“When we cross the water, don’t look down,” Annina Wilhelm, our diminutive but tough-as-nails guide, said with a smile. “Watch me, and follow exactly where I go. Unless my horse sinks in the mud or starts to swim. Then you need to stop and go around. Ok?”
We nodded our assent. It was the last day of a Wild Women Expeditions horseback adventure throughout southwest Iceland. We had learned to trust our guides and the sturdy little equines we were riding, especially when it was time to step outside our comfort zones. Besides, this path was leading us to Thorlákshöfn black sand beach, where it would be time to gallop.
Confident we were ready, Annina shouted, “Now we go!” and turned her flaxen-maned horse into the rush of the delta. Following close behind, I swung my lower legs back and up to keep the rising water out of my boots. My mount, a bay gelding named Grettir, gamely picked his way through the river bed.
When we hit the shallows, our string of eleven horses and riders fanned out, upping the pace and splashing toward the coast in the Icelandic horses’ trademark silky smooth four-beat gait. As we drew closer to the sea, the delta dried up and the muck became sand. About four hours after leaving the farm, we spilled onto the beach, wrapping up more than a week of bonding and exploration with a final romp.
Roughly 80,000 horses call Iceland home, and riding them through the nation’s famed volcanic countryside offers one of the most natural and exhilarating ways to tour the island, no matter the season.
Icelandic horses are descended from Viking steeds, brought to the island by boat more than 1,000 years ago. After centuries of breeding, the horses are now perfectly suited for their home; their short stature helps them navigate rocky volcanic terrain with ease, and their thick coats hold up to the country’s frigid winters.
The Icelandic horse can accommodate all kinds of riders, from novice and timid to experienced and bold. Though they typically weigh about 800 pounds and stand just 52 to 56 inches at their withers, Icelandics easily carry full-grown adults across rough terrain. They’re also known for plucky attitudes and a somewhat startling tendency to snuggle.