Finding your Perfect Icelandic Horse

Finding the right horse is always a difficult task. The difficulty in finding the right Icelandic Horse is compounded by the fact that there are so few in the United States. Add to that the frequency of "backyard breeding" and the lack of experienced trainers to advise and guide you and the task can become trying. It is an important decision that may affect your life for many years, so BE PATIENT! A mistake in purchase can be costly and difficult to remedy.

Of the 9.2 million horses in the U.S., only 4,598 are registered Icelandics.

Let that sink in. Of all horses in the U.S., point zero four percent (.04%) of them are Icelandics. There are 2.5 million registered Quarter Horses. 500,000 registered Thoroughbreds. 33,000 feral horses. 

4,598 Icelandics. 

Unndoubtedly, there are more than a few unregistered horses listed by the owner as Icelandic. I sternly caution the prospective buyer: If you want an Icelandic, stear clear of Icelandic Horses that cannot be registered with the United States Icelandic Horse Congress.

Icies are special.
These small but mighty horses have ancient breeding. No breeding horses have been imported into Iceland for nearly a thousand years. The true Icelandic is a very "pure" breed, and those of us who have discovered the joy of this miraculous creature want to keep it that way. They were used as work animals on the farm and for transportation as late as the mid-twentieth century. It is still easier to transverse much of Iceland's difficult terrain on horseback than in a vehicle. Tourists can book a riding tour for a few hours or even go for a week and trek across the entire country on horseback. With 320,000 citizens and 80,000 horses, most of the Icelandic population appreciates their national equine treasure. In Iceland, only soccer is more popular as a sport.

The first record of Icelandics being imported into the U.S. was in 1917 (six leisure riding horses). There is evidence of Icelandics in the U.S. during the 19th century, but they likely arrived from Great Britain. After the first shipment in 1917, there were no other sales until 1955, and the first breeding horses didn't arrive until the 1960's. The first Icelandic Horse club in the U.S. was formed in 1962.

For many years the export of good Icelandic stallions was prevented by the governing association in Iceland and breeders were taxed on the export of highly evaluated stallions and mares until the early 2000s.  Understandably, they wanted to keep their best horses in Iceland. Thus, horses selected for export from Iceland were usually not the finest examples of the breed. Additionally, many early owners in the U.S. cross-bred their Icelandics with other breeds, diluting the special qualities of the Icelandic, such as the gaits of tölt and pace, as well as the calm character and willing attitude. It wasn't until recently, perhaps the last twenty years, that breeders in the U.S. made an effort to selectively breed for high quality gaits and character. Today, conscientious breeders are proud of their Icelandics and are certain to want them registered with the world registration (Worldfengur) through their national governing body (USIHC here in the U.S.). The first international judging system was not put into place until 2002, but now buyers can look up information on any registered Icelandic horse anywhere in the world on Worldfengur’s international database. You will need to join Worldfengur or the USIHC for access to assessments, show results, pedigree and more specifics. This is a very helpful tool for the buyer at any level.

Should I import or buy locally?
This is, of course, the first question a prospective buyer should ask themselves. Icelandic breeders will tell you that growing up in rural Iceland creates a stronger and more willing horse. They believe that roaming freely in the mountains for the first four years of their lives builds stronger legs, harder hooves and a more willing spirit. The horses learn that survival is difficult and become steady partners for their human counterparts.

The buyer must pay for importation costs, which can be expensive. There currently are no direct flights from Iceland to the U.S. for horses, which adds additional vaccination and quarantine costs. Icelandic exporters are trying to schedule direct flights but this will depend on filling planes to capacity. Direct flights ended within the last six months with the rise of the Icelandic kroner. Horses had previously been shipped with fish exports, but the currency exchange rates have upended the system. Hopefully this will change soon. As of this moment, shipping a horse to the U.S. from Iceland will cost the buyer around $5000; $2600 for the flight and $2350 for U.S. import fees. That does not include ground transport from one of the three U.S. quarantine facilities (located in New York, Florida and California).

It is also possible to import quality horses from other countries. Currently, half of all Icelandic horses born each year are foaled in Germany. Denmark has a large breeding presence as well. However, import from Europe will likely be more expensive than import from Iceland. There are also several Icelandic breeders in Canada. American buyers will still need to pay U.S. import fees but can eliminate the cost of the flight. Depending on where you are located in the U.S., ground transport costs can be high.

There is not currently a U.S. certification for Icelandic trainers. Any certified trainers working in the U.S. have been certified through FEIF (the world governing association) in Iceland or Germany. Each certification offers levels of expertise. The U.S. does have a "Riding Badge" program with seven levels designed to test a rider’s knowledge in horse management, various aspects of the breed and riding ability. Consult someone knowledgeable about the specifics of the breed to help them in their quest for the perfect fit.

Most Icelandics have the smooth gait of tölt and many also have the pace. Since they have two extra "gears" there is also a language that the rider must learn to ride them well. It is possible to buy an untrained, registered Icelandic for a much lower price. However, if the buyer does not have the skills and knowledge to train and ride the gaits, horse and rider will experience frustration. Seeking guidance from a knowledgeable professional is the best way to ensure a harmonious partnership. There are currently fifteen regional clubs in the country, and that can be a good place to start if there are no Icelandic stables in your area. Potential buyers can find a wealth of information on the United States Icelandic Horse Club website. Registered horse numbers for each state are listed as well as contact information for regional clubs and breed information. Sanctioned competitions are listed so the Icelandic enthusiast can watch the talented American riders and meet some of our growing community.

Unfortunately, the low numbers of Icelandic horses and trainers in the U.S., as well as import fees, make the initial investment expensive. Potential buyers should budget $10,000. It is possible to find a trained riding horse for less, but if you add transport it will likely come close to that depending on your location. If you choose to import a horse, prepare to pay more; $15,000 is reasonable. If you are looking for a high quality broodmare, stallion or show horse, the price tag will only go up. However, it makes sense to spend the extra funds at the outset and buy the right horse. It doesn’t cost any more to keep your dream horse than a horse that doesn’t suit you. You may very well have your horse for twenty years. Remember: much of the expense of owning a horse is the cost of upkeep, not purchase. 

We incorporated Harmony Icelandics in 2015. We now offer sales, lessons, training and riding tours, and we are breeding quality horses. There is a regional Icelandic club in Iowa called “Toppur,” which was formed in 2016. With nearly twenty members and quarterly meetings, the Icelandic love is growing quickly in Iowa! Stay in our loop by following Harmony on Facebook and Instagram

Many other Icelandic organizations also have a presence on Facebook and members are more than happy to help the prospective buyer. Good luck and happy horse hunting!