Today's breed: The Icelandic Horse. That is correct. I did write horse. Let me just tell you right now and be very clear. If you are ever within 20 feet of an Icelandic person DO NOT refer to the Icelandic horses as ponies. I am warning you now. I can't tell you how I know, but I do. They are small and pony-sized, but not ponies.
In any case... Icelandic horses have been living in Iceland since about the 800s when Vikings started to settle the country. The breed itself is just a conglomerate of many different breeds over the centuries, as different Nordic and European settlers landed and brought their various equines. They are exceedingly strong animals - they measure only 12 - 14hh, but routinely carry full-grown adults who are in excess of 200lbs.
But there are two main interesting points about the Icelandic horse. One is their general attitude. They are extremely smart and quiet. Spending generations living in a country where their biggest predator was truly just the environment, they have adapted into non-spooky, but remarkably hardy, sure-footed animals. And wikipedia suggests that these horses are such wonderfully pleasant and willing companion animals simply because Iceland was such a small country and any non-pleasant behavior (kicking, biting, nasty attitudes) was not well-tolerated. Animals whose temperament didn't conform to the pleasant standard were culled from the herds - there is a bit of horsemeat market from Iceland to Europe and Japan. (I wish my horse could be so warned. kidding)
But more interesting to me is their gaits. Unlike some gaited horses, they actually can and do trot and canter. And the tölt is completely natural to them. This gait is supposedly very similar to the American Saddlebred's rack. It is a four-beat gait that is surprisingly smooth (especially if you're familiar with the rack) in the Icelandic (I'll post a youtube video) and also surprisingly fast. Those things go like lightning at the tölt. And the more prized Icelandics can pace. Only fast pacers are well-liked and bred, often being referred to as "flying pacers." But it is the tölt that they are most famous for and it is supposed to leave the rider completely motionless in the saddle. Supposedly there are demonstrations of riders riding the Icelandics with a glass of beer in one hand and the reins in the other and never spilling a drop. Where is the footage, folks?! I'd love that. Alcohol and riding combined yet again, to glorious effect.
Cool things to note: There is legislation in effect in Iceland that these little treasures can be exported to other countries, but once they have left Iceland they cannot return. That's kind of sad. Awwwwww.
Also, this is a country that's got its head screwed on right when it comes to the training of horses. All Icelandic horses are given a vacation in the fall of every year to live in the herds and be left alone just to be horses. And while I know we can't replicate that here in America, we could learn a little from that and give our animals mini-breaks every so often in their training cycles. So they can simply be a horse. We're a bit obsessed with coddling and protecting our animals, treating them like children.