Icelandic Horses: A Breed of Its Own

A small island deserves a small horse! The Icelandic ponies are actually horses. Though short in stature, usually between 13 and 15 hands, they are registered by breeders as a horse. This small horse is a very hardy breed and suffer from far less diseases than a mainland horse. The law does not let these small guys to be exported and no other breeds to be imported. If one ever were to leave the island, they are never allowed to return, ensuring the purity of this majestic breed.

The Icelandic horse has even been a focal point in many Norse Myths. They were thought to be a symbol of fertility so they often were sacrificed by early Norse settlers. The horses were revered by warriors during the Medieval period and were often made to fight each other for breeding rights. A warrior killed in battle would often be sent to Valhalla with his Nobel Steed by his side.

Natural selection often played a role in these stallions lives. In the early medieval times the horses would starve or succumb to the brutal winter winds and cold. Exposure to the elements, notwithstanding volcanic eruptions, famine and sacrifice, often became the end to whole herds. The breed was once thought descendent from the Shetland, Faroe Pony and the Norwegian Fjord horse. In the early 9th century, the Icelandic Parliament prohibited the inbreeding of outside horses. This act in 992 AD lead eventually to a pure breed. For over 1,000 years the Icelandic horse has been a pure breed.

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The characteristic flowing mane, short legs, well proportioned head, incredible weight bearing capacities, muscular shoulders and slightly sloping long backs, make this an incredibly valuable prized possession. The breed has an average life span of 30 good years, with recorded life spans of over 50 years. They are known for having two distinctive gaits, the Tölt, which is a four beat stride good for comfortably covering great distances at explosive accelerations. The second is called flugskeið or “flying pace”. This is a fast and smooth gait used to pace the horse during a race. This is mostly used for short bursts but not a long distance run. An amazing breed indeed.

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A trip on the back of an Icelandic is a great way to explore the terrain of Iceland. The horse is sure-footed and fearless, yet comfortable to ride, even for the beginner. There are numerous farms that offer guests this pleasurable past time. There is nothing like getting up into the wilds of the highlands on the back of one of these majestic steeds.

When in Iceland, search out a farm offering tours and ride one of these wild and adventurous horses. These are treasured companions and loyal servants. They have earned their place in the past and future of Iceland.

 

Iceland: History, Myths and Fairytales

Back in 1970 a famous band sang a song about Iceland. Got it? Yep LED Zeppelin wrote:
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

Hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new land.
To fight the hordes and sing, and cry.
Valhalla, I am coming. LZ

This song congers up visions of volcanoes, geysers , great fields of glaciers etching their way through the lava fields, and great crashing waves. A land that the Vikings called home.

Iceland was named to deter outsiders from coming to this volatile, lush and a very temperate and tectonically active land. It’s counterpart Greenland is actually covered with more ice and snow than is Iceland.

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Considering Iceland’s history began pre 1000 AD, and was a lawless land of Vikings and later Norwegians looking for new lands, it is noted for one of the first parliaments and one of the worlds oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Pretty good for an island of just under 40,000 square miles.

Around the tenth century, the christians came to the island. By the twelfth century its Commonwealth dissolved and it was drawn into the Nordic Union then by the fifteenth century it fell under Danish rule. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the island fell into a combination of hardships, poverty and natural disasters. By the end of the First World War, Iceland finally gained sovereignty yet remained under Danish Monarchy until, WWII. It was a neutral state in WWII but was peacefully occupied by British forces to stop a Nazi occupation.

In the twentieth century it succumbed to the financial troubles of the European economy even though it stayed out of the European Union. Iceland was a founding member of both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Trade Organization. Its economy grew rapidly largely through fishing, although this was marred by conflicts with other nations.

Ok enough of the history lesson… the island of Iceland is home to the meeting point of the European and North Atlantic tectonic plates. It is home to 130 volcanoes, of which 60-70 are still active. It is a land in progress. It has the ability to wipe out most of its population. On average it records 100 tremors a day. It is home to the worlds youngest island, Surtsey, which took just under three years to form from a series of underwater volcanic eruptions. It has become a Petri dish for scientist to study how life evolves from primordial events.

Another interesting fact is the climate is considered subarctic! Sitting between latitude 63 and 64 degrees N, it sits completely inside the arctic circle. It is warmed by the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current which puts its overall climate similar to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The “Summer” months are from May thru early September. This is also the time of the Midnight Sun. In late June through early August the sun barely slips out of sight making approximately 17 to 21 hours of daylight at the Summer Solstice. Likewise the “Winter” months of late November through early February sees only 4 to 7 hours of daylight. The winter and summer solstices vary in daylight by 17 hours.

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Myths and Folklore of Iceland are just as cool as the landscape. Rooted deep in Nordic Viking traditions and lore. Of course I own a “fairy’s steed”. It is believed that the Corgi was used by Fairies to ride into battle. Descendants of the Swedish Valhound they played a big part in folklore. Even though the original inhabitants of Iceland were thought to be thugs and barbarians, Icelanders are considered one of the most civilized peoples on the planet. Their culture is steeped in folklore, Elves, Fairies, Trolls and other interesting sorts. They are strong believers in all things Supernatural. Those include the ones that go bump in the night… the Huldufolk.

The Huldufolk are believed to be the protectors of the land. They comprise mainly of Elves and Fairies. They also can bring misfortune to any household that angers or displeases them.

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Next are the Trolls or Giants. If this sounds like the land of Lord of the Rings… you’re not far from the truth. The Trolls are brought to life in the town of Vik were I have read that three Trolls stand frozen in the Ocean. Actually they are wind and sea carved basalt formations. Trolls are believed to live in the dark grottoes and caves formed in the earth. They are also not too friendly. There is an entire set of books read to Icelandic children growing up. Most Icelanders, if asked, will take you to see a Troll on their property. It is said if they get caught in sunlight, they turn to stone.

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What culture would be complete without SANTA Claus. The Yule Lads, or Yulemen are liken to SANTA and his Elves. Yule Lads are thirteen in number and are responsible for putting you on the naughty or nice list. They put rewards or punishments in the shoes of children who leave them on their window sills during the thirteen days of Christmas. These punishments are normally in the form of rotten potatoes.

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One of the most sustained myths is that of the Alfhol. These are small houses that Icelanders build to house their Elves. These small houses are built with love and great care so their Elves will be happy and not bring any mis-adventures to them. There is even an entire street call Elf Street/Hill. The story goes a street was being built across a lava field and the crews were plagued with constant mishaps.  Equipment failure, accidents and such.  The road was moved a few feet and all the happenings stopped.

Witches, Mermen, Sea Monsters and such are also steeped deep in lore. Kings, Princes, and great Vikings also round out the great tales of Iceland.