Published June 27, 2003
In Iceland, the people are big and the horses are small. Sometimes, it feels as if someone is mocking us.
We were just getting the paper into print when an acquaintance called and told me he had a party to go to, so hence could not see to the Swedes in his care who were due to go horseback riding that afternoon. He was calling to ask if I could take over. I had little experience in handling either horses or Swedes, so I wondered if he had the right number. He was working for Nordjobb, the internordic employment for young people program. I had been on it twice. In the first instance, they had gotten me a job in a vodka factory in the tiny town of Rajamaki, Finland, where everyone worked in the factory on weekdays and played pool and beat each other up on weekends. The second time, they had me cleaning cabins on the booze cruise ships between Stockholm and Helsinki, where you had one break of 15 minutes per day. But I had gotten laid once thanks to the program, so I felt like I owed them a favour.
I went home, got out my rubber boots and woolly jumper, fixed myself a Bloody Mary (for the nerves, you see), and headed downtown to herd the Swedes together. Everyone in place on the bus, we drove off towards Laxnes. Swedes being a literate as well as a literal minded people, they asked me if this was where the author Halldór Laxness (Nobel Prize winner, as locals rarely tire of pointing out) came from. This was indeed the case. He had grown up there as Halldór Guðjónsson, and later changed his name to Laxness after the place (adding an s for good measure). After he had come to prominence, the owner of Laxnes, the father of the current occupant, gave him a piece of land to build a house on, which he duly did.
Today, Laxnes, that part which was not given to the poet, is a horse rental. We got off the bus and were led to the horses, which looked just like horses do on TV, only smaller. Crash helmets were handed out, and Swedes were asked whether they had any experience with horses. They hadn’t, and so were given the more subdued creatures. This left me, the local, with a vicious looking animal name Bófi, meaning crook. He had gotten his name due to a propensity for stealing cookies from the kitchen. The saddle was put in place, and I mounted the beast. This did not lift me any great distance from the ground.
Our horse guide showed us how matters worked. Apparently, you hold the reins and pull in whichever direction you want to go, backwards if you want to stop. If you want to go faster, you simply kick the thing. “Hott hott” said the man, horsespeak for onwards. And onwards the horses went. I held on for dear life, even if the creature was still only in second gear. Icelandic horses, I was told, have 5 gears, unlike the more common 3 gear horses that are known in most other places. I also learnt that, in order to keep it that way, horses that leave Iceland can never return. Perhaps this is so that they won’t learn foreign habits and start bringing them back. One wonders whether the same system should be adopted for British drivers.
As the horse gathered pace, I started shaking uncontrollably. The sensation of sitting on a horse is somewhat akin to traversing the countryside on the back of a giant vibrator. It certainly didn’t seem to be doing my testicles any favours. I reflected that this was how my forefathers crisscrossed the island from one end to another. Perhaps the effect on your nuts is why Iceland was always sparsely populated.
When we didn’t seem to be going any faster, I slowly let go of Bófi´s neck, and held the reins firmly. This wasn’t, in fact, too bad. I began to feel like John Wayne (even though his horses were considerably bigger) and waxed philosophical about life in the saddle. Riding a horse is just like dealing with a woman, you have to hold the reins tightly or else they…well, they stop to eat grass when you don’t want them too. Bófi had come to a full stop, and seemed more interested in the local vegetation than keeping up with the Swedes. I didn’t want to start our relationship on the wrong foot by kicking him, so I sat still hoping that once he had filled his belly, he would turn his attention to wherever it is we were going. The Swedes, who had for some reason assumed I was an expert horseman, didn’t seem too impressed. I hoped Bófi was realising we were becoming something of a social embarrassment to Swedes and horses alike. He did not seem to mind, so I had no choice but to give him a good kick. This seemed to change his attitude towards things instantly, and he now decided to run to the front of the group. “Slow down, cowboy,” said our handler, and scolded me for making all the other horses excited by my showing off.
We came to our resting place, where Bófi could finally eat grass to his hearts content. We got a nice view of Reykjavík, from a spot of some strategic importance, apparently, for the landscape was dotted with the remains of World War II defence posts built by the Americans to protect us from a German onslaught that never materialised.
We saddled up again and made our way back. The horses were eager to get back home. Bófi could probably sense the smell of cookies, for he once again took the lead. Our handler was on the mobile, so this time I led the group unchallenged. We crossed hills and rivers, Devil perhaps or perhaps not on our heels. As we came up to the farm I rode towards the door, when a lady came running up to me and directed me towards the stables instead. I dismounted and had a look inside the farmhouse. Pictures adorned the walls, and one of them caught my attention. On it was a picture of a pretty girl surrounded by a group of men with dorky haircuts. I had known the girl, but tragically, never slept with her, as is sadly so often the case. I asked the woman who these people were, and she told me they were musicians who had come there to go riding. On closer inspection, I realised that the musicians in question were actually the band Travis. I asked her whether there had been any other celebrities who had taken the tour, and she said that a short Englishman from some band had come. This was, of course, Damon Albarn, who apparently had done some riding here on horseback as well. She had been most impressed by a Danish actor though, who seemed to know his way about the saddle. Somehow it is reassuring to know that Aragon can actually ride a horse.
Swedes were herded back onto busses, and I was feeling ok about things. Now, if only my testicles would come back down…