When temperatures plummeted to subzero last week in the Bluegrass, most horse owners and their steeds bundled up and stayed inside. The numbing cold turned us Kentuckians into a pretty pitiful bunch.

This spunky Icelandic stallion enjoyed romping in the winter weather.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

But there was one herd of 30 in Shelbyville that was pretty content: the Icelandic horses at Swallowland farm. These hardy little horses in their woolly mammoth-like winter coats felt right at home, said farm owner Carrie Lyon Brandt.

I had the opportunity to visit with Carrie last weekend and learned some pretty impressive things about a breed that until now I had never even seen. Although they look like laid-back balls of fur in their stalls, these Nordic horses light up on the pacing track and have a range of jobs, from family riding and trail mounts to prized show and exhibition horses.

Here are some of the coolest things I learned about a very different type of performance horse:

They follow very strict shoeing guidelines

Uniquely designed weighted boots protect Icelandic horses' heels from interference.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

True to their hardy form, Icelandics have sturdy little feet, Carrie said. But for the horses that perform their paces on hard or gravel surfaces, shoes are a must. Guidelines for the types of shoes these horses can wear in competition are very strict to ensure no one's doing anything to artificially alter or enhance a horse's gait. For example, shoes must be no thicker than 6-10 mm (on average, they are 8 mm thick). Further, their hoof length cannot exceed 10 cm from coronary band outwards to the toe. There's also a maximum weight for the boots the horses wear. Weighted boots help trainers teach horses their gaits while at the same time protecting their lower limbs from interference.

Their gaits are in their genes

Icelandic horses are born either four- or five-gaited. Researchers have recently discovered that there's a gene mutation that determines whether a horse has the ability to perform that fifth gait--the flying pace similar to the gait at which Standardbreds race. Therefore, most Icelandic breeders try to produce five-gaited horses. Interestingly, there is a downside to a horse being five-gaited, said Carrie: their ability to transition into the canter. While I watched a four-gaited horse easily slip into and maintain the canter around Swallowland's indoor arena, the flashy five-gaited stallion Carrie rode continually confused his gaits and limbs while trying to canter. She said it's something they have to teach these horses how to do properly.

You can drink while tolting

While I'm not endorsing drinking and riding, I got a kick out of learning there's an actual beer (or champagne, or bourbon...) tolting class in Icelandic competition: With beer stein in hand, riders display their horses' smoothest tolt. Whoever has the most drink left in their glass at the end wins. How is this possible? Carrie explained that the tolt is a four-beated gait without suspension, making it incredibly smooth.

They are easygoing enough for group housing

Icelandics that got along together lived together in large, airy stalls.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

I've seen the pictures and learned about the benefits of group housing horses, but this practice is seldom seen in American horse culture. At Swallowland, however, and in typical Icelandic fashion, the horses (with the exception of stallions) are housed in pairs in 12-by-12-foot stalls when not turned out (which they are most of the day, also in groups). The stalls are airy and open, allowing horses to see and interact with the other horses around them safely. Carrie said she prefers group-housing because it allows the horses to practice natural activities such as mutual grooming, and she believes it results in a happier, more relaxed horse. Of course, the Icelandics' laid-back demeanor and small size makes this housing set-up more feasible than, say, in a barn full of hot-blooded Thoroughbreds!

With my trip to Swallowland I realized there are breeds and riding disciplines I know absolutely nothing about. While I don't think I'll be trading in my Butet for an Icelandic saddle, I do have a newfound appreciation for their sport and will someday (when the temperatures rise above freezing, thank you) take Carrie up on her offer to take an Icelandic riding lesson.

What are some cool facts about your favorite breed or discipline? Let's see how little or much I know!