This not only led to genetic diversity within local stocks but also saw the emergence of new horse breeds that were fit for a medieval warrior's purpose. 

Economic adventures 

Whilst the sagas portray people from Viking societies as brave warriors and fearless explorers, they should be equally celebrated for their entrepreneurial skills. 

Though much of their economic wealth was seized at the point of a sword, people from Viking societies were some of the greatest traders and merchants of the medieval era. 

Utilizing their maritime skills, they sailed as easily upstream or downriver as across the vast stretches of the North Atlantic Ocean to reach new markets for goods and people (slavery underpinned the Viking economy like no other good) to trade. 

Their mercantile skill saw the development of the first cities – trading ports – at home, in places like Birka and Hedeby

Further abroad, cities like Bristol and Dublin owe their foundation to being essential places of trade and rudimentary commercial transactions, often involving human bondage. 

It is only in recent times that historians and academics have focused on the economic exploits of the Vikings, which has often been overlooked in favor of their gorier adventures on the high seas or the battlefield. 

This economic network, which linked the Viking homeland of Scandinavia and its surroundings (i.e., the Baltic Sea) with the Frankish realms, the Byzantine Empire, and even further south to the Islamic world, should be seen as every bit as impressive as any battle won. 

One of the unintended side effects of this impressive economic activity was the impact that people from Viking societies had on the horse population of Europe through trading and breeding. 

In Germanic religion, horses were highly revered, as depicted on the ancient Tjängvide image stone in Gotland, which portrays Odin riding Sleipnir, the best of all horses in Norse mythology. Photo: Berig (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A valuable commodity for both trade, agriculture, and war 

The recent academic focus has been centered on the goods and people that people in Viking societies traded

In fact, Dr. Cat Jarman's whole book, River Kings (available to buy on Amazon here), is dedicated to historically tracing the journey of one such valuable commodity – a precious bead – from its origins in Asia through various trade networks to wind up in Scandinavia during the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100). 

However, it was not only people and manufactured goods that Viking societies traded widely; animals, too, were part of their extensive trading networks. 

Horses became an integral part of Viking warfare as a crucial asset in battle. 

Over decades, and then centuries, military encounters with the mounted warriors of other cultures and civilizations – especially the Franks – led the Vikings to adapt and evolve their military tactics to include horses in any military force, whether for a swift raid or a larger pitched battle. 

Through trial and error, defeat, and victory, Vikings utilized mounted warriors towards the end of the Viking Age for swift maneuvers and strategic advantages on the battlefield. 

Thus, horses became a prized asset that could fetch a high price at any market or trading port and be a much sought-after target during any raid. 

This demand for horses spurred a thriving and lucrative trade in these noble steeds. 

Viking merchants and traders actively sought out strong and resilient breeds that could not only withstand the rigors of combat but could also help with agricultural work (especially the plowing of fields) and with the transportation of goods over vast distances. 

Viking merchants and traders were instrumental in establishing a lucrative trade in horses, seeking out breeds that could withstand the rigors of combat and contribute to agricultural productivity. Photo: dpVUE .images / Shutterstock

Horses from the British Isles, Byzantine, and Frisia 

The most significant impact of Viking horse trading was the introduction and distribution of new horse breeds throughout Europe. 

Viking merchants, traders, and raiders brought them into contact with a myriad of diverse civilizations, cultures, and societies, each with their own distinct equine traditions and breeds. 

Horses from as far away as Asia, the Russian steppes, and North Africa were brought into Europe via the extensive trade and raid networks of the Vikings. 

Viking interactions with the inhabitants of the British Isles, particularly in Anglo-Saxon England, led to exchanges of horse breeds between locals and invaders. 

From the mid-9th century onwards, Vikings came to the British Isles in large forces with an intent to conquer, subjugate, and settle. 

The Anglo-Saxon warriors whom they faced on the battlefield were renowned for their horsemanship and cavalry tactics and possessed a sturdy breed of horse known as the "Old English Black," sadly now extinct. 

Their neighbors from across the North Sea would have instantly recognized the value of these horses, both monetary and military, and incorporated them into their stocks, rudimentary breeding programs, and military forces. 

Across the English Channel, the Vikings had established a presence in the Frisian lands (much of the modern-day "low countries" and some of Germany) through a mix of conquest and commerce. 

Native to these low-lying lands, the Frisian horse was much sought after for breeding due to its suitability in both warfare and agricultural work. 

Some of the horses were transported back to Viking homelands for agricultural purposes, while others were taken to growing Viking economic hubs by traders and merchants. 

Finally, their interactions with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, via the Black Sea and Constantinople, saw them come into contact with the Arabian and Barb horses. 

Both these breeds were renowned then, as today, for their speed and agility and became highly coveted by Viking chieftains and elites. 

Brought to Iceland by Viking settlers in the late 9th century, the island's horses are a rare example of equine purity in the modern world, thanks to centuries of isolation and limited genetic diversity. Photo: Andreas Tille (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Genetic breeding and Iceland's isolation 

As a result of the influx of new horse breeds into Europe, particularly in the Viking homeland and its surrounds, people in Viking societies also practiced selective breeding. 

Their preferences for certain genetic traits for their horses – conducive to agricultural work, warfare, or transport, along with the sturdiness to endure the harsh climatic conditions of the Viking homeland and surrounds – led to the development of breeds known for their versatility and adaptability. 

These would go on to influence the breeding practices and standards of European regions long after the last Viking ship had sailed. 

This, of course, contrasts widely with the current horses of Iceland. 

Though they were introduced to the island by Viking settlers from the late 9th century, they are some of the least genetically diverse breeds in the world due to the volcanic island's isolation from the European continent and the wider world. 

They have little, if any, genetic crossbreeding and thus remain some of the "purest" breeds in the equine world today. 

The introduction of new horse breeds into Europe and the selective breeding for horses with preferred traits are just some of the impacts of the expansion of people in Viking societies throughout the early medieval period. 

For more information on the deep connection between Vikings and their horses, visit The Conversation here.

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