Icelandic Horses Could Help Save their Faroese Cousins

Icelandic horses Berglind Jóhannsdóttir

The Faroe Islands’ unique horses are at risk of dying out. Their advocates are considering using Icelandic mares as surrogates in order to save the breed. RÚV reported first.

Faroese horses (also called Faroese ponies) share many similarities with their Icelandic relatives, though they are slightly smaller. Both breeds share the ambling gait known as the tölt and grow shaggy winter coats that they shed again in the spring. DNA analyses in 1978 and 2003 have established that the Faroese horse is indeed its own breed, and that the Icelandic horse is its closest relative.

Icelandic horses in Denmark could serve as surrogates

The biggest difference between the Icelandic and Faroese breeds may be their number: while there are 250,000 Icelandic horses all over the world (some 40% of them in Iceland), there are fewer than 100 purebred Faroese horses alive today, including only 25 fertile mares. In order to ensure the breed’s survival, Jóna Ólavsdóttir, the chair of the Faroese Horse Association (Felagið Føroysk Ross), says at least 3,000 horses are necessary.

Since the size of the Faroe Islands could not support such a large horse population, the association is calling on Faroese authorities to abolish the current export ban so that Faroese horses could be bred on the Danish mainland. One proposal that has been made entails transporting ten Icelandic horses from Denmark to the Faroes, where fertilised eggs from Faroese horses would be implanted in them. The Icelandic mares would then be transported back to Denmark, where their offspring would be the start of a population of Faroese horses outside of the Faroe Islands.

Anonymous donor has offered to pay for surrogacy

If the plan goes ahead, it wouldn’t be the first time Icelanders help the Faroe Islands to maintain their horse breed. In 2018, the Faroese Horse Association and the Icelandic Farmers Association (Bændasamtök Íslands) partnered to create a family tree and digital registration system for the Faroese horse breed, with information on origin, offspring, breeding, and more.

The surrogacy project has a projected cost of $220,000 [€200,000]. An anonymous donor has reportedly already offered to pay the cost if legislative changes make it possible.

New Icelandic Ad Campaign Trots Out Email Replies While You Horse Around on Vacay

A new ad campaign is likely to have travellers chomping at the bit to visit Iceland. Tourism PR company Inspired by Iceland now invites travellers to “OutHorse” their emails—that is, reign in the common urge to work while on vacation and instead, relax, undistracted and unbothered, while a real Icelandic horse tölts out an email response for you on an enormous, equine keyboard.

Visitors can choose from one of three Icelandic horses, each with their own unique horsenality, to hoof up thoughtful replies. There’s Litla Stjarna (“Types fast, but might take a nap), Hekla, and Hrímnir (“Assertive. Efficient. Shiny hair”). “They are trained in corporate buzzwords,” explains actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) in voiceover. “Your boss will never know the difference.”

This isn’t Inspired by Iceland’s first rodeo when it comes to employing quirky, zeitgeisty humour to encourage people to travel to Iceland. The company actually grew out of the eponymous 2010 ad campaign that put an ironic and optimist spin on the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption. In 2020, during the global COVID-19 lockdown, they encouraged would-be travellers to “let it out,” and scream out their lockdown frustrations via speakers set up across the country. And, most recently, it skewered Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, inviting visitors to come experience the country’s “immersive, open-world experience.”

If you’d like to join the herd of travellers capitalizing on this “revolutionary service,” gallop over to www.outhorseyouremail.com, and sign up.

“Like a Different Breed:” Icelandic Horses Isolated for 60 Years

Experts are conducting genetic research on a herd of horses that has been in isolation for 60 years in Southeast Iceland, Vísir reports. The horses are from the Skaftafell region and have never set foot (or rather hoof) in a stable. Their hooves have never been trimmed, their teeth have never been floated, and they have never been dewormed. The herd is nevertheless in great health, though its members are significantly smaller than the average Icelandic horse.

“They are small, the kinship has caused them to become very small and few offspring are born even though there is a stallion in the herd; one foal was born last year, none this year,” stated Kristinn Guðnason. The eight horses have been transported to Kristinn’s farm, near Hella, to be researched by specialists. Kristinn says he has not seen horses like these before, which he calls self-bred. Researchers hope to determine whether the horses are genetically distinct from the Icelandic horse breed.

Calmer temperament than other Icelandic horses

It’s not only the horses’ appearance that differs from the average Icelandic horse but also their spirit. “It seems their temperament is such that they take very well to a new environment. They are so good-natured and not afraid of anything, they might have that superiority over our bred horses, this calm demeanour, this calm that the people of Skaftafell also have,” Kristinn says, referencing how the region’s inhabitants have taken eruptions and other natural disasters in stride.

