When the Lewis chessmen came to the Cloisters Museum in New York for the "Game of Kings" exhibition in 2011, curator Barbara Drake Boehm wrote a blog post comparing the knights' horses to Icelandic horses. (Read it here.)
That blog post was one of the things that initially caught my interest and made me want to learn about the Lewis chessmen. I own Icelandic horses and have written a book about them, A Good Horse Has No Color. I'm also active in the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress (www.icelandics.org), through which I know the people Barbara spoke to and who took the photos of Icelandic horses that she used on her blog.
"Long forelocks falling over the eyes, groomed manes, tails that reach to the ground, and a short, stocky frame distinguish the horses ridden by the Knights of the Lewis Chessmen," Barbara wrote. "They seem to resemble today's Icelandic horses. I spoke to Heleen Heyning, a breeder of Icelandic horses at West Winds Farm in upstate New York. She immediately saw the resemblance between the Lewis horses and her own. She noted that Icelandic horses were known across Scandinavia in the Viking era and are thought to have been introduced to Iceland about the year . For the last thousand years--that is, since before the Lewis Chessmen were carved--there has been no crossbreeding of Icelandic horses. Therefore, the resemblance we see is not accidental."
Barbara and Heleen are right. The chessmen's horses do resemble Icelandics. Here is a photo of my husband on one of our own Icelandic horses, looking very much like a Lewis knight.
But the similarity to Icelandic horses is not proof that the chessmen were carved in Iceland. Most horses in Northern Europe at that time were just as small--as we can see by comparing a Lewis knight with other 11th and 12th century images of people on horseback. In each case, the rider's feet dangle down, way down, below the horse's belly.
This horse from the Hunterian Psalter, an English manuscript dated before 1170 and now in the collection of Glasgow University, seems to me to be a perfect match for a Lewis knight's horse. (For more images from this beautiful manuscript, see http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/psalter/psalterindex.html)
But horses of similar size can be found in art from Norway (the Baldisholl Tapestry), France (the Bayeux Tapestry), Iceland (the Valthjolfsstadur Door), and many other places.
That the chessmen's mounts look like "stocky, docile ponies," according to other experts, is proof that their carver had a sense of humor. But this, too, is a misunderstanding, I think. "Stocky" and "docile" are not genetically linked--as anyone knows who's ridden an Icelandic horse. These are strong, powerful animals, capable of carrying a large man all day over difficult terrain. (If you would like to try it, join me next summer on a tour in Iceland: See America2Iceland.com for the riding tours and riding-optional tours I lead.)
http://nancymariebrown.com, or hear me speak at these events:
October 13, 2015: Fletcher Memorial Library, Ludlow, VT at 7:00 p.m. Sponsored by The Book Nook. See http://www.thebooknookvt.com/event/ivory-vikings-author-talk-vt-author-nancy-marie-brown
October 15, 2015: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m. See https://olinuris.library.cornell.edu/content/book-talk-ivory-vikings
October 17, 2015: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT at noon. See http://icelandaffair.com