Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Shaped by the Land of Fire and Ice

Eruption of Eyjafjallajőkull on March 27, 2010
The Icelandic Horse has been shaped by the extremes of its environment.  Iceland is a medium-sized island, about the size of Kentucky.  Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice both for its volcanic activity and its snow-covered peaks.  About half of Iceland is lava desert (around 7,000 feet above sea level created by volcanoes) and other types wasteland.  Eleven percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, including the snow-covered volcanoes of Eyjafjallajőkull and Snaefellsjőkull.  Only 1% of the land is farmed and 20% of the land can be used for grazing. (Geography of Iceland, Wikipedia). 

A view of Snaefellsjőkull from the sea
During the settlement of Iceland from 900 AD to 1200 AD, Iceland experienced a period of relative warm winters.  From 1200 AD to 1920 AD, the winters were much colder.  Particularly bad winters during this timeframe were give names such as “Horse Perishing Winter,” “White Winter,” and the “Great Snow Winter.” Icelandic horses were sometimes fed herring to help them survive the winters.  A volcanic eruption in 1783 reduced the Icelandic horse population by 75% and was almost responsible for the island being abandoned.   During the 19th century, 30% of the livestock died for every drop in average winter temperature of 1° C.   Only the hardiest and smartest Icelandic horses survive due to natural selection.  (Bjőrnsson and Sveinsson, 2006, pp. 36-38)
“Horses learned that standing motionless, while the worst of the storm passed, made them burn fewer calories and protected them” (Bjőrnsson & Sveinsson, 2006, p. 38)

Icelandic horse in winter--Wikipedia
Up until recent times, most Icelandic horses were left to forage for themselves over winter although good riding horses were usually stabled.  The horses learned to fend for themselves in this hostile environment. Even today, most Icelandics are turned out in large herds to graze in the highlands over the summer.

Bjőrnsson, G., & Sveinsson, H.  (2006).  The Icelandic Horse, Edda Publishing, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Geography of Iceland.  (2011).  Wikipedia.  Found December 27, 2011 at

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