelandic parliament, Althing, decided to prohibit horse import.
This was done both to prevent diseases, and also because they were so confident in the horses already in the country that they did not want them spoiled by weaker horses from elsewhere.
I am not aware of any other horse breed that has been protected for nearly 1,100 years.
But the arrogant attitude of the Vikings seems to have born fruit.
The Icelandic horse is special for several unique features — including the fifth gait, tölt, its surefootedness, and its smallness.
Chances are the horses were larger 1,000 years ago, but harsh weather and periods of food shortages may have caused them to become a little smaller since they were first brought to the country.
Their surefootedness is a highly developed skill, bred in these animals over a millennium of walking over lava and ice in all weathers.
As a result, some of the competitions the Icelandic horse participates in are different than what other horses are used to.
Icetölt is one of these.
In these competitions, the horses are made to tölt over ice-rinks, and these competitions can be both very impressive and beautiful — and totally inaccessible to any other horse.
Some horse breeders have begun to worry about yet another a special feat of a few Icelandic horses, which seems to have nearly been bred out of them.
A few of the beasts, including those that belonged to my uncles and great-grandfather, change colour with to winter, just like the arctic fox and ptarmigans do.
The horses that belonged to my family used to get lighter in winter, presumably to assimilate the snow covering the ground, and then darker again in summer.
The colour change was so marked that the horses would be called red in summer but pale brown in winter.
However this particular ability has nearly been bread out of them.
One of my cousins has one of these mares, and has not been successful in finding a stallion capable of the colour change to breed with her.
Hopefully some other breeders have.
Sigrún María Kristinsdóttir is an Icelandic/Canadian writer, who until recently lived in the Yukon, but now resides in Reykjavík.