You’d think from the looks of these dwarfen beasts that they’d be meek and mild, happy to carry a hobbit off on an adventure into Iceland’s fairytale landscape. At least, this is what I had in mind when I stepped into the Íshestar stables. The reality was somewhat different.
One of my misconceptions was cleared up as soon as I walked out into the paddock full of Icelandic horses (don’t call them ponies). Their stocky bodies and very soft fur might seem cute from afar, but they’re larger than they seem, and powerful. Anna Buhl, one of the Íshestar guides, told me that the bigger animals can hold up to 110 kg. Thanks to their hardiness, Icelandic horses have prospered for over 1000 years since early settlers introduced the breed to Iceland. From then until now, horse import has been virtually unheard of, and was officially banned in 1882 to prevent disease from entering the country. This has also ensured that other horse breeds haven’t found their way into the genetic stock, so the Icelandic horse has retained its unique traits.
Icelandic horses are also special because they can travel at five different gaits, Anna informed me, including the tölt, a walking-trotting-like gait. Over the two-hour “Lava Tour”, my group did little of the famous tölt, though I had wanted to try it.
On the upside, the ride was still great for beginners and those in the mood for a leisurely ride. The lava-covered landscape and the volcano it surrounded, Mt. Helgafell, were spectacular no matter what the pace.
But the horses themselves were most interesting to me. Just as I had imagined, they are placid with humans, but I was surprised how playful they were with each other. In the pen as our horseback riding group was preparing to disembark, one was engaging in some sort of ear nibbling, a second was leaning its butt obtrusively into another, and a couple was walking in an endless circle of bum biting. One of the girls at the stable confirmed that the horses were playing, not fighting. If one of them did get hurt in a rare tussle, she told me, you would hear about it from across the farm, and the aggressor would immediately stop.
Anna laughed as she and I watched the horses getting rowdy amongst themselves: “If you have a horse and you’ve been riding, and you take it to the paddock, it can be, like, crazy.”
But Icelandic horses are sweet natured in general, and respond well to humans. “They are very good-hearted,” Anna told me. “A lot of them are very calm. Loyal.”
A bumpy beginning
Unfortunately, my group’s introduction to riding was short and didn’t include much about horse social signals. I would also have liked to learn more about how to ride. One of the guides gave me a whip, informing me my horse, Skvísa, was sometimes lazy. I should tap her butt to speed her up if digging my heels into her sides didn’t work. This was pretty much all the instruction we received, aside from “hold on”. With this level of horse education I felt a tad ridiculous, like a princess being carried in a litter on the back of an elephant with no knowledge about anything going on below.
Discomforts to come prepared for
As with most tourist trips in Iceland, to enjoy this trip you should dress warmly. Granted, my hands turn to ice at the slightest wisp of cold air. But two hours of sitting outdoors on a moving Icelandic horse will chill even the warmest-handed.
Thankfully, Íshestar took care of all the other accoutrements. In the stable change room we had our pick of rubber boots, sturdy rain jackets and rain pants and, of course, riding helmets. I completely tricked myself out and was glad I did, even though it didn’t rain. Despite the multiple sweaters and jacket I had wrapped myself in beforehand, these outer layers helped to cut the wind. And the rubber boots allowed me to walk on horse poop with abandon.
But even multiple waterproof layers can’t prevent the ass pain. For the next couple days afterwards be prepared to have bruised bum bones. That being said, I found I was actually kind of proud of my bruises. It’s like having hurting legs after a particularly strenuous run, or like having war scars, except that you do no work to acquire them. You just spend the afternoon and 57 Euro pretending you’re a hobbit riding your trusty steed into the great Icelandic unknown.
Trip provided by Íshetar. Booking: +354 555 7000 or check the website www.ishestar.is