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Icelandic horses: Five gaits and many opportunities

Rider Jóhanna Margrét Snorradóttir from Team Hrímnir. She is a qualified riding instructor from the University of Hólar, a member of the Icelandic national squad and the reigning Icelandic Champion in four gaits.

Rider Jóhanna Margrét Snorradóttir from Team Hrímnir. She is a qualified riding instructor from the University of Hólar, a member of the Icelandic national squad and the reigning Icelandic Champion in four gaits.

Jules Verne said, "There is no animal more perceptive than the Icelandic horse. It is not stopped by snow, by storms, by rough roads, by rocks, glaciers, or anything else. It is brave, sober and sure-footed."

Even though many breeders aims for larger-framed and athletic horses for some decades now, the Icelandic horse has not lost its distinctive features. The hardy small horses are tough workers and usually impress with at least four, and often five, gaits: In addition to walk, trot and gallop, they offer the soft tölt and the flying pace. Special competitions and equipment make the Icelandic horse scene a sworn community within the larger equestrian scene, with has special requirements for the functionality of products due to the fact that riding Icelandic horses means riding outdoors – 365 days a year. Quite a few manufacturers and dealers are specialists for the Icelandic horse sport. In recent years, business has been thriving, with a further boost by the Covid-19 crisis that resulted in a rising popularity of riding across all variants.

How big is the "Icelandic horse niche" and what opportunities does it offer? The spoga horse Blog has checked the scene.

Icelandic horses are trending

In 2020, the global federation FEIF counted around 93,000 of the gaited horses in Iceland - and Germany follows just behind with around 63,000 purebred, registered Icelandic horses. In Iceland itself, the population has been declining slightly since 2016, while in all other countries it remains at least the same, or (as in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Austria) is growing significantly. Besides local breeding, also the direct import from Iceland (where prices are lower than in mainland Europe) is popular. However, this is a one-way trip for the animals, because since 1909, no horse may be imported to the Atlantic island, no matter which breed it belongs to. But also the European cross-border traffic works: active trade takes place especially between Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria.

The strong and good-natured Icelandic horses easily carry riders up to about 80 kg. With a height that very often exceeds 140 cm at the withers, the gaited horses are rather short in the back and have a compact head (for which a pony snaffle is usually too small and a COB size often too large), a distinctive winter coat and a long, thick mane. In competition, they are often ridden with special Icelandic horse curb bits, they have their own saddles, safety stirrups, special short girths and particularly narrow reins.


Picture: Karlsund

Just like the breed, also the competition sport is special

In gait tournaments in tölt, four-gait, five-gait or pace races, the horse is presented in its natural gaits in the best possible way. Judges evaluate according to a steady beat, variance of pace, expression, responsiveness, and posture in all gaits. In flying pace, of course, speed is also important: here the record for the 100 m race is under seven seconds! Most world ranking tournaments take place in Germany and Denmark, as importing horses from Europe to Iceland is prohibited. The next World Championship will be held in the Netherlands (in 2023).

When it comes to clothing, Icelandic horse riders tend to be somewhat conservative in terms of fashion (and color), or so we hear from manufacturers, even though there has been an increasing openness to bolder tones and fashionable details in recent seasons. The most important criteria in the purchase decision still seem to be freedom of movement for horse and rider, robustness and weather protection – as Icelandic horse riders are mostly outdoor riders. At the stables, you may well see more Jodhpur pants worn with ankle boots than classic breeches. The suppliers usually are part of the scene (and are stable owners and riders). They are not only well connected, but also incorporate their own experience into product development. Brands and products with a veritable cult status have conquered the scene, first and foremost the German brand Topreiter with its zip and pocket Jodhpur breeches. Karlslund (from Denmark), Icelandic brand Hrimnir, Mountain Horse (Sweden) and HGG from Germany are best known for their riding overalls (another specialty, as Icelandic horse riders very often wear padded full seat overalls in winter). The classic Feldmann balance whip is part of the basic equipment of many riders, as well as Icelandic horse saddles (such as from Hilbar, Hrimnir, PS, Topreiter or Championrider).

Popular bits and snaffles come from Hrimnir, Hilbar, Eques, Fager and Topreiter, for example. Mountain Horse scores points with robust boots, but also manufacturers completely outside the industry, such as the Australian work boot brand Redback, whose ankle boots are worn by a good proportion of Icelandic horse riders, are successful in the niche sector.


Picture: Karlsund

The special features of Icelandic horses make the market special

The major retailers Krämer and Loesdau primarily skim off the entry-level price points with their dedicated Fengur and Black Forest brands and operate special floor space in stores and online. However, they don’t carry higher priced and typical insider brands.

The retail trade is in the hands of specialists, who supply riders online and thus nationwide with special products, such as Svarta Reitsport, Elita Hestar, Ice-line.de, Icelandic-horse.com or Atorka. Most European countries have these niche retailers: Karlslund founder Dennis Trysøe supplies about 100 customers in Europe, the vast majority of whom are Icelandic specialists. "There is a noticeable inhibition among equestrian dealers to enter the market - in terms of product requirements, preferences and customs in the scene.

Many think they don't have the sufficient know-how to sell the products," says Trysøe, who himself runs a breeding stable and is an excellent rider (like many brand owners in the scene). And adds, "We see a growing interest from classic equestrian stores to discover the market." His strategy to support these customers in the market involves intensive customer service guidance by his team. It is important, he says, that the supplier "lives and breathes" the Icelandic horse theme, because the consumers are as special as the small horses from the island. This is confirmed by Tina Franke, who runs her specialty store "Nordgrad" online and as a brick-and-mortar store (in the Icelandic Horse Center Wiesenhof in Marxzell). "Many see the business potential, but I have also seen many attempts to enter the market that proved to be failures. If you are not rooted in the community, it is difficult," says Franke. The road to success in the Icelandic market, she explains, is authenticity. Just like it is in any other sports.