Intern/shieldmaiden Josie saddles up
There is something deeply romantic about experiencing a country while horseback riding, but Iceland is particularly charming in this regard. Firstly, Iceland has its own unique breed of horse, the ancestors of which arrived with the first settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Cut off from other breeds, and impacted by natural selection via harsh winters and poor grazing, the animal that emerged as the national equine is just like the country it inhabits—small, but incredibly tough.
Secondly, there is a long-standing tradition of travelling Iceland by horse, which again can be traced back to the time of the settlers. In the Sagas, horses are mentioned often and in glowing terms. In the years that have followed, the relationship between literature and horse travel in Iceland has remained strong. The most well known of these writings must be W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s ‘Letters from Iceland’ (1937).
On the wild side
With these thoughts in mind, and with Auden and MacNeice’s book—my bible, for these past few months in Iceland—tucked into my backpack, it was time to find my own equestrian adventure in the land of ice and fire.
Eldhestar stables are located near Hveragerði, in the south west of Iceland. The area is well known for the Reykjadalur valley hot springs, and one of the tours that Eldhestar offers is to ride up to the hot river and take a dip. It’s nothing short of idyllic—the combination of two Icelandic pastimes that are as old as the Vikings.
Auden said of horseback riding attire, “as far as general clothing is concerned, the danger is of putting on too little rather than too much.” While his travel companion, the hardier Irish MacNeice, scoffed at his multiple layers of clothing, the advice today is remarkably similar. Despite the sunny day, the morning air was cold and layers were necessary.
After getting our gear, we were presented with our (hopefully) perfectly-matched steeds. I was brought a soft piebald mare, who gave me a knowing look and immediately dragged me over to the nearest patch of grass to start eating. As I hauled her back towards where we were meant to be with all of the better behaved ponies, the instructor called after me, “she’s called Tónlist.” Tónlist means music. Tónlist sighed exasperatedly through her velvet nose, and just like that I was in love.
Hot to… tölt
We started out winding through a tiny ‘forest.’ Icelanders and I have differing opinions on what constitutes significant woodland, but all the same, the dappled light shining through the leaves and the muffled sound of hooves was undeniably charming. After we had ridden for a while and had the chance to get used to our horses, it was time to try the infamous ‘tölt.’ Icelandic horses are not just prized for their strength and stamina. Over the years, the isolation of the population has lead to genetic changes, one of which has resulted in Icelandic horses having different gaits. In addition to the standard walk, trot and canter/gallop, most Icelandic Horses also have a smooth, four-beat pace called the tölt, as well as an extremely fast ‘flying’ pace called skeið. While we had no need for the latter on a laid-back tour of the countryside, the tölt is a comfortable way to cover ground.
We made our way out of the woods and behind Hveragerði, through wide shallow rivers and past bright green fields. Eventually we reached the beginning of the Reykjadalur trail and it was time to let our horses stop to graze—something that Tónlist was overjoyed about.
The trail up to the hot springs and hot river is rough and steep and I was amazed at our horses’ sure-footedness on the rocky terrain. We leaned forward in our saddles as we went uphill to make things easier, and admired how they are a natural fit for this landscape and topography. We reached the paddock around midday and from there it was just a short 15 minute hike to the hot river, past ominously bubbling mud springs and the ever-intensifying smell of egg. Reykjadalur is a popular trail these days and on a sunny day in August the river was packed with humans poaching themselves in the warm water. I am used to more bracing experiences of bathing in rivers so it took a while to get used to the bath-like temperatures, but lying in the middle of nowhere, hills rising up on either side, gently lapped by balmy waters—this is something I think I could get used to.
The route back to the stables was the same as before, with the added adrenaline of this time heading steeply downhill on the back of another creature. But as before, the horses were steadfast and nimble (something I can only dream of achieving on Icelandic mountains). Once we reached flatter ground again, we decided as a group that it was time to up the ante. As we all had some horse riding experience behind us, our tour leader was happy to let us take the horses for a short gallop. Tónlist and I, it turns out, share many of the same loves in life—eating, going home, and going everywhere as fast as possible. She took little encouragement to break into bracing gallop, and we came thundering up the hill ahead of the other riders and their more sluggish steeds. If you have never had the opportunity to ride a galloping horse before, I can only promise you that it is one of the most exhilarating experiences in the world.
We arrived back into the yard and I bade farewell to Tónlist—she was busy trying to maneuver her way over to another patch of grass and wasn’t the slightest bit interested—and it was time for home.
In the foreword for the re-printed edition of Letters From Iceland, published more than 20 years after the first, Auden mourns the loss of horses at every Icelandic farm. “I pictured to myself the pleasures of horseback riding in the afternoons. But the farmer had exchanged his ponies for a Land-Rover. Sensible of him, but disappointing for me. Today, ponies are confined to tourist centres and riding, I should imagine, has become an expensive luxury.”
While Auden was not entirely incorrect in his assumptions, he would have been pleased to see that half a century on, the Icelandic horse is as revered as ever, and that choosing to explore the country in this way remains as enchanting as ever.
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