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Iceland: The Icelandic Horse

In early September 2019, I travelled to Iceland and visited Eldhestar Icelandic horse trekking company located less than 30 minutes drive southeast from the capital Reykjavik. The Icelandic horse was brought to the island by the Viking settlers. You can read about about Icelandic Viking history and the history of Reykjavik here. There are also a series of posts on iconic southeastern Icelandic waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes and iconic Icelandic landscape.


Sculpture at Eldhestar stables, Iceland

Eldhestar translates to “volcano horses” in Icelandic and aptly named Eldhestar riding stables are located in the valley beneath the volcano Hengill, a region populated by natural hot springs, geysers and rivers. The nearby town of Hveragerði has a thriving horticulture industry using extensive greenhouses where heating and electricity is supplied by geothermal power from the nearby active Hengill volcano.

Town of Hveragerði, geysers, meadows

The Icelandic horse is native to Iceland, being brought to the island with the Viking settlers and isolated from other horse breeds throughout much of history. For this reason, Icelandic horses have not been exposed to other equine viruses if horses leave Iceland, they cannot be re-introduced but most be left in mainland Europe. There are also no other horse breeds allowed in Iceland but nearly every farm, hamlet or paddock contains Icelandic horses which outnumber the human population according to a public census several years ago! Icelandic horses are also semi-domesticated and, for the most part, are not stabled and even spend the harsh winter months foraging for feed in the snow drifts. This hardy character and the endurance of the breed to travel extensive distances over the volcanic rock and challenging terrain makes the horses beloved by many Icelanders.


Eldhestar guide & fellow tour member

I was interested in the Icelandic horse for several reasons. First, I had to see these legendarily tough horses for myself. They are certainly smaller than I’d expected but not in a noticeable way. When moving, they can cover huge amounts of ground with a very large stride, which includes the unique tolt, a gait that occurs naturally in most Icelandic horses. This trot, is uniquely fast and a longer-stride which is surprisingly comfortable.

My guide with Eldhestar was wonderful and the Icelandic horse I was riding (Freya) was enthusiastic and free-willed (a trait that I admire and seems expected in a breed that needn’t rely on human assistance). The Eldhestar riding tours can be as large as a month-long trek across the island, where an entire support team of horses are required, riding horses swapped each day for fresh mounts. In true Icelandic fashion, the 3-4 horses for each rider follow the riding line in a free-moving herd.

Apologies in advance for some jerky and imperfect video of a herd of Icelandic horses, the amazing landscape in the fertile floodplains.

Icelandic horses, meadows, estuary & distant Hengill volcano at Eldhestar Riding Stables, Iceland
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Iceland’s Yule Trolls

In Icelandic tradition, the Yule lads are thirteen trolls who arrive one at a time on each of the 13 days before Christmas and depart in the order they arrived, on the days after Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the troll witch Gryla leaves the mountains to seek any children who had been ill-behaved or were without the protection of their parents, taking them back to the mountains where she cooks them into a stew for her lazy husband.


The thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads are described with the acts they are infamously known for tormenting human communities. More can be found at the Smithsonian Magazine here


Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds
Gully Gawk: He steals foam from buckets of cow milk
Stubby: He’s short and steals food from frying pans
Spoon Licker: He licks spoons
Pot Scraper: He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean
Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed (back in the old days, Icelanders used to sometimes store bowls of food there – convenient for midnight snacking?)
Door Slammer: He stomps around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake
Skyr Gobbler: He eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr)
Sausage Swiper: He loves stolen sausages
Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside windows and sometimes steal the stuff he sees inside
Door Sniffer: He has a huge nose and an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods
Meat Hook: He snatches up any meat left out, especially smoked lamb  Candle Beggar: He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland


Since 1746, the Yule trolls became less scary and presented as more mischievous, trickster characters who were depicted as jolly Santa Claus-like figures who left gifts for the well-behaved children and potatoes for the ill-behaved ones. The Yule trolls as they had been described in early traditions and folktales described them as emaciated and clothed in rags. There is a current movement in Iceland to return the Yule Lads to their original descriptions and depictions as the vagabond and desperate orphans accompanying Gryla.

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Iceland’s Monstrous Yule Cat


In Iceland, the Yule Cat, Jólakötturin, is a traditional monstrous figure that purportedly prowls the countryside on Christmas Eve devouring those who did not receive new clothing items for Christmas.

There are many debates over the origins of the Yule Cat in Icelandic tradition which does not appear to be mentioned in written form before the 19th century, however, some Icelandic traditions state new clothes are a reward for children who complete chores on time by Christmas Eve. The truth about the origins of Jólakötturin is probably complex and for whatever reason, does not appear openly in historical texts.


In modern Reykjavik, an illuminated sculpture of Jólakötturin has recently been established in honor of the Yule Cat tradition in Iceland.