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An Icelandic horse is a small, rugged, plucky horse native to Iceland, where horses were first brought by explorers in the ninth century. Although the genetic roots of Icelandic horses are mixed, the breed has since become very pure, due to restrictions on agricultural imports into Iceland that are designed to protect the historic Icelandic horse. Around 80,000 Icelandic horses can be found in Iceland itself, and an additional 100,000 more live outside of Iceland, primarily in European nations like Germany. The breed is highly prized by riders, who appreciate the sturdy constitution, willingness, intelligence, and beauty of a pure bred Icelandic.
Nordic explorers often brought horses with them in their explorations, as the horse occupied a sacred place in Norse mythology. Horses helped to clear fields and herd other livestock along with their riders until the early twentieth century, when automobiles entered Iceland. The numbers of Iceland horses started to decline until the 1940s and 1950s, when the breed was slaughtered en masse since the horses were deemed obsolete. Fortunately, rescue organizations worked to protect the Icelandic horse, importing many horses to new homes outside of Iceland and establishing legal protections for the horses within Iceland as well.
In modern Iceland, the horses are highly prized, and used for recreational riding much more than fieldwork. The Icelandic horse has a distinctive build which sets it aside from other horses. Most Icelandic horses are extremely small, and some verge on pony size, but the horses are quite strong, and able to bear much more weight than larger horses. In the winter, the horse grows a dense and heavy coat to protect it from the cold winters of Iceland, but the flowing mane and tail of the true Icelandic horse are retained year round. All colors are acceptable for the Icelandic breed, and large herds of the horses feature a rainbow of coats including white, grey, pinto, palomino, bay, and black.
The Icelandic horse also has two unique gaits which most other horses do not posses. In addition to the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, and Icelandic horses can also tolt. Tolting is a unique gait which some equestrians compare to racking, a gait demonstrated by American Saddlebred horses. The tolt is somewhat difficult to describe, but the gait is smooth and flowing, like an accelerated high stepping walk. Some Icelandic horses can also skeio, or pace, and very skilled horses can demonstrate a flying pace. When horses pace, they move the legs on one side of the body forward at the same time, resulting in a liquid, flowing gait which is beautiful to watch and pleasant to ride.
Pure Icelandic horses from Iceland tend to be very expensive, and exports are restricted because once a horse leaves Iceland, it can never return. Outside of Iceland, the genetic purity of the horses is carefully maintained with the assistance of national registries to track the breed. When purchasing a horse from Iceland or another location, riders of all skill levels seek out Icelandic horses because of their good nature and natural talent. Young riders often start on Icelandic horses because they are excellent family horses, while talented equestrians use Icelandic horses in sports from endurance riding to dressage.