They say that in Iceland horses are fundamental part of the landscape, and this is, if anything, an understatement. As we drove about 300 kilometers from Reykjavik to the black volcanic sand beaches of Vik, we literally saw more horses than people. Actually, our whole trip was a chain of exciting sprints from one herd of fluffy horses to another.
In fact, horse riding is the 2nd biggest and fastest-growing touristic attraction in Iceland. For the hiking in Iceland we have chosen one of the oldest (it celebrated its 45th year in 2013) and one of the biggest farms specializing in horse riding tourism. Laxnes horse farm was founded in 1968 by Þórarinn “Póri” Jónasson and his wife Ragnheiður “Heiða” Gislason. Now the family is bigger, but they still share the same passion for horses. Well, who wouldn’t? Icelandic horses are the cutest and fluffiest ‘teddy-bears’ of the equine world.
The breed has remained virtually unchanged since Viking times. It is believed that no external blood has been mixed with the blood of Icelandic horses since the 11th century. Currently, there are more than 77,000 horses in Iceland – one horse for every 4 citizens – the highest number of horses per capita in Europe! And on top of it 300,000 Icelandic horses now live and are bred outside of Iceland, mostly in Germany and the United Kingdom, and there are even Icelandic Equine games held every second year. But import rules for horses are so strict that it’s not even allowed to re-import horses you have exported, for example for breeding or competition purposes.
And back to our farm. Laxnes farm keeps about 130 horses. Some of them, including our guide’s horse, have won different national competitions.
Icelandic horses are very huggable, which they are perfectly aware of. It seems that, not unlike cats, they are born with the knowledge/feeling that they destined to be adored by one and all. As a local breed these horses have all possible and impossible colors: black horses with blue eyes, dapple red, dark browns with pinkish manes and tails, you name it. In fact, I was running from one horse to another with my camera trying to save as many examples as possible of this natural variety on my memory card.
My husband got the tallest horse in the herd: a dapple grey mare, Saga, which looked almost caricature-like due to its enormously thick neck, and I got a red skewbald, Feykir. The word Feykir means so many things in Icelandic that it’s quite difficult to translate it. The closest meaning that exists in English would be ‘a gust of the wind’, and I got him because, unlike a lot of the other group members, I’d ridden before.
I volunteered to brush Feykir before saddling, and I have to say that brushing an Icelandic horse is a unique experience. It seemed that you couldn’t get to the skin through the thick soft fur of these animals. Certainly, they have never known clipping, which is perfectly understandable in the country where horses live outside the whole year, where the average summer temperature does not exceed 15 degrees Celsius.
One interesting fact is that in order to protect Icelandic animals from outside diseases, it’s not only prohibited to bring other animals to the country, but also people are not allowed to import used tack and any kind of animal products.
When the whole group had mounted, we started our two-hour long trip along the narrow mountain path to the Troll Woman Waterfall (Trὄllafoss). Meager Icelandic Sun shone gently; unsaddled grazing horses greeted us by whinnying; and I couldn’t stop thinking that Iceland is not foreign, but rather mystical and extraterrestrial. No wonder Icelanders have lots of stories about elves and trolls; such an unusual place cannot be inhabited by usual creatures. To be honest, I felt like it wouldn’t surprise me to see a troll on the way to a waterfall or to find some weird-looking footprints on the path. Even a dragon would fit in perfectly there.
One of the most exciting facts about Icelandic horses is that all of them are 5-gaters. In addition to the standard walk, trot and canter, they also have tὄlt (amble) and skeid or pace (which is told to be faster than a gallop).
Tὄlt is an amazing gait. It’s extremely comfortable and feels like sitting in a boat in the breeze. But that bliss didn’t last for too long. The group was going faster and faster and Feykir changed up to a trot, and I made a very fast transition from heaven to hell. Feykir’s trot was so hasty and so small that I neither could do raising, nor could I quickly adjust to the sitting one. Feykir was not the only one to rush to trot so the whole group suddenly quit chatting and stopped smiling delightfully, everyone was busy trying to keep their saddles between themselves and their horses. Unfortunately, not all managed to. After a few meters of flipping trot, one girl fell down onto the rocky road. On the positive side, Icelandic horses are quite short – about 125-135 cm – so it’s not that scary to fall from one. But never ever call an Icelandic horse a pony! They are Viking horses, and “Vikings on ponies” doesn’t sound quite right :-)
During the short pause, while waiting for the group members who were lagging behind, I asked the instructor how to “change gears.” In theory, it sounded really easy: just sit back, really back, with your legs forward and from time to time squeeze reins. Well it worked about one time out of 3. All the rest of the times I spent adjusting to Feykir’s kicking-my-soul-out-of-my-body trot. I made a promise to myself that the next time I won’t say that I’ve ridden before, and maybe I will get nicer tὄlter.
We spent about half an hour at the waterfall and mounted again. Like all horses all over the world, our small herd was more than happy to turn back home.
We were going faster and faster and there was not enough sitting back and squeezing reins in the world to keep Feykir tὄlting, so I was putting up with his juddery trot, when he suddenly started cantering. It felt like I was sitting in a cozy rocking chair and watching a film about Iceland on National Geographic. All I could think in that moment was “Feykir, please never stop cantering.”
A few days later, on the way back to sunny Bahrain, I read a book about Icelandic horses which I bought on the last day of our trip. One poem by Einar Benediktsson, I liked especially:
Man is but half-man when he is alone
But teamed with another his true measure is shown
And the rider on horseback is regal in stature
The uncrowned king of a world of his own.
And I’ll be forever thankful to all the horses that make me feel that way.
Laxnes Horse Farm site: www.laxnes.is