Had I been given a broken saddle? Or worse, had a previous rider torn the horn off while being thrown from the horse? I looked to our Swedish tour guide for comfort and an explanation. “That is for Western riding. This is Icelandic,” she stated simply, with a hint of superiority in her voice. I made every attempt to look like an experienced rider, but without the Western saddle I was petrified.
Perhaps this is because a rider in our group was thrown from his horse within ten minutes of our three-hour tour, grandly titled, “Meadows and Mountains.” We had just started to practice the tölt (the four-beat gait unique to Icelandic horses), when his saddle slipped, spooking the horse and tossing him on the ground.
Guide: (into walkie-talkie) “Hey. A guy out here fell off his horse. His ass really hurts.”
This led to a dialogue in which the word ass, a word not normally used by native English speakers in formal conversation, came up a lot. It was decided that the man would “walk it off” while his girlfriend split from the group for a shorter ride. The final three – the tour guide, my friend and I – would press onward.
Guide: “Tell him I hope his ass feels better.”
Despite the continuous use of the word ass, I felt unable to laugh. I was beginning to understand the risk of riding Icelandic horses, even if the fall wasn´t very high.
Our rump party now had to face a challenge to brave the mountains on horseback. We forged small rivers and climbed narrow paths, the horses leaping over large stones.
I felt as if we were a part of Icelandic history, explorers galloping fearlessly through the lush, green countryside. It was a game of chance; would the rest of us return with our asses unscathed?
We tölted back through the gates of the Eldhestar farm, my ass sore but my flair for the dramatic unscathed. Secretly, I was relieved and proud to have returned without harm.
After my adventure, I understood why Icelanders feel superior about their horses. Sure-footed and easy-tempered, Icelandic horses make dependable and useful travel companions. They have played a major role in Icelandic society from the early settlers to Nordic gods – the gods’ horses even having four extra legs.
It is no surprise, then, that the Icelandair Horse Festival, or Landsmót, has been a tradition since 1950. The festival offers a variety of races and show events in celebration of the Icelandic horse, whose genetic purity breeds beauty and strength.
This year’s festival will be held at Hella in the Rangárvellir region of South Iceland, June 28th – July 4th.