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It is well known that the Icelandic Horse has been isolated on the island country for well over eight hundred years, which has helped this horse develop into the strong, compact horse that we know today. But while bringing horses to Iceland has been strictly forbidden at least since the 19th century, there have been no limits on sending the Icelandic Horse out of the country, where it has served as perhaps the best ambassador the country has ever seen, in a practice that started not long after the country was settled. Here we'll take a look at the long exporting history of the Icelandic Horse.
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Shortly after the country of Iceland was settled by Viking explorers from Scandinavia and the British Isles in the ninth and tenth centuries, horses from the newly settled lands were sent to Norwegian kings as gifts. Although there is not much documentation of horse trading or exporting in the following centuries, we know that Icelandic Horses were living outside of Iceland as early as the 16th century, thanks to a written account by prolific English author Sir Thomas Browne, who mentioned an Icelandic Horse that grazed in a pasture near Yarmouth.
However, in 1602, Denmark established a trading monopoly with the country which lasted until the mid-19th century. Few exports were made during this period, although there are some notable exceptions. Breeders on the Orkney Islands received permission to buy eighty Icelandics for breeding purposes at the beginning of the 19th century. The horse was also popular with Danish royalty. King Christian IV purchased four pace horses and two riding horses through his deputy, while his grandson King Christian V had a standing order of once Icelandic Horse on every shipment from Iceland to Denmark.
When the monopoly was finally broken up at the middle of the 19th century, exportation of the Icelandic Horse began slowly with a few hundred horses and grew to several thousand a year. The horse became so popular that it is estimated that some 150,000 Icelandic Horses were exported in less than a hundred years. Many of these horses went to England, where they were used as pit ponies, or worked in mines. These versatile horses were also used for driving, as pack horses, and also for pleasure riding, which was a new concept for the Icelandic breeders.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the horse became popular in Denmark, which had a need for strong, economical farm working horses, and the country became the largest importer of Icelandics in the world between 1910 and 1920. As the horse grew in popularity, they also began to be exported directly to countries such as Germany, Norway and even Italy. Icelandic Horses made their first appearance in America at the end of the 19th century, but these were most likely exported from Britain, where there were still impressive numbers of Icelandics. The first exports to come to America directly from Iceland are reported to have arrived in 1917. Some of these early Icelandics in America were possibly crossed with other horses, which also became popular. A famous example is the Icelandic cross Algonquin, who was owned by the children President Theodore Roosevelt and lived in the stables at the White House.
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