Copyright © Judith Shaw
The trip I’d so nearly ruined was still intact when Diana and I reached the farmhouse. As the idiot who got the day wrong, the welcome pointed in my direction was somewhat reserved, but by the end of the day all was forgiven.
I’d told our leader, one of Iceland’s leading horse breeders, that I was a little nervous about riding an unfamiliar horse, so she paired me with an old brown mare named Telma. Solid as a rock, I’d been told. She’d had been doing this job for eons and should be perfect for me.
Okay. I was ready to go. First we had to get all the horses out of the barn and saddled. Telma was already tacked up, so all I had to do was watch.
I quickly discovered how different Icelandic horses are from the American spoiled brats I know.
Surprise number one: Every stall held at least three horses, and none of the stall doors were closed. Oookay. The winters here are cold. Maybe the horses cuddle up for warmth and it becomes their normal way to sleep. Maybe they like to be in their stalls and don’t want to come out. Maybe there’s an invisible force field keeping them in.
Surprise number two: Seven horses were pushed and shoved higgledy-piggledy into a horse trailer built for two. It was like watching pushers on the Japanese trains, shoehorning as many passengers as possible into each rush-hour carriage. The horses are small, granted, but still. . . .
Surprise number three: They didn’t seem to mind. No ears went flat, no ugly looks were exchanged. So far as I could tell, no one was kicked, bitten or even threatened. In truth, the horses didn’t seem to notice how tightly they were packed.
They unloaded as easily as they’d boarded, like the whole thing was a big yawn. Whatever these horses are eating, I want some for mine!
At first I thought it was genetic. Misbehaving horses in Iceland pretty quickly end up on a dinner plate. Genetic drift moves in the direction of impeccable manners.
It seems an extreme way to develop the breed, but it certainly seems to work.
During our week in Iceland, I discovered that Icelandic horse behavior is more learned than inherited. Typically, these horses are not ridden or even handled much until age four. The young horses live with their mothers out in the hills and have minimal contact with humans.
They learn their manners from Mom. Bad behavior in the herd is not tolerated by the dominant mares, and youngsters learn early how to get along with their elders and one another.
Icelandic horses have been around since about the 9th century. They were ridden by the Vikings, unlikely as that seems. The image of a great big Viking sitting on a 13-hand horse, legs dragging on the ground, makes me giggle.
Icelandic horses are five-gaited. Along with the walk, trot and canter all horses have, they also have the tolt and the flying gait.
The Icelandic’s trot is rough verging on uncomfortable. The more usually favored gait is the tolt, or amble.
The tolt is flatter than the trot and much easier to sit. According to popular wisdom, the sign of a smooth tolt is that the rider can hold and drink a cup of tea while the horse is covering the miles.
I never tried the cup-of-tea trick with Telma, but her tolt was definitely more comfortable than her trot.
The flying gait is the tolt jacked up to the fifth dimension. It’s sometimes called a running walk, but for my money flying is the adjective that fits it best. Needless to say, I didn’t ask Telma to fly.
This leads us to my first group ride in Iceland.
The scenery was glorious, with meadows, mountains, rivers, and ocean cheek by jowl. Although some of the horses were a little excitable, homely Telma did her job matter-of-factly and without fuss. Not even my nerves could stir her up.
Our daily rides were relaxed, beautiful, and sometimes exciting. Take, for instance, the day we took the horses for a swim.
In the Arctic Sea.
Our list of things to pack had included rubber riding boots, and I’d been wondering, why rubber? Now I knew.
The starting point of our swim was a few inches below the land where we were standing, and the horses were unwilling to walk into the water. Telma moved to the front and hopped right in, and the others followed without fuss.
I was expecting freezing cold water—it was the Arctic Sea, after all—but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Cold? Sure. Freezing? No.
Have you ever been aboard a swimming horse? It was a first for me, but there was a curious serenity in the horses’ smooth, silent locomotion. I went into a kind of trance, just floating on the moment.
Then my boots filled up with water, and I came back to my body with a snap. I spent the rest of the swim worrying that I’d lose my riding boots. How would I ride without my boots? Could I ride in my socks?
When we got to the shore, we shucked off our boots, emptied them, then mounted up and carried on riding.
Most days we were shadowed by an Icelandic sheepdog, black and white like a border collie, but smaller and with a thicker coat. His job was to keep other horses away. Apparently young horses like to investigate strangers and, when they mix in with the tourists, can turn an orderly ride into chaos.
That’s the official story, anyway. The one time we encountered a herd of wandering mares and foals, our black and white escort was nowhere to be seen. Our leader kept the horses contained until we’d ridden past.
We rode every day, sometimes twice. I remember the swim and the sheepdog, but not the individual rides. Except for one.
We were riding through hills not far from the farm, when the leader hung a sharp right. I caught my foot in a bush and was so busy trying to stay in the saddle that I didn’t notice where we were riding.
Our new track, about two feet wide, was worn right into the side of the hill. Steep downhill to the left, steep uphill to the right.
It was a long way down.
We were tolting across that hill at a speed I thought was insane when Telma decided to move to the front of the line. Icelandic horses aren’t slim and sylphlike. They’re small from top to bottom, but side-to-side they take up a lot of room.
Someone was about to find out just how far down down was, and it was probably going to be me.
But, no. Every horse in the line politely moved over to let Telma through.
It took a while to start breathing again.
The rest of the week flowed by quickly. It was summer, so there was virtually no darkness, but somehow the sun gave us energy. We rode these amazing horses, ate gourmet meals prepared by the farm’s resident chef, and basked in the island’s abundant gifts. Every summer day is blessed by at least one double rainbow.
We had one unadvertised delight in store.
Iceland is one of the most geologically active places in the world. Hot springs, geysers, and volcanoes abound. Most of Rekjavik’s power needs are supplied by underground energy.
The Blue Lagoon, a hot-spring-fed bathing pool between the city and the airport, benefits from this thermal bonanza. Airport buses in both directions stop here. If you want a hot soak, the driver will offload your luggage and store it while you swim. When you’re ready, it’s seamlessly transferred to a later bus. No bathing suit? No problem. Suits and towels are for hire at a not-too-exorbitant fee.
Diana and I, stiff, sore, and tired from our week with the horses, were happy to stop and relax. The pool was huge, misty, and quite crowded. Tourists and local families wandered through the fog looking for that perfect temperature.
Only the tourists wore bathing suits. If we’d known, we might have skipped the suits and just rented the towels.
Maybe next time.