Icelandic horses: The original horses of the Vikings

By Tom Sweetman

Updated 1032 GMT (1832 HKT) November 22, 2018
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They were the original horses of the Vikings. Taken to Iceland from Norway in the ninth and 10th centuries to help Norse settlers colonize their new surroundings. Fast forward a millennium, and after undergoing a unique policy of pure breeding, the Icelandic horse is today perhaps the most majestic of all members of the equine family. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
Said to give off the impression of courage and power when being ridden, the Icelandic horse is distinctive for its thick and plentiful mane and tail. While boasting a finer coat in the summer, a longer, thicker coat with three distinct layers is grown to help protect them from Iceland's biting cold winter months. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
"They're just really beautiful creatures and being around them, they are so calm and friendly," Icelandic photographer Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir tells CNN. "They're everywhere when you drive around in Iceland, and I couldn't really not take pictures of them because they really are a beautiful and easily accessible subject." Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
As early as the 10th century, in an attempt to ward off degeneration of stock brought about by crossbreeding, a ban on importing horses into Iceland was introduced -- a law that still stands today -- meaning the Icelandic horse has been pure bred for over 1,000 years. And just as no horse can be imported into Iceland from foreign shores, any Icelandic horse to depart the country is also forbidden to ever return. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
If such measures fail to ensure that Icelandic horses remain the purest of breeds, a worldwide database, set up by the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF), is on hand to help out. Each Icelandic horse in the database, living around the globe, can be traced back to ancestors from Iceland, while to register a new horse, proof of their Icelandic ancestry must be provided. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
"They're definitely a huge sense of pride for Iceland," Guðleifsdóttir explains. "They're a really big part of Icelandic culture and Icelandic life as they've been around for a thousand years or more. While they may have been brought over originally from Norway, they've been over here for so long that they've been a part of everything that's happened here." Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
For Guðleifsdóttir, the beauty of the land that the Icelandic horse naturally inhabits is just as important for her photos as the subjects themselves. "I like to capture them like they're wild as it's really important for me as a photographer to help capture just how appealing Iceland really is as I'm so proud of it," she says. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
"Iceland is still relatively sparsely populated and there's still large areas that are like being in the middle of nowhere," Guðleifsdóttir adds. "It really appeals to me to capture that beauty while it's still there because the rest of the world is obviously not like that. Everywhere else there's billboards, gas stations, fast-food places, but in Iceland stuff is still really open. I don't take it for granted as it won't be like that forever." Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
It may be their manes and tails that first catch the eye, but the Icelandic horse is most renowned for its ability to display two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot and canter of other breeds. Icelandic horses can also tolt, a comfortable and ground-covering four-beat gait, as well as performing a flying pace, a speedy two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls -- making them uniquely five-gaited. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
The Icelandic horse breed is one of a kind. And the same can be said about Icelandic horse sporting competition. Based around their two additional gaits, events include examinations in tolt, as well as execution of four and five gait, while races in pace are also staged. Competitions take place around Europe, with a FEIF World Championships being staged every two years. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
But attending an Icelandic horse show is more than just attending a sporting event. The action on the track being just one part of a weekend that sees spectators pitch up tents and park their caravans, while their own Icelandic horses mingle with others in the surrounding fields. Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
"It's totally different from classical horse competitions. It's the culture around it -- it's more of a community, which is what attracts people," ex-FEIF board member Marko Mazeland tells CNN. "There is always something else that is organized alongside it, which is an important aspect of competitions. In the winter time, for example, we organize competitions on ice tracks and on frozen lakes. The sound of the ice is fascinating, you can hear them in a totally different way, and it attracts lots of new people." Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
"FEIF's vision is to bring people together in their passion for the Icelandic horse -- not to bring the horses together, but to bring people and their passions together," Mazeland adds. "The Icelandic horse helps to represent a vision, culture and lifestyle." Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir
"The Icelandic horse has a lot of widespread appeal in Europe and outside Iceland too, so clearly there's something about them that appeals to people other than just us Icelanders," Guðleifsdóttir says. "They're wonderful creatures. It's just a great experience to be around them." Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir