Icelandic Breeding Standards

Per FEIF standards, Blessi does not have a good
example of finely chizzled head--his head is a bit coarse and
raven nosed.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Icelandic people began to write poetry about horses whose appearance and performance inspired them.  A poem from this era, believed to be by Stefán Ólafsson, describes an Icelandic horse named Penni-- “standing at its stall, has lively moving ears, crystal clear eyes and a strong croup.  Penni is wonderfully raised, has a broad chest and covers a lot of ground in pace” (Bjőrnsson and Sveinsson, 2006, p. 347).  What a wonderful description of an Icelandic horse!  

These days there is no need to rely on literary creations to evaluate Icelandic horse conformation.  For over 20 years, international Icelandic horse standards for judging ridden ability and conformation have been established and revised by FEIF, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.  Any registered Icelandic horse can be assessed at a national or international breeding show using internationally established standards.  The results are maintained in WorldFengur, the international breeding registry of the Icelandic horse, which can be accessed on-line at

The goal of this article is to discuss the history of Icelandic horse breeding standards, outline the goal of these standards, define the basic traits of Icelandic horse conformation and how they are weighted, look at the genetic reliability of breeding standards, and describe the requirements for breeding judges.  Assessment of ridden abilities is not covered in this article.

One of Blessi's best conformational
attributes is his legs.  His cannon bone
circumference measures 10 1/4 inches and
he has super thick, well separated tendons.
However his pasterns could be a bit more angled
to help with a better tolt.

A Brief History of Standards

Since Viking times, the Icelanders have discussed what makes a good horse—color, spirit, gaits, endurance, or other traits—and how to breed for these characteristics.  As early as 1879, the County Council of Skagafjőrthur, Iceland, suggested standards for farm animals including the horse.  In 1899, the Agricultural Society was formed in Iceland followed a few years later by the Horse Breeding Society.  In the early 1900s, a series of Breeding Advisors began collecting and codifying breeding data and the results of horse shows and competitions into studbooks.  In 1950, Gunnar Bjarnason developed a simple scale of scores for conformational traits and rideability which was used in the show at Thingvellir, the first Landsmót.  This type of rating by individual trait with a calculated overall total was the first use of its kind in the horse world (Bjőrnsson & Sveinsson, 2006, pp. 204-213). 

Over the years in Iceland, the weightings of various traits have changed to encourage desired breeding results.  In 1952, the Agricultural Society decided that only riding horses should be bred as opposed to work or plow horses.   As Breeding Advisor from 1961-1996, Thorkell Bjarnason emphasized the importance of pace in retaining the tolt as a distinct gait in the breeding of the Icelandic horse.  He also focused on refining the breeding standards to develop a lighter neck, good legs, and an outstanding character.  (Bjőrnsson & Sveinsson, 2006, pp. 204-213).

In 1969, a group of Icelandic horse enthusiasts founded FEIF or Föderation Europäischer Islandpferde Freunde  (translated as Friends of the Icelandic Horse) which is known by its English translation as International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.  Founding member countries were Austria, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, and Switzerland.  Currently 18 countries, including the US, are members of FEIF.  Over the past 40 years, FEIF has established a series of committees to work with its member national organizations to set up international standards for breeding, rules for sanctioned sports competitions, world championships, youth events, education, etc.  (Note: Merging the various national breeding standards into one international system involved much heated discussion over the years.)  One of its most important accomplishments was the establishment of WorldFengur. (Kolnes, n.d.)  After considerable discussion, debate, and research, BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Prediction) or a computer model for predicting breeding potential was added to the Icelandic breeding standards in 1992  (Bjőrnsson & Sveinsson, 2006).
Overall, Blessi has good, but somewhat coarse, proportions
with a relatively long neck and legs.  However, his back
is too long and his shoulder could be sloped more.

The development of breeding standards and information about the Icelandic horse continues to evolve.   Recent developments include tracking additional information such incidence of spavin and blood types. Current breeding standards are based on over 100 years of accumulated data and history on breeding horses with outstanding gaits, good conformation, and willing personalities.

