Meeting the Viking horses in Iceland

The Icelandic horses aren’t big. They stand at about 13-14 hands. But visitors are warned early on. Do not call them ponies.

More than 1000 years ago, Iceland banned the importation of horses. The island’s settlers required horses of excellent breeding to handle the conditions and terrain and put great effort into protecting their stocks. The result is a country full of pure-bred Icelandic horses. There is no other breed here at all. And once a horse leaves the country, it isn’t allowed back.

Preparing for my ride with Íshestar, the largest riding company in Reykjavik, I was asked several times if I had ridden an Icelandic horse before. It took me a while to understand why they were so interested. Riding an Icelandic horse is very different to any other breed I’ve experienced. I’d like to tell you the basics are the same, and to some extent they are. But don’t expect to trot comfortably.

It had been a long while since I’d been in a saddle. I strained to think about how long, and came to the decision it was probably about 10 years since I’d spent any decent length of time on a horse. Most of the day tours Is Hestar offers are for beginners and most of their customers have never been on a horse before. Not wanting to sit through the absolute basics of horse riding, I signed up for the advanced tour. There was an intermediate tour, but that would include about five to six hours of riding and given I’d flown in to Reykjavik that morning and running on about two hours sleep, I didn’t feel up to that. My tour would involve up to three hours of riding.

I was given Blaze. She had an Icelandic name that sounded similar, but when I was told it meant Blaze, I stuck with that. Icelandic horses are said to have big personalities and I definitely got that. Blaze was impatient, curious, always hungry and eager to take her own route instead of following the others. We were a good match.

Our ride followed a gravel road initially, where we tried the tölt for the first time. It’s a four-beat pace and instead of lifting out of the saddle, you’re meant to sit back into it and ride it out. I was thankful I wore a sports bra. We also did a bit of a gallop, which I was surprised to find felt different to what I was used to. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why but I wasn’t the only one who noticed it. I was a little nervous, mainly because the ground below us was all rocks so if I fell off, it was going to hurt. No nice green grass to soften the blow. No nice green grass anywhere.

We rode through a small river and into the surrounds of an old volcano. The ground was covered in volcanic rock, which the horses navigated with ease. They were as agile going up and over the lava formations as a goat. Our group of give had three customers and two guides. Usually it would only be one but Selina, from Denmark, is learning the route from Tiina. Selina started four days ago and will work here for the summer. Back home she has four Icelandic horses, but of course, can’t bring them here. The breed is popular in the other Viking countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

We had a few stops along the way – just enough time to stretch our legs and for the horses to have a nibble. The landscape was quite surreal. Very barren and sparse. There was a little touch of green on some of the hills and snow on the top of some in the distance. The ground was dry, dusty and rocky – it has never recovered from the volcano. I was constantly impressed with how the horses handled it. Nothing spooks them.

As we headed for home we picked up the pace. Tiina doesn’t like to let them gallop on flat ground in case they get carried away. Instead  we saved it for when there was an incline. Blaze needed little direction. They are so well trained they just fall in line, although she was always right on the tail of the one in front trying to push up a little bit. Obviously all the horses are trained to handle complete beginners. There are about 60 horses at the centre now but that will grow to about 100 next week in preparation for a busy summer.

Back at the centre we took off the saddles, returned our helmets and boots and jumped on the bus back to the city. Buggered.

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