If you want to start a fight in Iceland, call their horses ponies. When I slipped up and did just that, I was met with, “A pony couldn’t do what that horse did.” And while the breed tends to fall in the pony height range, standing under 14.2 hands, I walked away from my ride in absolute agreement that an Icelandic horse is no mere pony. This I will defend until my dying day.
Upon my arrival in this fair country, I knew there was one thing above all else I had to do before leaving. And this was, simply put, to hop on one of those ponies—I mean horses. Icelandic horses are well-known for their distinctive traits, including their ability to perform an additional gait unseen in other breeds, known as the tölt. Any interaction would have been cause for celebration but I desired more than your run-of-the-mill trail ride. I used to ride both Western and English and was on my university’s equestrian team. And because the breed is so distinctly recognizable, I wanted a bit of a riding and a history lesson mixed in. The caveat is that, similar to the majority of my significant life events, I had decided to save my most sought after Icelandic experience for the day before my departure. Worth mentioning as well was my lack of transport out of the city center. Luckily, I had someone working the inside. A true-blue Icelander to help me out (and by true-blue I mean, half Icelandic, half Belgian, and entirely willing to placate this foreigner’s dawdling tendencies). Fellow Grapevine intern Johánna set me up with a friend who was opening up a barn with her boyfriend just outside of Reykjavík. Part of the deal is that they’ll come pick you up from a location of your choosing and bring you to their Kópavogur stables, roughly twenty minutes outside the city. So with less than twenty-four hours left in the country, I was whisked away to experience what so few riders get to. Nothing like the eleventh hour.
Oh Icelandic horses, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. I can say with complete objectivity and after thorough research spanning an entire three-hour period, that Icelandic horses are superior to other horses in temperament, work ethic, Norse mythological references and, chief among all else, mane and tail-fluff. I have soliloquies at the ready if ever the topic of Icelandic horses arises. And although the breed is entirely worthy of the extended praise I have just dispensed, it’s unfair to say the experience would have been as remarkable if JoJo (Johánna’s office moniker) hadn’t connected me with Gunnar Kjartansson’s Gáski Horse Center. I had hoped for more than a trail ride but, seeing as it was the day before my flight off the island, I would have counted my lucky stars to have been able to merely sit on an Icelandic horse. Well, María Tinna Árnadóttir, one of the barn’s head guides, saw to it I was practically given a riding lesson, while Gunnar Ingimundarson, a friend and partner at the farm, regaled us with tales of the horses and their place in Iceland’s history.
I guess a simple sentence says it best. It was such a good last day in Iceland. It was such an Icelandic last day, too. People always tell you that it’s impossible to be famous in Iceland. And I just grinned widely as I sat there listening to them speak of how a friend’s son was playing for Iceland in the European Championships. There was a Gunnar to my right and a Gunnar to my left. Right-Gunnar conjured a guitar out of nowhere and began singing Icelandic folk songs. In that idyllic atmosphere, I think I wasn’t entirely to blame for losing all sense of reason and seriously contemplating purchasing this beautiful, exceptionally fluffy bay, Blackbeard. (In the end, shipping him back to California would probably have been too much of an ordeal for the poor guy.)
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