Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Iceland.
From New Zealand, Iceland is a world away. 17,184 kilometres, to be exact. A year ago, I never could have imagined that I would visit Iceland. But it was an amazing place, and one of my favourite destinations in the world. It has fantastic food, friendly people, and breathtaking scenery.
And you know what else it has? Icelandic horses.
As soon as we decided we were going to Iceland, I googled horse riding. I was well aware that the weather in Iceland is very changeable, so I didn’t even know if I’d get a chance to go out – without getting soaked, anyway.
But first of all, a little bit about Icelandic horses.
The Icelandic horse is a unique breed of small-statured horses which came to Iceland from Norway around 1100 years ago. Excavations in Europe have revealed that it descended from an ancient breed of horse that is now extinct outside of Iceland, where it has been preserved in isolation.
The Icelandic horse is known for being sure-footed and able to cross rough terrain. It displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop displayed by other breeds. The first extra gait is a four-beat lateral ambling gait called the tölt. The tölt is known for its explosive acceleration and speed. They can also speed along using a skeið, or the “flying pace”. Skeið is used in pacing races and is fast and smooth. Some horses are able to reach up to 50 km/h. For obvious reasons, most tourists stick to the tölt.
Driving the Golden Circle, Icelandic horses are everywhere. You won’t have to drive far before you see them frolicking in the paddocks. But, if you want to get up close and personal with an Icelandic horse, I would recommend visiting Íslenski Hesturinn.
When I googled ‘horse trekking’ in Iceland, I actually didn’t get many hits. That was odd, I thought. It turned out that companies in Iceland refer to horse treks as ‘horse rental’. This gave me some interesting visions of checking over the horse like you would at a rental car company (I’m sorry, you need to record that this horse has a dent in it and is missing an ear, etc). However, I was very pleased to find that the horses at Íslenski Hesturinn were extremely well cared for, and well loved. No dents to report at all.
I was lucky enough to be the only person on the trek that day – a very unusual occurrence, I believe – and was taken through the basics of the Icelandic horse by Orsi. Orsi, like all of the guides at Íslenski Hesturinn, is certified and a member of the Iceland Tourist Guide Association. As you ride an Icelandic horse slightly different than the English style I have typically ridden, this was greatly appreciated. I was geared up with a helmet and boots, introduced to the horses, and taken to meet my valiant stead – Brynja.
Along with Orsi, a lovely Australian guide accompanied us on our trek. Unfortunately, I was too busy concentrating on the adorable horse she introduced me to, and I have forgotten her name. Oops. She described Brynja as ‘a big teddy bear’. But in reality, these horses are little. I have never been able to mount a horse off the ground before, but I had no trouble doing so with an Icelandic horse! Brynja had a huge, fluffy mane and a bit of a shaggy coat. I loved her.
We started our ride, and straight away I could see how comfortable riding an Icelandic horse is. Unlike the English riding style, you sit a little bit back in the saddle. Given the last time I rode was on Arabian ex-racehorse that really wanted to take off into the sunset, I appreciated the comfortable gait. We headed over towards the Rauðhólar. Meaning “red hills”, this area has the remnants of pseudocraters. A pseudocrater looks like a regular volcanic crater but is not one. These distinctive landforms are created when flowing hot lava crosses over a wet surface, such as a swamp, a lake, or a pond causing an explosion of steam through the lava. The explosive gases break through the lava surface in a manner similar to an eruption, and flying debris builds up crater-like feature which can appear very similar to real volcanic craters. Iceland is the only place on Earth where you can see these craters, with the next nearest location being Mars. A little easier to get to Iceland, I think.
The age of the Rauðhólar area is about 5200 years. There were originally far more craters, but they were quarried for stone during WW2, and used for construction. Orsi told us that the stone from the area was used to create Reykjavík Airport! There was hardly anyone around, and though we had a brief spell of rain at the beginning, the sky cleared up beautifully.
We then had a go at the famed tölt. I’m not a very good rider. My trot is pretty abysmal, and I tend to get the posting wrong… bouncing out of the saddle. I didn’t really believe there could be a comfortable gait to ride, other than a walk. I was wrong! The tölt was extremely comfortable. I felt like I could ride it for hours. You were going quite fast, but it didn’t really feel that way. It was like an adorable caterpillar shuffle… so smooth. I felt like I got the hang of it fairly quickly, which was fantastic. We split our time between tölt-ing, walking and admiring the surrounding scenery.
One of my favourite parts of the ride happened just before we entered a (small!) Icelandic forest. We rode three abreast at the tölt, shuffling our way down the path happily. I felt completely at ease on the horse, with the help of my friendly guides, and enjoyed it immensely. I was also treated to a little demonstration. In Iceland, there is a tradition called the Beer Tölt. It involves a competition of riders doing a smooth tölt, and seeing who spills the least amount of beer from their glass while riding at different speeds and directions. Orsi demonstrated this with a whip rather than a beer, but he did an impressive job. Brynja is apparently a champ at the Beer Tolt. That’s my girl!
I returned to the stables very happy to have ridden with Íslenski Hesturinn. I would recommend them, without hesitation, to anyone wanting to experience the true beauty of the Icelandic horse. The trek was well run, with friendly staff, who were focused both on safety and ensuring you were having a good time. They were able to cater the ride to my skill level, and at no time did I feel unsafe or out of control.
I personally think that, even if you have never ridden, the Icelandic horse is by far the best to learn on. The horses at Íslenski Hesturinn are put on rotation, so don’t work all year round – and I’m sure this is great for their temperament. Unlike most trekking horses, they only needed a little bit a guidance and responded readily to cues on the reins. I imagine the Icelandic horse would be absolutely perfect for the beginner rider… adults and children alike!
If you are thinking of going to Iceland, make sure a tölt on an Icelandic horse is top of your wish list.
Where: Surtlugata 3, 110 Reykjavik
Cost: 14,500 Icelandic Króna (Volcanic Landscape Ride)
Important! Icelandic horses need to be protected from disease. Make sure that you do not bring in any riding gear that has been used around foreign horses, and riding pants/jodphurs/tops must be washed thoroughly in hot water before you bring them near an Icelandic horse. Better yet, wrap up in some warmer clothes like I did – you’ll appreciate it if it gets cold!