Why does the fjord horse look so different? Dun-coloured with black-and-white manes and forelock-to-tail dorsal stripes, some have zebra stripes on their legs, and dark stripes over the withers. Regardless of how they’re groomed, Norwegian horses are oddly dissimilar. Their manes usually have a black centre hair – a midtstol – sandwiched in between white outer hair, and both are trimmed to contrast each other and stand like a bristle comb to emphasize the curve of the neck.

Their unique appearance makes it hard to believe the Norwegian Fjord Horse is among the world’s oldest and purest horse breeds. They resemble the equines painted on cave walls by Ice Age artists, and they’re believed to have migrated to Norway over four thousand years ago.

shaggy Norwegian Fjord horse with a long blond mane in winter pasture

Bob Langrish photo.

Origin of the Fjord Horse

Archaeological excavations of Viking mounds and other burial sites in Europe evidence how the Fjord horse type has been selectively bred for at least two millennia by the Norse. The Fjord was used by the Vikings as a war mount and also as a beast of burden for farming and logging. Their thick, furry coats make them well-suited for northern climates.

Fjords existed for a long time without any significant influence from other equine breeds. The gene pool inside Scandinavia was especially closed. The Norwegian horse today has the same dun colour as the wild horse of Central Asia, the Przewalski, and the Tarpan, which was Europe’s wild equine, and these breeds are its likely relatives and progenitors. (The Przewalski horse has 66 chromosomes while both the Fjord and the Tarpan have only 64.) The Przewalski are rare and now endangered horses originally native to the steppes of Central Asia. The Tarpan, or Eurasian wild horse (Equus ferus ferus), once roamed Eastern Europe and Asia before its extinction in the late 1800s. The last specimen died in 1909 in captivity on an estate in Poltava Governorate, Russia.

Viking mounds and burial site excavations have produced materials that date from approximately 1,200 BC and include stone carvings of fighting stallions and in some cases the horses are easily recognizable as Fjords. From these finds it’s clear that the Vikings domesticated their indigenous equine which they used as war mounts in their travels to Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Iceland. In these lands the Fjord horse almost certainly influenced the Highland Pony and the Icelandic Horse. Today, the Norwegian people hold the breed in high regard and it has become a cultural identifier and national symbol. Now there are Fjord horse breed registries and shows and many proud owners all over the world.

What do Fjord horses look like?

a dun coloured fjord horse in grass pasture

All Fjord horses are a shade of dun.    Bob Langrish photo

Fjord horses are easily recognized by the dark stripe in the white mane which is really stands out when it’s cut for contrast. Fjords are always dun in colour. Today’s English word ‘dun’ is derived originally from the Saxon dun meaning nut-brown and when used to describe animals it always means a light shade of brown.

Ninety percent of Fjords are brown dun and the other ten percent are other shades, either red dun, gray dun, white dun, or yellow dun. In addition to their colouring, Fjords also sport primitive stripe markings, most notably the dorsal strip, and zebra stripes on the legs and dark stripes over their withers. The primitive markings are associated with the dun gene. Some Fjord horses have small brown spots on the body or the head. These spots are called “Njal marks” as one of the foundation sires of the contemporary Fjord horse had such distinctive markings.

Pangaré is a coat trait found in some Fjord horses that features pale hair around the eyes and muzzle and underside of the body. These pale areas can extend up to the flanks, throat and chest, behind the elbows, in front of the stifle, and on the buttocks. Fjord horses are known for having pangare traits of lighter hair on the muzzle, belly, inside of legs, and over the eyes. Some Fjord horses also carry the cream gene, which combines with the dun gene to create the lighter shades of the breed.

Physical traits include a short but attractive head with small but alert ears and large eyes. The breed is known for being short-necked with tough furry bodies. They have low-set tails and sloped quarters, strong legs, and hard black hooves.

How big are Fjord Horses?

Norwegian Fjord horses are smaller in size than most other breeds. The average animal only ranges around 13.2 – 14.2 hands, and yet Fjords are still considered horses and not ponies. Their weight normally ranges from between 400 to 500 kilograms (880 to 1,100 lbs).

What are Fjord Horses used for?

For many centuries prior to our modern age, the Fjord horse was a farm animal used by Scandinavians for plowing and clearing land. These horses excelled in the chilly climate of western Norway, working in the mountainous terrain. Today these horses have developed into beautiful show-stopping athletes. It’s not uncommon to see Fjords participate in English riding disciplines including dressage and show jumping, and also Western trail riding and working cattle. Fjords frequently appear in pleasure driving and pulling competitions. In addition to their strength, the breed is well-known for having a light, smooth gait and for being easy to ride.

What do Fjord horses eat?

Because of the breed’s harsh development in sub-arctic Scandinavia, Fjord horses are easy keepers today. They’re the rare breed that doesn’t require any grain in their diet; they’ll do just fine on high-quality hay, with some minerals and water.

Some Fjords may actually become overweight if allowed access to fresh grass pasture or if they’re fed grain regularly. It’s not uncommon to see fjords turned out wearing grazing muzzles in the summer and fall to restrict their intake.

Are Fjord horses good for beginners?

Generally speaking, Fjord horses are an excellent choice for young riders. These horses are quick learners and eager to please, with an even temperament. A beginner’s horse should be easy to train, tolerant and be comfortable to ride. The Fjord horse checks all those boxes.

Fjords are more challenging to groom than other breeds. They grow thicker winter coats and so frequent currying is required to help them shed-out in the spring. And of course, Fjord horses always need their two-tone manes trimmed to keep them poised in the accustomed style typical of the breed.

Younger horse owners may need to be warned about feeding their Fjords too many treats, as careful dietary maintenance is necessary to prevent unhealthy weight gain.

What health problems do Fjord horses have?

Fjord horses are a healthy and hardy breed, but because they’re such easy keepers, they are more likely to experience health issues like laminitis, which is a painful hoof condition that can cause a horse’s coffin bone to rotate. Fjords that become overweight are at greater risk of acquiring this condition.

Like so many other breeds, Fjords also can get colic which is a painful digestive issue that can be life-threatening and may require emergency surgery. Again, overweight Fjords are at greater risk.

How much do Fjord horses cost?

Fjord horses are more expensive than regular breeds because they’re considered exotics and not in generous supply. A purebred yearling colt may be secured for anywhere from twelve to twenty four hundred dollars, but a well trained three-year-old Fjord horse could cost twenty or thirty thousand dollars. Since the breed is not native to North America, they’re typically harder to find in Canada and the United States than in Europe. Once home in the barn, each Fjord horse costs about twelve hundred dollars a year to feed along with grooming supplies and veterinary care.

For more information, visit:
Norges Fjordhestlag
Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry