Thursday, March 28, 2013

Icelandic Vikings and Their Steeds

I took up horse-back riding lessons a few months ago and I've been hooked since. I spend most of the week looking forward to going and after I complete my lessons, I spend the following days thinking about when I'd go next. So, on this vacation to Iceland, it's not a surprise that I took the opportunity to ride an Icelandic horse. You might wonder why this breed is different than the ones you're seen. The Icelandic horse is a unique horse breed that was developed in Iceland by the Viking ancestors.

Vikings first brought over their Scandinavian horses to Iceland in the 9th and 10th century when they were settling in Iceland. These horses are long-lived and hardy. Take for example, my horse today, Litll Kall (which means "little man") who's 20 years old yet moves like he's well under 10 years old! As his name describes, he's a little dude and he happens to be the smallest of the entire herd here.

Despite their small size, they are considered horses by their human guardians. They are sturdy looking little horses that have well-proportioned heads with straight profiles and wide foreheads. Their neck is short and muscular with a long back. They also all seem to have these full flowing manes and tails that make them look like movie stars with a permanent stylist.

Blesa was ADW's equine friend for the day

That's Blesa who's a young horse (7 years old) who's mane and tail was not anywhere near as long and flowing as Litll Kall's which looked like his head-toss could turn heads to be mesmerized at how lovely he is.

Litll Kall and I waiting to get out into open space
Most of the horses we ride back home typically have 4 standard gaits: walk, trot, canter/lope, gallop. The most notable thing about Icelandic horses is not only their little size or flowing hair, but the fact that they can naturally perform their famous gait, the tölt; which is a 4 beat gait that is very similar to a really fast walk pace. Unfortunately both ADW and I had epic photographic failures today and while it was our most enjoyable day, it was also the one which we had the least number of photos and videos to show for it. However, with this day and age, almost anything can be found on the internet. With the magic of the internet, I give you an example of the tölt. Look at him go!!

After experiencing the non-gaited horses typically ridden, this has got to be some of the most fun on a horse I've had. These equine friends are lively (see, not stubborn or lazy), fun and safe to ride. Their
tölt is a funny rocking side to side motion that is incredibly smooth to sit through.

We took the Viking Tour with Íshestar which is a ~6 hour intermediate ride broken into 3 hour blocks. The first half of the tour accompanies a much larger group of beginners and intermediate riders where we eventually split the groups into 2 and the intermediate riders work on getting some faster saddle time with their new little Viking mounts. After this first section, we return to the facility to drop-off the beginner riders and have a short lunch before getting ready to head back out again. We're lucky today because we're the only riders on this tour!! How excited were we when we heard we're getting a private tour with another guide.

We set out and we ride onto the 7000+ years old moss covered lava fields at tölt, walk and the occasional sneaked in trot. There are dozens more riders and horses out than usual, says our guide Alexa. Normally the paths are pretty empty but today, we are encountering equine and human traffic all over the path. Many adults and children take part in this initial spring outing and they are riding with several horses in tow. Horseback riding is a very popular activity in Iceland and many people enjoy time with their equine friends. Apparently it is customary for riders to take multiple mounts with them so they are able to change the horse, to give them regular breaks.

Many riders were out today, getting ready for their first spring rides

We continue our way through the ash and gravel paths and on the first major uphill, we're given the opportunity to ride the canter/gallop. I get these immediate flashes back to the times in the arena where cantering is still something I'm working on and makes me nervous. I figure, I'm out here once and likely the worst that can happen is I fall off and tumble through the cushiony moss fields. So we go. And what an exhilarating experience that was! Letting Litll Kall free to race up the hill at full speed was one of the most incredible feelings during this trip.

It wasn't until this point when I noticed how beautiful, peaceful, majestic and stunning the views are. Íshestar is only 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik but it's amazing that it feels like we've driven well out into the country to enjoy this ride. The views are truly stunning as you see the moss covered lava fields around you, being backed by huge expansive snow-covered mountain ranges in the background. To be surrounded by this view was breath-taking and swept me away from everything that living in a city is about.

We get some mini riding lessons from Alexa about riding the tölt properly as well as an opportunity to understand some Icelandic rituals such as the fall horse and sheep corralling. Icelandic horses live incredible lives here: they are working and food animals for the people but are also given extraordinary treatment of an annual 6 month vacation where they're set free to roam the highlands/country during the spring and summer and then rounded up again in the fall. This type of activity is unheard of in North America. Icelanders actually have this annual event where people get out and get inebriated with Brennivín and meet people; many of whom meet their spouses this way. I hope that one day I'm experienced enough to return and take part in this horse/sheep round-up. It sounds like an incredible experience outdoors.


  1. Wow, that sounds so cool! What adorable little horses! I am glad to know that your canter/gallop went so went. I am going to Mexico in a few weeks and am hoping to do some riding there, but I was also having flashbacks to all my struggles in the ring and wondering if it was a good idea or not. I am going to go for it! Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. it's so much fun. if you ever see a good deal to head to iceland, go for it. it's not something you should pass up. you can even do week-long tours on horse-back across the highlands etc. incredible experience. i think you'll do just fine on your canter/gallop. you already know it's very easy to sit... just the transitions can be tricky. but, who cares if you look/feel like a sack of potatoes! i didn't ;) enjoy yourself in mexico :)

  2. What an incredible opportunity! Good for you for doing this! And what an awesome breed of horse! They were also used in the Hobbit ;)

    1. it was amazing. i would do it again in a heartbeat. in fact, i'd leave here for iceland, in a heart beat! haha!!
      i didnt' know that the icelandic horse was used in the hobbit! they're so cute!!! lucky reminds me of an icelandic horse because of the way he carries his head. just adorable!