How to Ride an Icelandic Horse

Three Methods:Trying the Unique Icelandic GaitsRiding the Normal GaitsRecognise the Unique Qualities of Icelandics

Icelandics are an ancient breed, known for being sure-footed, tough and versatile. They are a unique breed that has been protected by a ban on imported horses to Iceland, which has been in place for centuries. The most telling unique feature of Icelandics, is that they are the only horse to naturally display two gaits on top of the usual walk, trot, canter, and gallop. To ride an Icelandic horse, you should work on mastering the two special gaits, known as “tölt” and “flying pace”.

Method 1
Trying the Unique Icelandic Gaits

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    Get him ready for tölt. The tölt is one of the two gaits that is uniquely natural for Icelandic horses. It is a four-beat gait where there is always a part of the foot on the ground. It is an incredibly smooth gait that can still carry you along at up to 20mph. Because of this, it’s great for trail-riding and trekking. It’s a natural gait that you often see foals performing. As such, it doesn’t take much to bring an Icelandic into tölt, but you can start by getting in a good position.[1]
    • Sit slightly further back in the saddle than you would normally. A couple of inches should be enough.
    • Don’t tilt backwards. Keep the same upright position you would have for a normal walk.
    • You can shorten the reins a little as you prepare to transition to tölt.
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    Try a tölt. The footfall for tölt is generally similar to that for walk, so you can move from walk to tölt relatively easily and smoothly. In tölt, the horse will carry its neck a little higher so shorten the reins, sit back a couple of inches and give him a cue to speed up. You can give him a gentle squeeze with your legs, or an audio cue. An Icelandic horse should move into tölt naturally. After a few steps loosen the reins a little more, and keep your wrists flexible and loose.
    • Pay attention to the neck and the head. You want the horse’s neck to lift, not the nose.
    • Be sure to keep the bit soft in the horse’s mouth. Aim to be as soft as possible to promote a nice smooth and soft tölt.[2]
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    Move to flying pace. The second special gait for Icelandics is known as flying pace. This is a two-beat lateral gait, in which the legs on each side of the horse move together and there is a clear moment of suspension when all of his feet are off the ground. It is a gait generally only used over short distances, such as races over a few hundred meters. At flying pace, an Icelandic might travel at 30mph (equivalent to a full gallop), so this is a gait only for an experienced rider.[3]
    • You must be riding at race speed to move into a flying pace.
    • Not all Icelandics are capable of achieving flying pace.[4]
    • An Icelandic that can pace is highly valued and can make an excellent race horse.

Method 2
Riding the Normal Gaits

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    Get in a good position. When riding an Icelandic you should follow the basics of English style riding.[5] Sit up straight and hold the reins in both hands. You should be able to draw a straight line down your side from your ear, to your shoulder, to you hip and then down to your heel. On each side, the stirrup should be at the ball of your foot. Your heels should be pointing down, and your toes pointing up.
    • Hold your hands around six inches above and in front of the saddle’s pommel.
    • Hold the reins with your thumbs up, and try to keep your hands steady.[6]
    • You can apply a little pressure with your legs to get the horse moving forward.
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    Try a trot. Once you have him walking nicely, you can apply a little extra pressure with your legs and heels to bring him into a trot. You can either go for a sitting trot or a rising (or posting) trot. Try to relax your elbows and keep your hands steady. If you’re trying a rising trot, move in and out of saddle in rhythm with your horse’s trot. Don’t try to move too far out of the saddle, or make an exaggerated movement, instead try to make a slight forward thrusting movement with your hips.
    • For a sitting trot, the key is to relax and stay relaxed.
    • Don’t allow your legs or back to tense up. This can be difficult if your horse has a bouncy trot, but comes with practice and experience.
    • Tensing up will make your horse think you want to go faster, and will also make the ride more uncomfortable for both of you.[7]
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    Move into canter. To bring him into canter from trot, move your leg on the side you want him to lead the canter from backwards slightly. Keep your other leg in the normal position. Sit up straight and give him a gentle squeeze or small kick to move into canter.
    • Don’t hold the reins too tightly, and try not to tip forward in the saddle.
    • If you do, you may bring him back into trot.
    • Keep your elbows relaxed, and allow your hands to move forward and back in rhythm with his bobbing head.
    • Keep your back relaxed and supple, and let your hips rock with the horse’s movement.[8]
    • In Iceland, canter and gallop are consider one gait.[9]

Method 3
Recognise the Unique Qualities of Icelandics

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    Note the slightly smaller size. To really appreciate how special Icelandic horses are, it’s a good idea to think about all their unique characteristics. The first one you will notice is their relatively small stature. They are generally smaller than other breeds, weighing between 330 and 380 kilos, or 703 and 840 pounds.
    • The average height for an Icelandic horse is between 132 and 142cm, or 52-56 inches.[10]
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    Enjoy his spirited personality. Icelandics are great companions, not least because of their tendency for spirited temperaments and big bold personalities.[11] Although Icelandics can be very spirited and even stubborn, they generally combine this with real friendliness and an affinity for people. They are typically bred as riding and working horses for farmers in Iceland, and as such, they make great family horses.
    • They have no natural predators in Iceland, so they have become quite laid back characters.
    • You can of course still get lots of variety across individual horses, who each have their own personalities.[12]
    • The disposition and strength of Icelandics make them great horses for long treks and trails.
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    Look out for the mane and coat. Icelandic horses can be recognised quite easily by their long flowing manes. The manes and tales of Icelandics are thick all year round, and are never cut or plaited.[13] Their coats come in almost every colour, and in winter they develop fluffier double coats to protect them from the cold.[14] They shed their winter coats in the Spring and become sleek like other breeds.[15]


  • Horseback riding (Icelandic or any other breed) is a potentially dangerous sport. Do not ride alone, and learn with an instructor.
  • If the horse you are riding is not listening to you, or your commands are not being understood, or you feel unsafe in any way, get off and lead the horse.

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Categories: Riding