Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The First Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horses are special. (We all say that about our pets.) But few other horse breeds have a thousand-year history.

Skalm is the first Icelandic horse known by name. The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, in which she appears, was written in the mid-1100s. It tells the stories of more than 400 people who came to Iceland between 870 and 930 from Scandinavia and the British Isles. Along with Skalm, the book also names the racehorse Fluga and the stallion Eidfaxi, who came from Fluga’s line, and tells of a magic horse that lived in Lake Hjardarvatn. Dozens more horses appear in the Icelandic sagas, written in the 13th century. (In future blog posts, I’ll tell about some of these saga horses.)

Horses play key roles in many of these stories. Like Skalm they were first beasts of burden, carrying everything from coffins to charcoal to haybales to roof beams. Iceland’s landscape, with its high mountains, wide bogs and mires, impassable lava fields, and torrential glacier-fed rivers, made wagons impractical, and roads were not built in many parts of the country until the mid-1900s. A sturdy strong horse, pleasant to ride but able to carry heavy loads over long distances, was the one tool that could open Iceland’s vast empty lands and stitch its scattered settlements into a society.

Newborn foals at Hallkelsstadahlid.

Skalm’s story begins when an Icelander named Grim went fishing one day around the year 900, taking along his little son, Thorir, tucked into a sealskinn bag tied up under his chin. The boy must have looked like one of the seal people who, like their kinfolk in the fairytales of Ireland and Scotland, can cast off their sealskins and dance on the shore in human form on certain days of the year, for a merman came up to see what what going on. Grim caught him and hauled him into the boat.

Mermen are magic and know the future. According to the Book of Settlements, as translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards, Grimur asked the merman to tell him if he’d be better off in another part of the country.

“ ‘There’s no point in my making prophecies about you,’ said the merman, ‘but that boy in the sealskin bag, he’ll settle and claim land where your mare Skalm lies down under her load.’”

When Grimur drowned on his next fishing trip, his widow Bergdis took the merman’s words to heart, loaded up Skalm (whose name comes from the verb skálma, “to stride with a long pace”) and with her son, now called Seal-Thorir, followed the mare’s path. They traveled “from Grims Isle west across the moor over to Breidafjord,” a distance of some 75 miles, and “Skalm went ahead of them but never lay down.”

Descending Seal-Thorir's red "sand dune."

When they next set out, after a winter’s rest, they turned south, going around the entire fjord and over a high mountain range until “just as they reached two red-colored sand dunes, Skalm lay down under her load,” having covered about 100 miles. Bergdis and Seal-Thorir claimed the land from one river south to the next, and from the mountains down to the sea. They lived at Western Raudamelur, and Seal-Thorir became a great chieftain.

I learned about the history of Icelandic horses to write A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, out of print but available as an e-book from and In 1998, I published a version of this story in The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official magazine of the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress; shortly afterwards I joined the magazine’s editorial committee. Visit the congress’s website ( to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today, or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson’s video blogs, and Life with Horses (

The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, was translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards (University of Manitoba, 1972).

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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