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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Viking's Horse

Picture a Viking riding a horse and what comes to mind? A burly guy in armor on a large, noble steed? Odin riding Sleipnir across the sky? Well, you’re wrong, and you should feel badly about it. You see, the Hollywood image of a Viking’s horse looks something like this:
Or even this:
Aa shirehorse

But the first horse is a Friesian, a breed from the Netherlands. Their ancestors carried knights around, not Vikings. Someone needs to tell this to Hollywood. They put Friesians in any film they can. Why? Because they’re cool looking. Need a horse to play Pegasus in Clash of the Titans? Friesian. Need an Andalusian (a Spanish breed) for The Mask of Zorro? Friesian. Need a Bucephalus for Alexander the Great? Friesian. You get my point. As for the second horse. That’s a Shire, an English draft breed.

So what did a Viking’s horse look like? Well, let’s consider what they used horses for. In most other cultures, horses were used in war. But the Vikings preferred to jump into their longships, sail right up to an enemy beach, and raid the nearest Monastery, all while on foot. They might have had a hard time doing that if the shallow ships were full of horses too. This isn’t to say that Vikings never used horses in battle, but battle was not their primary use. More commonly, Vikings used horses for travel and draft work. Geography also plays a role in shaping these horses. Freezing land with poor grazing tends to breed small, tough, hairy horses…or ponies. And that’s what happened. The mighty Vikings produced cute, fuzzy little ponies. Let’s take a look at two modern breeds of Viking origin:

The Icelandic Pony (or Icelandic Horse, if you’re in Iceland), is a cute little baby precious that has a fifth gait, called the tölt (most horses have four gaits; walk, trot, canter, gallop). They come in a variety of colors and are the only breed of “horse” allowed in Iceland. 
Icelandic Horse4Icelandic horses, Tiree - geograph.org.uk - 279733Mývatn25

And here is the Fjord Pony, a hardy dun-coated creature from Norway. One of the most easily identifiable characteristics of this breed is its standing (mohawk) mane. 
Fjording, mother and daughter Horse hjerl hede 2004 ubt

So now we know. Never again shall we fall for the lies of popular culture…when they are both Viking and horse related. Don’t even get me started on the Greeks or Romans. 


  1. I will forever see giant burly manly men romping around on too-tiny fuzzy ponies now, when I think of Vikings. This is a win.

    1. Get the movie Beowulf and Grendal. Filmed on Iceland, the Vikings are riding the only horse breed available, the Icelandic Horse.

  2. I get your point. It is all true. But fresians are mostly used because of their nature. Because they are very kind to new riders and very willing horses, good looks are only addition. I know a man, that trains movie horses and most of his horses are fresians, because of those reasons. So I agree with you, but these movies never claimed to be historically accurate :).

  3. Hi, as an American that has Icelandic horses. They are short, but can carry 1/3 of their own weight.
    Also,the five gaits are walk, trot, canter, pace.
    These horses are strong, intelligent, brave and respectful. They are used in film anytime movies are film on location in Iceland.
    For more information on this incredible breed please goto USIHC.org.

  4. It's true, though, the tölt is their other gait, not the pace.