Iceland: the world’s greatest horse nation?

An Icelandic horse in the snow.
An Icelandic horse in the snow. © Thorgeir Gudlaugsson

Is Iceland the world’s greatest horse-owning nation?

Fascinating insights into the importance of the horse industry to Iceland have been outlined in a paper presented to a conference on economics, management and tourism.

The paper, by Ingibjorg Sigurdardottir, assistant professor at Holar University, in Iceland, focused on northwest Iceland, but highlighted the significant levels of horse ownership in the country.

Sigurdardottir noted that horse ownership stood at 240 horses per 1000 inhabitants, compared with about 13 per 1000 people in Europe.

The island nation has a human population of 318,450 and about 77,158 horses.

“Business activities like breeding, training, selling of horses and horse-based tourism appear to be considerable in Iceland,” Sigurdardottir said, noting that 16 per cent of overseas visitors to Iceland went horse-riding.

The nation is well-known for the Icelandic horse, which is known for its five gaits, various colours and good temperament.

Sigurdardottir said: “Despite the fact that the population of horses in Iceland is high and the horse industry seems to be growing, research on the economic extent and structure of the industry in Iceland has been scarce.”

A doctoral study was now being carried out which will explore, among other things, the economic extent of the horse industry in northwest Iceland.

Sigurdardottir noted that the Icelandic horse was the only horse breed on the island nation, and was brought there by permanent settlers between 860 and 935. There has been no outcrossing to other breeds for about 1000 years.

Sigurdardottir noted that Iceland had 240 horses per 1000 inhabitants in 2010, much higher than other European countries. In 2009, Sweden was reported to have 31 horses per 1000 inhabitants, while across 23 European nations there was an average of 13 horses per 1000 people.

The paper noted that Icelandic horses were part of the country’s image as a nature-based tourist destination.

Foreign visitors in 2009 totalled 493,941 and figures show about 79,000 visitors go riding during their stay. That represents 16 per cent of overseas visitors.

Horse-related sports in the country are popular. In terms of participation, horse sports rank third behind football and golf.

The results from a survey of northwest Iceland – Skagafjordur and Hunavatnssysla – reveal the major part horses play in the lives of local residents.

The total number of horses in the area – 19,271 – represents 25 per cent of Iceland’s total horse stock, but the region has just 2.3 per cent of the nation’s inhabitants.

That means there are 2600 horses for every 1000 inhabitants.

Sigurdardottir noted that more research was needed to paint a clearer picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the industry in northwest Iceland.

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