Icelandic Horse Connection

Breeding the Icelandic Horse

The Icelandic Horse is a relatively new breed to North America. If you're considering breeding your Icelandic, it may be a good idea to understand some of the myths and misunderstandings about the breed before hand.

The benefit to the Icelandic Horse in North America is that we have highly educated, knowledgeable gaited horse breeders, trainers, clinicians, judges; and biomechanics experts that can aid in the advancement in education and knowledge about gaited horses.

There has already been an impact on Icelandic Horses from the gaited horse and biomechanics experts (Lee Ziegler, Liz Graves, Dr. Hilary Clayton, etc.)

Until recently, Icelandic Horse owners thought that tolt was a "square" gait, and was in the middle of the gait chart. It has been explained that running walk is a square gait, and is in the middle of the gait chart, with tolt (rack) in a category between runwalk and pace, as a lateral gait.

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Many websites indicate, and people will say, that the Icelandic Horse breed is "naturally" gaited. Yet some of the horses (evaluated and competition winners) need to be held very strongly in frame to get a tolt. Or they need heavier shoes and / or weighted boots to perform the gait.

It is very important to realize that heavier shoes and / or weighted boots are used on Icelandic Horses (NOT that this is a good thing.... it isn't!). But many owners have been told that weights are not used; the FEIF rules say that weights aren't to be used.... but, one needs to take it upon themselves to investigate to see if what is said aligns with what is being done. The "rules" actually allow for more weight, under the name of "protective" boots, than allowed by the Horse Protection Act!

Additionally, this:

"The Sports Committee will discuss some proposals for changing FEIF's bylaws. Topics for discussion are: quitting measuring bits, increasing the maximum thickness of horseshoes up to 23 mm..."

Which is disappointing since it was thought they were going to consider barefoot as an option.

Any type of gimmick, short cut, weight, piece of tack (bit, noseband, saddle, girth), placement of the rider behind the horse, or other mechanical / artificial aid used to obtain gait indicates that the horse is not strongly naturally gaited and may not pass on natural gaitedness to the offspring.

To get a naturally gaited horse, breed two naturally, well-gaited horses.

Yes, this is very easy to say, but it is easier to do this than to breed a trotty horse that has been held up in front and forced to tolt, or a pacey horse that has been trained with heavier shoes on front to square him up, an old gimmick from the TWH show world.

The amount of "lift" or "action" in the front legs of the horse will affect the timing of the gait. Higher action is wasted energy; and pounds the feet into the ground (concussive effect which, in a cycle, makes the horse lift higher). For effective, long-term sound, "using" horses, breed for functional front-end movement.

To breed horses with a good weight-carrying ability, you need good bone (not "denser" bone which is a disease), but substantial bone which is measured by the circumference of the cannon bone. Ask for measurements of the breeding horses' cannon.

Also a substantial foot is helpful in weight-carrying ability. There are some horses that have "flat" feet that makes them appear large, but this is a defect. Look for a substantial hoof; not one with long toes, or high heels.

Another thing to consider when breeding is some of the conformational flaws, such as sickle hocks, cow hocks, and toeing-out. Flipping thru any Icelandic Horse magazine or newsletter will show a number of Icelandic Horses with these flaws. Again, this includes evaluated horses and competition horses.

Here is some information about toeing-out: http://iceryder.net/toeout.html. When evaluating a horse to use for breeding, try to get pictures from the front, showing the full length of the front legs. Look for the toe-out stance. Also try to get pictures or video of the horse riding toward the camera to see if his front legs are winging in. If we pay attention to this conformational flaw, we will, in North America, be able to breed it out.

Hind leg conformation information: http://iceryder.net/hocks.html. As you are probably aware, sickle hocks and cow hocks are seen in Icelandic Horses. Evaluate your breeding stock and any potential breeding animal for consideration of flawed hind legs.

Recently come to light, is the impression of some Icelandic Horse owners that toeing-out keeps a horse from stepping on himself, or that straight legs will make them three-gaited. It is unsure where this information came from or how it evolved. This brings us to the problems of forging... which came first? poorly conformed legs, gait problems, pushing a horse past it's functional, conformational limits...?

Also, in regard to the hind legs, there is a very high rate of spavin in the Icelandic Horse. We have "studied" the Spavin Study on the IceHorses email discussion list and there is further information here: http://iceryder.net/spavin.html.


Spavin also appears in warmbloods (dressage work), and some quarter horses (reining, working cows), but this appears to be from the type of work and the stress on the hind legs.

The Icelandic Horse Spavin Study dismisses workload as a reason for spavin for the Icelandic Horses.

So, it appears that there are two different, separate reasons for spavin.

Back in June 2004, there was a conference in Iceland to talk about the diseases of the Icelandic Horse.

Spavin was a large portion of the meeting.

As previously mentioned in the Spavin Study, 23 skeletons from a thousand years ago were found and 7 of them had spavin. That's consistant with the current heredity figure of spavin at 33%.

There was a discussion about the lack of official reports and statistics in Iceland about spavin.

A vet from Sweden put forth the information that spavin is three times more common in Icelandic Horses than in other horse breeds.

Discussion included medications (not helpful) and surgery for spavin (not feasible).

The interesting thing is that Holland has gotten spavin under control by not allowing stallions showing spavin to have a breeding license.

The head vet of Iceland suggests that all stallions be x-rayed; the breeding advisor takes that a step further by including mares also. He says the problem is money and resistance by the breeders.

Conclusions of the conference about spavin is that it can be controlled and that only Iceland has not addressed the issue.

At a recent meeting in Iceland, it was decided that all stallions to be evaluated need to present certification that they have been x-rayed for spavin. Unfortunately, they are not prohibiting the spavined horses from being bred, nor are they requiring x-ray certification from mares. So, it is unknown how much this will be effective in reducing the incidence of spavin in Iceland.

We, however, in the United States, can start to eradicate spavin from the breed in North America by checking all breeding stock for spavin via radiographic means and clinical tests. It is recommended that only Icelandic Horses that are spavin-clear be considered for breeding. This should greatly reduce the number of horses suffering from spavin. It is also a good idea to include x-rays in any pre-purchase exam.

Some people dismiss spavin as just something that happens and you have to put up with, the horse will be OK in the end... fine and dandy.... except for: loss of time in use of the horse (several months to a year or two), added expense of supplements, medications, veterinary care, and having to watch the horse suffer during the time it takes for his hocks to fuse. That is not a fun time for people who love their horses.

To breed strong horses with good strength for carrying a rider, you'll need to know how to determine weight-carrying ability. There is more information here: http://iceryder.net/weight.html. There appears to be a current trend to breed more refined horses which may affect the weight-carrying ability of the horse.

Beside the above points, temperament should also be considered when breeding. In fact, temperament may / should be the first consideration. Within the breed, temperaments range from calm to extremely nervous. Some horses border on mental instability. Not openly discussed, this mental instability can be passed on to offspring. Some breeders in North America have been in the position to have to euthanize some Icelandic Horses because of it. Several have been passed around from person to person, gone to auction, given away, or come into the IceHorse Rescue.

There are too many horses with good temperaments to consider breeding one who has a questionable temperament. It certainly is not fair to any potential offspring, or potential buyers. And it costs the same to breed a questionable horse as it does to breed a good horse. These are just a few of the things to think about before breeding.

There are about 20 million horses in the United States, and only about 2-3,000 Icelandic Horses, a very small percentage, which means there is a very small market for Icelandic Horses, particularly those with not-so-good conformation, and high prices!

Take care, increase your knowledge about gaited horses, and breed responsibly.

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