Purpose of Breeding Standards

What is the goal of breeding standards?  Although published in 1988 and somewhat outdated, the book Judging Icelandic Breeding Horses by Marit Jonsson provides a clear articulation of the goal of Icelandic horse breeding standards:

The Icelandic horse must be a true riding horse, courageous, cheerful, trustworthy, spirited and cooperative.  It must command at least four gaits, of which one must be tolt, and should preferably also have flying pace.  It must be strong, enduring and have a long useful life.  It must be frugal, robust and inexpensive to keep (Jonsson, 1988, p. 8). 

Jonsson goes on to explain that the tolt is the primary defining characteristic of the Icelandic horse.  As you review the description of breeding standards around conformation traits below, you will want to keep that in mind since weighting of conformation traits in the overall score is based on their perceived relationship to tolt and, to a lesser degree, pace.

Conformation Traits

Conformation may vary considerably since Icelandic horses are bred for purposes from pace racing to general riding to international competitions.  However, a typical Icelandic horse is rectangular and compact in shape. Typical of the breed is a sloping croup, a long, thick mane and tail, and a thick, protective coat in winter (Antonsson, Siiger Hansen, and Grimm, 2011, p. E-2).
Blessi has a strong, if relatively long back.  He also has a bit
of a bump along his loins (stiff loins) indicating
that his gaits are not as fluid as they could be.


The following section briefly describes each conformation trait and lists common flaws.  The judges use an assessment form to rate conformation traits and rideability.  You can find a more detailed description, including details on the judging scale, for each trait by consulting the FEIF Rules for Icelandic Horse Breeding located at  The judges assign a number from 5 to 10 for each trait depending on how the horse conforms to international breeding standards. 


Please note that any discussion of Icelandic horse breeding standards requires an in-depth knowledge of basic horse conformation.  Icelandic horse judging manuals such as Studhorse Judging and Studshows and Judging Icelandic Breeding Horses assume that judges understand such terms as cow hocked, over at the knee, good proportions, well set neck, etc.



Judges measure the horse at several points such as highest point of withers and croup, lowest point of back, depth of breast, length of body, width of chest, circumference of knee, top of hoof to toe, etc.

2012 version of FEIF Assessment Form


Head (Weighted Factor 3%)

Judges are looking for a proud, pretty, fine head with thin, fine ears and large eyes.  There is a good space between the jaws and the noseline is straight with wide open nostrils.  Common flaws are extreme dished face, coarse head, and badly positioned ears.


Neck/Withers/Shoulders (Weighted Factor 10%)

Ideally, the neck should be long, raised, and fine and clearly separated from the body.  Withers are prominent and well-defined.  Shoulders are long and sloping.  Common flaws are the neck is too thick, ewe neck, hollow neck, and too short or too long neck, upright shoulders. Neck is set too deep.


Back and Croup or Topline (Weighted Factor 3%)

The judges are looking for a great topline with a soft, supple back—average length, broad, and well muscled.  The hindquarters are long, adequately sloped, and equally developed. The thighs are long and muscled and the tail is well set.  Common flaws are humped or sway back, too long or too short back, a forward sloping back or lack of muscling in thighs or croup.

Sigh, Blessi has always had below
average amount of mane.  His forelock
never seems to get longer than this.

Proportions (Weighted Factor 7.5%)

As the FEIF standards state, “The horse should be full of splendour and presence” (Antonsson, et al, 2011, p. E-10). The body should be light and cylindrical in shape.  The front, middle, and hind portions of the horse should be approximately equal.  The legs should be long.  “The highest point at the withers should be higher than the highest point of the croup” (Antonsson, et al, 2011, p. E-10).   Common flaws are legs that are too short; body is too round; horse is lower in the front; or front, mid, and hind sections are not proportional.


Leg Quality (Weighted Factor 6%)

The horse should have strong joints and exceptional pasterns.  There should be good separation between tendons and bones.  Common flaws are straight or weak pasterns, swelling in the tendons, over at the knee, cow hocked, knock kneed, and little separation between tendons and bones.


Leg Structure (Weighted Factor 3%)

The front legs should be straight with sufficient space between the legs.  The hind legs may be slightly splayed.  Common flaws are front or back legs turned too far in or out or cow hocked.  The judges typically assess leg structure at both the walk and the trot.  They look for overreaching or signs of unusual stress.


Hooves (Weighted Factor 6%)

The hoof should be deep, round, and concave with a thick horn and large frog.  Hooves should be one color—preferably dark.  Common flaws are thin horn, little frog or heel, shallow or boxy hoof.


