The fog was exceptionally low. The rain hung heavily in the sky, the greyish tones blanketing Reykjavík. As we drove out of the city, the southeast was even foggier and rainier than the capital. Raindrops raced across the window as we followed road 1 towards Hveragerði. We were about to find out if Icelandic horses were really as docile as they are made out to be, even in these conditions.
After a twenty-minute drive, we pulled up to the farm, Eldhestar, which has 350 horses working during the peak summer season, taking roughly 80 horses on trips each day. At the stables, we put on riding helmets and large neon-orange waterproof pants and coats, which would turn out to be pretty useful ‘costumes’ in the murky fog.
We all climbed onto our horses, which in my case was Skufur, named after the tassel of the traditional Icelandic headdress, and our French guide Flo gave us a short introduction to riding before we set off on our six-hour journey through the Hveragerði countryside.
Geothermal energy and CUCUMBERS
Traversing lava fields and moss-covered paths, we arrived at Hveragerði, one of the most active geothermal areas in Iceland. From the foot of the Hveragerði mountains, we could barely make out the town below us through the fog. The area is home to many of the island’s greenhouses, which Flo told us grow a range of produce from tomatoes to cucumbers.
As we rode up the mountain, we were completely exposed to the elements and the rain soaked us. Skufur, however, bravely and patiently rode on. This patience intrigued me. As an experienced horseback rider, I felt that in these conditions it would have been normal for the horses to show signs of agitation. But they didn’t.
The horses are modern-day descendants of the Scandinavian ponies, which settlers brought to Iceland in the ninth and tenth centuries. They have been famous for their placid characters ever since, almost never argumentative or grumpy. And they will probably remain this way, as Icelandic law has forbidden the importation of other types of horses onto the island since 935, Flo said.
Steam, hooves, fog and hot rivers
As we rode up the hill, the horses showed us another one of their typical traits: not only do they walk, trot and gallop like other horses, but they also ‘tölt’. Unlike the bumpy trot, the tölt is a comfortable and smooth ride, which allows us to sit back and relax.
The smell of sulphur grew stronger as we got closer to our lunch-break destination, the hot river. The foggy landscape around us looked more and more like something out of a Lord of the Rings film—I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Gollum come out behind one of the hills.
While the rain turned into hail, the beauty of the landscape was not compromised. On a regular day, swimming in the hot river would have been perfect, but that day the idea of getting out of the river and changing in the rain was enough to keep me from taking a dip.
Forests, cake and tea
After having warmed up a bit, we tölted back to the stables, crossing a protected forest area, which Flo explained is a rare sight in Iceland. The island, she said, is facing erosion because many centuries ago settlers heavily exploited the trees for firewood and the sheep they brought ate all the remaining saplings.
Finally, after dismounting and saying emotional goodbyes to our horses, we had a well-deserved cup of tea and a slice of cake in the hotel next to the stables. Exhausted soaked yet happy, we drove back to Reykjavík.
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