Icelandic Horse Export Suspended Following Fatal Accident

Icelandic horse

Update Jan 14: Two export companies have reported that export of Icelandic horses to Liège, Belgium will resume on January 20. Icelandair Cargo has stated that while they are still ironing out the details with Liege authorities, that is indeed the case.

Export of Icelandic horses to Liège, Belgium has been suspended indefinitely following an accident caused by human error at Liege airport last month. A container with horses fell off a platform, causing severe injury to two horses and minor injuries to a third. The two badly injured horses had to be put down. Bændablaðið reported first.

Boom in Export of Icelandic Horses

The decision to halt export indefinitely will have a huge impact on Icelandic horse farmers and Icelandic horse enthusiasts in mainland Europe. By far the largest market for Icelandic horses abroad is in Germany, and all horses that are exported to that country go through Liège. Export of Icelandic horses grew by 50% in 2020 as compared to the previous year.

Around 2,000 Icelandic horses were exported to new homes abroad last year, and after Germany, their most common destinations were Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Icelandic horses fetch a fine price abroad: one prized stallion set a new record last year when he was sold to a buyer in Denmark, reportedly for tens of millions of krónur, or hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

Human Error Caused Horse Injuries

Mikael Tal Grétarsson, Export Manager at Icelandair Cargo, stated that the incident was not due to an equipment malfunction but rather to human error. “We have been transporting horses in specially-equipped containers since 1995 with similar equipment and it has been very successful,” Mikael told Bændablaðið. “We have certain procedures that we follow and our subcontractors should also follow. Then it happens that an employee in Belgium doesn’t follow work procedure, he doesn’t fasten the container sufficiently, so it falls about 50 centimetres from the platform and therefore this accident occurs. This is a human error and we had to put down two horses in consultation with their owners and a veterinarian at the site. One additional horse had minor injuries but did not need to be put down.”

According to Mikael, Belgian authorities have now suspended horse imports from Iceland and Icelandair Cargo will be required to adapt their procedure to the country’s recently-updated import regulations. “We need to better understand how we can fulfil them and have, among other things, met with [the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority] here at home to review work procedures. This is a matter of great interest to horse farmers and we take accidents like this very seriously, as we always put safety and welfare in first place.”

Read more about the Icelandic horse and its international appeal.

Mast Report: Over 100 Horses Died During Winter Storm

Over one hundred horses have been confirmed dead following extreme weather conditions in Northwestern Iceland in December, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (Mast) reports. The deaths account for approximately 0.5% of the equine population in the area; an estimated 20,000 horses were roaming free in Northwestern Iceland during the storm.

Not a Matter of Negligence

Horses from a total of 46 farms died, including 29 farms in East-Húnavatn county (61 horses), nine farms in West-Húnavatn county (20 horses), and eight farms in Skagafjörður (22 horses). A single farm commonly lost one to four horses. An average of approximately two horses died on each farm. According to Mast, this even distribution of equine deaths indicates that the fatalities were not the result of negligence or of the farmers’ failure to take appropriate measures.

Horses of all ages died in the storm: 29 foals (under a year old), 34 young horses (one to four years old), 30 mares, and 15 horses, most of which were adults. Most of the mares were elderly. The Mast report states that it was the oldest and the youngest horses that suffered the highest fatalities.

Buried Beneath Two Metres of Snow

The storm commonly drove horses into ditches, toward fences, or other hazardous areas; horses huddling around shelters were also commonly snowed in, e.g. horses that farmers had driven to shelter for safekeeping and feeding. In some cases, the storm buried horses beneath two metres of snow, with tall snowdrifts piling up around shelters. Generally speaking, horses on farms close to shore experienced the most extreme weather. At the same time, farms at a higher elevation were more fortunate, most likely because it was colder in those areas, with ice not piling up as quickly as snow.

Shelters Provided Little Succour

It is exceedingly rare for such an intense northerly storm to strike with concomitant precipitation and freezing temperatures, wherein sleet covered the horses and then froze. The horses became cold and heavy, which made it more difficult for them to withstand the prolonged snowstorm and the occasional hurricane-force winds. Human-made windbreaks and other natural shelters were of little use to the horses in areas where conditions were worst. The horses were generally in good shape to withstand the storm, as the fall had been favourable for horses kept outdoors.