Mane and Tail (Weighted Factor 1.5%)

The mane, forelock, and tail should be exceeding thick and long.  Mares usually have a finer mane and tail than stallions.  The flaw, of course, is a mane and tail that is thin and/or short.


Conformation Weight in Relation to Ridden Abilities

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss in detail how rideability is judged per FEIF standards.  However, it is important to know that in the calculation of the overall score for the horse, conformation is worth 40% and ridden ability is worth 60%.  Tolt and pace are weighted higher than canter, trot, and walk.  The weighting illustrates the strong emphasis given to performance by FEIF.  However, any potential breeder or buyer should take into account this weighting to determine if an outstanding score for ridden abilities outweighs a conformational trait that is average or flawed.  For example, a strong back may be very important for a buyer’s future plans for a horse but “back and croup” is only given a 3% weighting for conformation traits.

When an international breeding judge looked at Blessi as part of a clinic on
Icelandic breeding standards, she noted that his overall conformation was
good and that he would be suitable for a wide variety of equine activities
except for endurance riding--he is a bit too big boned for that.

Relationship to Sports Competitions

The results of FEIF-sanctioned sports competitions are not considered in FEIF breeding evaluations.  E. Albertsdóttir (2007) conducted a study to analyze if there was any correlation among Icelandic horse breeding assessment traits and performance in Icelandic horse sports competitions.  She found “Moderately strong genetic correlations were generally estimated between the competition traits and the following conformation traits recorded in breeding field-tests: neck, withers and shoulders; back and hindquarters; proportions; and hooves” (Albertsdóttir, 2007, p. 17).  Moderate to high genetic correlation was found between most of the riding ability traits such as tolt and pace and their associated sports tests.  Albertsdóttir’s results confirm that “competition traits and riding ability traits from breeding field-tests are closely genetically correlated” (Albertsdóttir, 2007, p. 20).


International Breeding Judges

The scheduling of a sanctioned breeding show requires the submission of a FEIF application form (details provided on the USIHC web site).  Assessments of gaits and riding ability of adult horses are conducted by three judges.  Judges can be certified at the national level or the international level.  Currently, the US has no resident breeding judges certified at the International level.  Up to this point in time, Icelandic breeding shows in the US have been conducted by International Breeding Judges from other FEIF member countries.


There are two types of judges: International Breeding Judge and International Breeding and Riding Judge.  Both types of judges require years of experience, approval by the national member association of FEIF, passing of a 1- to 2-day test conducted per FEIF standards, and continual licensing by FEIF. 



One of the strengths of the Icelandic breed and the hope for the continued quality of the Icelandic horse in the future is the international Icelandic horse breeding standards.  To the author’s knowledge, no other gaited breed has such detailed, international standards based on numerical assessment of individual conformation traits and rating of all gaits.  As the FEIF Rules for Icelandic Horse Breeding state, “Everybody [has] the silent hope that the present FIZO [international Icelandic horse breeding rules] shall achieve the aim of all FEIF member nation states - one breeding assessment system for all individual Icelandic horses - the best in the world. Nothing less will do for the Icelandic horse” (Antonsson, et al, 2011, p. E-1).


Agricultural Society of Iceland.  (1992).  Studhorse Judging and Studshows.  Steindórsprent-Gutenberg, Búnatharfélag Islands.

Albertsdóttir, E.  (2007).  Genetic analysis of competition traits in Icelandic horses.  Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, Upsalla, Sweden. 

Antonsson, G., Siiger Hansen, J., Grimm, M. eds. (2011) FEIF Rules for Icelandic Horse Breeding FEIF International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.  Found on September 23, 2011 at

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

Jonsson, M.  (1988).  Judging Icelandic Breeding Horses.  Agricultural Society of Iceland, Búnatharfélag Islands.

Kolnes, T.  (n.d.)  The development of FEIF.  Found on September 30, 2011 at


The Points Scale for Assessing Conformation Traits

5 - 6
Below average
Slightly below average
Average for the current population
Good, somewhat above average
Very good
9 – 9.5
Perfect – cannot be improved – given very rarely

Each conformational trait is given a numeric rating based on how it compares to the international breeding standards.  The above table defines the general meaning of each score  (Jonsson, 1988, p. 18). 

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