“This is Stormur,” says the German staff member at Íshestar as she hands me the reins of my horse for the morning. She leaves us to get acquainted, and I pet Stormur’s soft nose, barely able to contain my glee.
With impatience, I had sat through Íshestar’s instructional video for people who have never touched a horse, for I have touched a horse, and in fact have ridden many times. Indeed, I am what you could call a secret horse girl, somewhat obsessed with horses. I took riding lessons as a girl, subscribed to Horse Illustrated, got in trouble at school for drawing horses instead of paying attention, and read every horse-themed book I could get my hands on. I haven’t ridden for almost ten years, though, so today at Íshestar will be my first time since I was fourteen.
I watch as the rest of the group is matched up with their horses based on experience, and can pick out my fellow horse girls by the confident way they hold the reins. I’m itching to mount up and try out tölting, one of the special gaits that Icelandic horses can do. It’s fast and smooth and can be sustained over long distances, which makes it great for traveling in a country that didn’t really have wheels and roads before the 20th century. It’s about as fast as a trot but infinitely smoother. Anyone who has been on a trotting horse knows that it’s bone-rattling and not very pleasant.
Finally, we all mount up and head out of the corral. The horses are every colour a horse can be, and fuzzy, their winter coats starting to come in despite it being late August. We fall into a long line, nose to tail, and begin the walk through the lava fields. The ambling pace is a nice way to see the sights, being much more personal than a bus trip and much less work than a hike. The whole group goes this way for about fifteen minutes, before we come to a fork in the road and stop, as it’s announced that we are now splitting into two groups. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. The majority of the group takes the left fork to continue going slow, and the horse girls and I go right to follow the leader of the fast group.
We amble along for a few minutes before the leader turns around and calls back, “Okay, I’m about to speed up!” Stormur breaks into what I’m pretty sure is just a trot, but as I relax in my saddle, I realize I’m not bouncing up and down with every step. I’m tölting and I couldn’t be more excited. Almost as soon as I realize what’s happening, we slow down, and I notice that I haven’t been paying much attention to the landscape during the brief jaunt. In that short time we’ve moved away from the view of the barns and stables that we started with and turned into the lava field proper. Craggy bushes line the path, and from the vantage point of being on horseback, I can see the ages-old lava flows now covered in moss. It’s beautiful in a desolate kind of way, especially with peeks of the mountains and harbour in the distance. The landscape is always different as we move through it, but composed of much the same elements so that each time we round a bend on the path, it’s a reshuffling of the brush, the rocks, the moss, and the clear blue sky.
After a few more tölting sessions interspersed by walking, we give the horses a rest, dismounting and chatting with our trail leader. Some of the others have been having trouble getting their horses to tölt. The Íshestar staff member recommends holding the reins very short, so that the horse’s head is forced up, and sitting deep in the saddle.
“They can all tölt, but some of them have to be coaxed into doing it. Some just do it automatically, like Stormur here,” she says, giving my horse a pat on the neck. I feel lucky that I got such a well-gaited horse and give Stormur a pet on the nose. After a few more minutes, we mount back up and continue on the trail. We tölt then walk then tölt then walk, and I’m really getting the hang of it. Sometimes our guide even leads us into a canter, which is a faster, rocking gait.
All too soon, we’re merging back with the slow group at the corral we started at. The entire ride was about an hour and a half, but as they say, time flies when you’re having fun. I dismount and say goodbye to Stormur, thanking him for such a nice time. I’m sure he doesn’t care about me and is just looking forward to hanging out with his pals in the pasture, but for me the ride was close to magical. It’s so much better to go on a tour when you have a horse to ride on, especially one that tölts.
Horses, Not Ponies!
Dozens of horses are just a 20-minute bus ride outside of Reykjavík, at Íshestar, a riding tour company in Hafnarfjörður. They’re all of the same breed, as is every other horse in the country, descended from the stock brought over by the Vikings hundreds of years ago. They’re small, but are technically horses, not ponies.