Over Hill And Underwater: A Day With Icelandic Horses

Over Hill And Underwater: A Day With Icelandic Horses

Photos by
Sarah Green
Art Bicnick

The Icelandic word for horse is hestur, which translates as “peaceful creature with floating hooves and blow-dried hair as if lifted from the scalp of a 1980s supermodel.” These animals are notably wily and smart, many of them published poets. It has been suggested that Iceland’s earliest laws were drafted by horses and certain of the Sagas owe their enduring power to authorial assistance provided by distinguished horse editors, who provided their riders/writers with shrewd notes as to narrative pacing and plot.

None of the above is true in any demonstrable sense, but the breed—so unusual and distinct to anyone with even a passing familiarity with horses—does occasion certain adventures of the mind. Their small size can confuse one’s idea of scale, so that the sight of an Icelandic horse in the countryside might, like an optical illusion, make the animal appear as if far off in the distance when in fact it is just a few paces away. And their comportment! No more than a fleeting look is needed to discern and even begin to feel the breed’s disquieting combination of elegance and poise. They are calm, tranquil animals with an aura of beatific ease.

Serenity serves horses well when tasked to withstand the kind of indignities visited upon them when enlisted to give novice jockeys a ride. The horses at Laxnes Horse Farm, a 20-minute drive northeast from Reykjavik, have been trained to do so since 1968, when Þórarinn “Póri” Jónasson and his delightful wife Ragnheiður “Heiða” Gislason started the farm with designs to be the first real activity company in Iceland.

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Póri laughs now about those prescient days decades ago. “I still am, but I’m undercover so nobody knows.”

Dragon rider

A visit to Laxnes just a few weeks ago started with a warm greeting from Póri and two animals even smaller than Icelandic horses: a bushy sheepdog named Kalli and a yapping counterpart whose presence was the reason for a sign on a wall inside: “Warning! Chihuahua on Duty.”

Laxnes Horse Farm

The horses, however, were the star of the show. “Are you ready to rock ’n’ roll?,” Póri asked once the scene was fully surveyed, prompting an answer along the lines of “Hmm, well, yes, I haven’t ever really done this but I guess so…” Inside, Heiða hooked us up with all the warm clothes we could possibly want—us being my wife and I, neither previously wrapped in enough wool or the least bit experienced in the equestrian arts.

To the horse pen we went, to be matched up with animals suited to our demeanor and size. For me, Dreki—a fine light-brown specimen whose name translates as “dragon.” Imagine, if you will: a formidable beast, untamable to all but the most intrepid and commanding in stature. Now amend that imagining to: a quiet and strong soul, described as sometimes a little moody and imperious but overall a fun and easy ride.

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The journey started off in brilliant afternoon light, white with golden hues glinting against the inviting snow. Basic instructions are given as to how to distribute your weight and maneuver the reins, but nothing too detailed—you will get a handle on it all as the walk goes on. About ten of us ventured out, ranging in age from around eight to fifty. Some clearly knew how to ride, especially the youngest ones, whose confidence and control were a bit disarming at the start. But many did not, their uncertainty masked by what can only be described as the very cool feeling of being on the back of an Icelandic horse.

Near-death experience

The breed is famous for its unique gaits, including an unusually stable and sure-footed one and especially a “flying pace” during which long spells of no hooves touching the ground lend a sense of levitation. None of that, mercifully, figures in a beginner’s leisurely tour, which focuses instead on easy walking and trotting with nice open views of the countryside.

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The views have a lot to offer: mountains, streams, sky. The streams roll by at your side until, in a move that proves a little nerve-jangling for the rookie rider, the call comes to cross over, with the horse going down into the wetness and through and then up again. Dreki, it turned out, had ideas of his own, so mid-river he stopped and lurched his neck forward to take a drink, almost throwing off his lumbering rider in the process. It made for a thrill and a little jolt of fear, not least for the sudden suspicion that maybe the horse was in actual fact the nykur, the mythical Icelandic water-horse creature that prowls the land only to carry its riders deep down to aquatic recesses and a drowning death.

It turned out Dreki was innocent and just thirsty, so the realization was more simple but no less profound: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it NOT drink.

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Fully charged

The ride continued on through the valley, with a brief pause during which everyone got out of their saddles and took a break. Asked for his thoughts about the ride so far, with a recorder on-hand to document any answer, Dreki demurred. Questioned about his rider’s clumsy but hopefully still somehow charming manner, again: no comment. The interview was cut short when, instead of sharing his thoughts, Dreki showed his teeth and tried to eat my notebook.

Fair enough—sometimes silence says all that need be said. So we rode on, all of us in the group with greater finesse as the trek stretched on. It’s clear that the horses know what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for, but the two Laxnes guides leading the ride let them open up and play around a little too. A lot of walking, a little trotting and some parts where you start to feel the full charge of bouncing up and down—the range is good and comfortable for a two-hour stroll.

Back at the farm, it was hard to say goodbye. Dreki appeared a little broken up too, or at least savvy enough to make it seem so in the service of procuring food or whatever else he might like back in the pen. He deserved it—he earned it. He’s a real pro.