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Iceland’s iconic horses are hardy and remain resilient despite the hardships they have been bred to face, including harsh winters and periodic volcanic eruptions. The Bardarbunga volcanic activity follows the eruptions of Grimsvotn in 2011, and Eyjafjallajökull in 2010.
Iceland has a history of volcanic activity. With one of the highest concentrations of active volcanoes on earth, Iceland’s people and animals have learned to live with volcanic eruptions. Livestock in Iceland, including sheep, cows, and horses, are usually found roaming free during the summer months.
The Laki eruption in 1783-1784, which was actually a series of volcanic events over an eight-month span, is considered to be the most devastating volcanic activity in Iceland’s recorded history. Approximately 75 percent of the Icelandic horses living on the island at the time were killed by ash fallout from the Laki eruption. Today’s Icelandic horses are descended from those that survived.
Genetic purity of the Icelandic horse has always been strictly maintained, even prior to the population decimation in 1784. The small, compact, yet powerful animals are ideally suited for living in the harsh environment of Iceland. Today, genetic purity of the Icelandic horse breed is maintained primarily for disease control.
Because all the horses on the island nation are so genetically similar, the effects of a single infectious disease organism could be more devastating than a volcanic eruption. To maintain tight control around exposure to infective agents, importation of horses into Iceland is strictly prohibited. Even horses born and raised in Iceland are not allowed to return home, ever, if they leave the island for any reason.
The ancestors of today’s hardy Icelandic horses were brought to the island by Norwegian Vikings around the end of the 8th century. Despite the hardships the centuries have wrought, there are approximately 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland currently. Separate populations of Icelandic horses exist in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
Icelandic horses are genetically bred to have a smooth, ground-covering, four-beat gait called a tolt, which is similar to a running walk. Their compact size and powerful muscles makes Icelandic horses economical to maintain yet strong enough to work hard. Icelanders who go on long rides with their horses traditionally plan to take more than one horse per person, swapping mounts partway to the destination. This allows for the maintenance of a brisk pace all day without causing excessive fatigue for any one individual animal.
Throughout their nation’s history, Icelanders have cultivated a unique reliance on their horses that manifests today in a combination of reverence and practicality. Historically, horseback was the only means of transportation in the country, so a good, sure-footed horse represented wealth, independence, and capability.
Because Icelanders depended so heavily on their relationships with their horses, companionship with one’s mount became of the most highly valued types of relationships. Icelander leaders and heroes were often buried with their horses and, at the end of life, a person’s fondest wish was often expressed as a desire to connect with his beloved horse in the afterlife.
Notably, the meat of Icelandic horses is eaten whenever an animal is culled from the herd. This practice is a practical means of keeping the genetics of the Icelandic horse population pure and strong.
Iceland’s hardy horses stand as proud symbols of the Icelandic people’s ability to live well in a harsh environment. No matter what the seismic activity or the weather, Icelanders and their horses will continue to prevail despite hardships.
By Lane Therrell