It is the Icelandic Horse’s unique qualities that prompted Lillian and Doug Burchill to start importing them from Iceland in 2015, and to breed quality stock of their own. The Burchill’s operate Cross Circle Icelandics, which is located in southeastern Saskatchewan. With only seven breeders listed in the Canadian Icelandic Horse Federation (CHIF) breeder directory, the Icelandic is rarely seen in this country – and the Burchills and other breeders are looking to change that. (Please visit here for a list of other Icelandic breeders in Canada.)

The photogenic Icelandic Horse (also referred to as the Icelandic Pony) is an ancient breed dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries when Vikings settled Iceland, bringing breeding stock with them. These original horses drew from Norwegian Fjord horses and the Irish Hobby and became the gene pool from which the modern Icelandic Horse is descended.

The breed is known for its gentleness, thick manes and tails, and its unique gaits. They are also on the small side, with the average Icelandic measuring 13-14 hh (hence the pony reference), but they are powerhouses of energy and strong enough to carry an average adult.

A black Icelandic stallion.

The Burchill’s stallion Skuggi fra Arbakka. (courtesy Cross Circle Icelandics)

The horses also are famous for their thick double coat, which is needed to live in the harsh winter climate of Iceland. The outer layer is referred to as the “tog” and is a long and coarse layer which protects the animal from wind and moisture. The inner layer or “thel” is the insulating, soft layer to create warmth.

Currently, the Burchill’s have two stallions, Skuggi fra Arbakka and Ljufur. “Being relatively new to the Icelandic scene, we observed current stock and chose to breed five gaited horses who were competition quality, instead of focusing on trail horses,” Lillian Burchill explains. “Our goal is to introduce Canada’s youth to the breed and hopefully establish a show circuit.”

To that end, she adds, “Our focus in clientele is not reserved for affluent individuals, but to youth. Horses are priced accordingly.”

Set back by the pandemic, they have since forged ahead, spreading the word about these charming and special horses. “Had it not been for Covid-19, we had planned demonstrations and a multitude of clinics. I organized the first Icelandic horse clinic in Alberta at WELCA (Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association) in Edmonton with Icelandic clinician Svanhildur Hall. It was very well-received.”

While they are relatively new to Icelandics, horses have been part of Burchill’s family for generations. Burchill says her family imported purebred Arabian horses in the early 1900s and her grandfather and his siblings trained and sold hundreds of horses in that era. Her immediate family has been involved in the horse business in western Canada since 1996, including Pony Club and 4H when her children were growing up. “I became even more involved with the horses after my children left home for post-secondary, training young horses and then selling them to good homes,” she explains. “Carrying on the family tradition.”

The CHIF was founded in 1979, although the breed was first introduced to the country in the 1950s. By 1999 there were over 1,300 purebred Icelandic horses in Canada. The CHIF joined the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations  (FEIF) in 1984. There are world championships and world rankings for the various types of competitions that are unique to the Icelandic.

One such quality of these horses is their five natural gaits (see video below). There is the usual walk, trot, and canter, but there is also tölt, a four-beat lateral gait that has a high-stepping action to it. “The tölt is very natural for the Icelandic Horse and can be seen in foals only hours old,” explains Burchill.

There is also a two-beat lateral ‘flying pace’ similar to what you find in Standardbreds, making the Icelandic unique for its five official gaits. “Compared to other gaited breeds, I would say the Icelandic is the only one that has both pace and tölt. Some other gaited breeds have a rack or a pace, but I’m not aware of any that have both,” says Burchill.



During breed-specific competitions there are four-gait and five-gait tests with different levels of difficulty that are ridden on an oval track. The performance of horse and rider is judged, mainly through the quality of the gaits. Other tests include the flag race, dressage, trail, cross-country, in-hand showing and freestyle performance. And to make good use out of the Icelandic’s fifth gait, there are flying pace races, where horses can get up to 48 km/h over a short distance.

The Burchill’s dedication to promoting Icelandics in this country is evident in the considerable investment they have undertaken to date. Says Lillian, “We have sent horses for professional training for up to one year at a time by certified Icelandic horse trainers. In short, we have invested almost $800,000 in furthering this breed in Canada.”