Hooves trimmed by lava

The herd has not received the veterinary care or grooming that Icelandic horses normally enjoy. Their hooves, for example, have never been trimmed, but it has not caused any issues. “They have never been tripped but the lava saw to that. You can see the hooves on these horses, it’s as if they’ve been kempt by the best horseshoers.”

Óðinn Örn Jóhannsson, an inspector from the Food and Veterinary Association, examined the horses earlier this week and gave them his highest grade. “They are of course much smaller but their physical constitution and condition is good. They are like another animal breed or horse breed, there’s a big difference,” Óðinn stated.

Out of National Horse-Riding Team Due to Sexual Assault Conviction

jóhann rúnar skúlason jockey

Veteran jockey Jóhann Rúnar Skúlason has been removed from Iceland’s national equestrian team due to a sexual assault conviction. Mannlíf reports that in 1994, Jóhann Rúnar was convicted for raping a 13-year-old girl the previous year, when he was 24 years old. The jockey was also recently convicted for domestic violence in Denmark, his country of residence.

Guðni Halldórsson, chairman of the Icelandic Horse Association (Landssamband hestamannafélaga, or LH) told Vísir it was a difficult decision to remove Iceland’s “biggest competitor and biggest name” in the sport from the national team, but added that “sexual offences, especially involving children, cannot and will not be tolerated on our watch.” Guðni stated that he first heard of the conviction when Mannlíf reported on it late last month and that he is not aware of any other sexual assault cases coming up within the association previously.

Sexual violence within sport has been a big topic in Icelandic media lately after several cases of sexual violence emerged connected to the national men’s football team. The Football Association was accused of silencing victims of violence and sexual assault in cases involving team members. “It’s a different discussion and a different way of dealing with issues today than it was five years ago,” Guðni stated in reference to the cases involving football players. “This decision was made based on the environment and the situation today and we stand by it.”

In 2019, Jóhann Rúnar was a triple world champion in horse riding and was also nominated for Iceland’s Athlete of the Year award.

Icelandic Horse Export Increased By 53% Last Year

Icelandic horse

In 2020, 2,320 Icelandic horses were exported from Iceland, an increase of 53% from the previous year. The biggest export markets are Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, but demand from the USA and the UK is growing. According to statistics Iceland, the combined export value of horses from Iceland in 2020 was over 1.5 billion ISK ($11,717,000, €9,644,000), up half a billion ($4,000,000, €2,800,000) from 2019.

Export increased to all of Iceland’s major export markets last year. While Germany is still the largest export market for Icelandic horses, export to the US grew by 176 % and export to the UK and Switzerland close to doubled. Germany imported the most horses, (974), far ahead of Sweden (306) and Denmark (271). The US is in fourth place with 141 horses but interest in the Icelandic horse is growing, as only 51 horses were exported to the US in the previous year. Export to Switzerland also grew by 42% and the number of horses exported to Belgium tripled in the past year. There were also some new markets last year, with three Icelandic horses exported to Latvia for the first time.

The reason for the growth in export likely thanks to the devaluation of the Icelandic króna, at least in part, and the marketing efforts of Horses of Iceland. Director of Icelandair Cargo’s export division Mikael Tal Grétarsson also told Bændablaðið last year that he believed the pandemic played a part. The devaluation of the Icelandic króna means that prices are affordable but people are also unable to travel and likely to spend their vacation funds on their hobbies at home instead. He also stated that the growth in export was causing some difficulties as Icelandair Cargo only had a limited amount of horse-safe containers for shipping the animals and that they were acquiring new containers to respond to demand. In January, horse export to Belgium was temporarily halted when some horses got injured at the Liège airport due to human error. The matter was quickly resolved and export resumed a few weeks later, following updated import regulations.

While horse export is a growing market, horse import is forbidden in Iceland and has been for centuries. As a result, the only horse breed in Iceland is the small but tough Icelandic horse.

Horse Export to Resume Next Week

Icelandic horse

Export of Icelandic horses to Liège, Belgium is to resume next week after being suspended 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.

Two export companies have reported that export of Icelandic horses to Liège, Belgium will resume on January 20. Last week, Mikael Tal Grétarsson, Export Manager at Icelandair Cargo, stated that Belgian authorities suspended horse imports from Iceland and Icelandair Cargo will be required to adapt their procedure to the country’s recently-updated import regulations. He has confirmed that they intend to resume transport of horses next week, adding that while they still have some detail to iron out with the Belgian authorities, it’s all coming together.

Read more about the Icelandic horse and its international appeal.

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.

Raising Riders

To reach Hólar University in winter, you must drive through the ice-covered Hjaltadalur valley. On your way there, you’ll pass groups of horses in almost every colour of the rainbow. You’ll notice their thick and shaggy winter coat, and how they huddle together to keep warm. The snow on their furry backs might send a shiver down yours – but the horses have been here for a millennium, bred to survive the harsh conditions.

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Year in Review 2019: Nature

Vatnajökull

Spanning across glaciers, whales, and extreme weather, here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest nature news stories of 2019.

Glacier goodbye

Iceland made international headlines this August when a memorial ceremony was held for Ok glacier, the country’s first glacier lost to climate change. The monument installed at the site of the former glacier is styled as a letter to the future, reading in part “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Early in the year, many Icelanders said they had changed some of their behaviour due to climate change, while Icelandic youth started a weekly climate strike in February. The government hasn’t been inactive on the issue, instituting small changes like a ban on plastic bags and larger ones like a new ISK 140 million ($1.1 million/€1 million) climate fund.

Whale beachings

While there was no whaling conducted in Iceland this summer for the first time in 17 years, the gentle giants seem to be facing other threats. A large number of beached whales were found in the country throughout the summer, either as individuals or in groups as large as 50 whales. An international investigation is now looking into whether navy sonar devices could be causing whales (which use sonar to navigate) to become disoriented.

Animal ailments

In spring, the first cases of acquired equine polyneuropathy (AEP) were confirmed in Icelandic horses this year. The disease, which affects the animals’ nervous system, first appeared in Scandinavia 25 years ago. AEP is not contagious, and most horses recover fully from the disease, though in Sweden and Norway up to 30% must be put down as a result of it.

A much smaller animal made headlines in the summertime: the sandfly, also known as biting midge. Though the insect is not new to Iceland, it has been accosting locals in South and Southwest Iceland earlier in the year and in greater numbers than usual. Sandflies are tiny and not easily seen, but their bites are said to be more painful than those of mosquitoes (of which Iceland luckily still has none).

Geology

While Iceland’s volcanoes remained calm in 2019, earthquakes let themselves be felt, most notably in an earthquake swarm in Northeast Iceland in late March and on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland in December. For a geologically active country these events, just like this year’s glacial flood in South Iceland, are nothing out of the ordinary.

Weather

As usual, Iceland had its fair share of notable weather in 2019. While in 2018 most of the country experienced a cold, rainy summer, this year rewarded residents with an unusually warm spring, with temperatures in April and May well above average, as well as more sunny, dry weather than usual in most parts of the country. The spring was a bit too dry, in fact, putting pressure on South Iceland’s water systems and putting farmers’ hay harvest at risk. In July, Iceland felt the effects of the heatwave hitting mainland Europe (admittedly milder than elsewhere), with temperatures of 25.9°C (78.6°F) recorded in North Iceland and 26.9°C (80.4°F) in South Iceland. High temperatures led to a thunderstorm in the same month, a rare occurrence in Iceland’s cool climate.

Winter storm

The year’s weather ended with a bang, bringing the worst winter storm the country has seen in years. Hurricane-force winds, snow, and ice made travel in Iceland virtually impossible between December 9 and 10. The storm also caused widespread power outages in North Iceland, some of which lasted up to a week. One tragic casualty resulted from the weather when a 16-year-old who was helping clear ice from a power station fell into a river and died. Local authorities in the worst-affected regions criticised the government’s failure to update the region’s infrastructure and ensure reserve power.

Horse Illness Linked to Feed

Forty-four horses in Iceland have been diagnosed with symptoms of acquired equine polyneuropathy (AEP), RÚV reports. Although the disease, also known as Scandinavian knuckling syndrome, is common in other Nordic countries, this is the first time it has been diagnosed in Iceland. Veterinarians with the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) have determined that horses have contracted the disease from their feed.

AEP is a “…neurological disease characterised by pelvic limb knuckling.” Such muscle deterioration in horses’ hind quarters gives them an abnormal “sidewinder” gait. According to Sigríður Björnsdóttir, a veterinarian who specialises in equine diseases at MAST, the disease mostly effects younger horses, and, although it can be fatal, she says the survival rate for diagnosed animals is good: about 70% make a full recovery.

Of the 44 horses that have been diagnosed with AEP in Iceland, 12 have had to be euthanised and one was found dead. Sigríður says that the disease has been linked to hay and feed that the diagnosed horses consumed. What precisely in the hay is causing the disease is unknown, but researchers have identified a specific kind of hay that is the problem and have ensured that it will not be fed to any more horses.

Other than immediately changing horses’ feed, there is little that can be done to hasten the diagnosed animals’ recovery except to ensure that they don’t suffer any extra stresses, as this can make the symptoms worse.