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Adventure / January 2, 2018

To see the real Iceland, ride a horse

Written by: Stacey McKenna

“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.

The Icelandic horse is characterized by a thick mane and a stocky build. Photo by Andreas Tille.

Because Iceland is free from large predators, these horses don’t scatter when approached with things novel and scary. Instead, they tend to pause and problem solve. But, matched appropriately for skill, they still have the energy to entertain thrill-seeking riders.

As we prepared for the first ride of the tour, Annina and her fellow guide Caroline Owen assessed our abilities. A lifelong rider, I was excited to test my mare Hylling’s gears, and zipped around the arena with a goofy, ear-to-ear grin.

But, we didn’t all take so quickly to the speedy footfalls, and when one inexperienced rider was thrown into her “panic zone” by the size of her mount, the guides switched her to a smaller, equally steady horse. It’s worth noting, however, that after a week of confidence-building, she requested the original match for the final beach ride.

The rest of the day, we rode in the arena and out from the farm along dirt roads and river banks, learning to find the trademark tölt: a smooth but sometimes speedy four-beat gait for which the Icelandics are known. Some horses can glide along at speeds up to 20 miles per hour, yet they remain comfortable enough that less experienced riders can survive days in the saddle.

Arguably the most popular tourist site in Iceland: the Gullfoss Waterfall. Photo by Milan Nykodym.

Steam and early morning mist rising from Reykjadalur Hot Springs​. Photo by Stacey McKenna.

As Iceland grapples with unprecedented tourism, setting out on horseback offers the chance to view and interact with some of the island’s most fascinating history and landscapes away from the crowds.

On our seven-day Golden Circle ride, we did make some stops along the tourist track, bathing in the hot river at Reykjadalur Hot Springs and ogling the famed Gullfoss waterfall. But for most of the ride, our group was alone with the moss and the mist and the sheep. Excursions into the island’s desolate highland wilderness ensure even more isolation .

On our second day of riding, our tölting skills honed, we sliced through clouds in the foothills beneath Hengill Volcano and traversing less visited roads in Thingvellir National Park. Before lunch, we dismounted and led the horses single file through a tight canyon, flanked on either side by low volcanic cliffs.

My horse that day, Skjanni, deftly placed his feet between the larger stones and remained unfazed when the rocky path shifted beneath his hooves. As we exited the canyon into a grassy valley, the sun cracked through the haze. Skjanni nudged my shoulder with his strawberry blonde muzzle, eager to find a spot to graze.

“Welcome to Marardalur, the Valley of Horses,” said Caroline as we began untacking our mounts for their lunch break. Basking in the sun and munching on my sandwich, I looked around. There were no sounds but the laughter of our group and the snuffle of grazing horses. We had passed a hiker’s hut, but no other people that day. It was easy to imagine vikings camping in this glowing grassy field, enclosed by lava boulders and cliffs, with just one narrow entrance to protect.

My horse Grettir after a beach ride. Photo by Stacey McKenna.

The alien landscape surrounding Hengill Volcano. Photo by Hansueli Krapf.

We readied to move on, and Caroline and Annina, who each ponied an extra horse, had many of us switch mounts. In Iceland, the horses are treated like royalty. We often dismounted and walked beside our steeds up and down steep paths and each day most of us changed horses once or twice to give them rotating rests.

At night, Eldhestar’s horses live together in small paddocks on the road or in a sprawling pasture when back at the farm. All of them get a break of a month to several months at some point during the year.

But that doesn’t mean that horse season in Iceland stops during winter. Many local companies offer horseback rides year round. Most of the longer treks do require the daylight and milder temperatures of the summer months. But off-season day trips let visitors bask in a muted landscape, take advantage of the island’s overwhelming geothermal activity, and long nights promise plenty of opportunities for aurora spotting. Some outfitters even offer special horseback packages tailored to catching sight of the northern lights.

Back at the farm on my eighth and final night in Iceland, body and mind relaxed from seven days in the saddle, I caught my own glimpse of an electric sky. It was September, so early in the season, but the rural setting offered relief from Reykjavik’s light pollution and we got lucky. Huddled together outside the guest house, we scanned the sky, entranced by the faint yellow curtain that danced about between the stars.

The tour operator used for this piece was Wild Women Expeditions. Their nine-day, women’s-only Golden Circle Riding Adventure costs $3,295 per person. 

Do you have questions or comments about this feature? Email them to [email protected].

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about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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