Tölting over volcanic rock on the back of a surefooted Icelandic horse? Herding wooly sheep over a stream amidst crashing waterfalls, green mountains, and a snowy glacier looming in the background? I still can’t believe I had the opportunity to experience breathtaking Iceland from between the fluffy ears of the country’s signature breed!
Driving west along the winding, mountainous road from Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes peninsula, it quickly became apparent that there could very well be more Icelandic horses than people in the country (and no doubt, even more sheep than horses). It was difficult not to constantly pull over and take photos, each herd cuter than the last, displaying every possible coat color. I was in heaven.
The Icelandic Horse
The people of Iceland are immensely proud and protective of the unique breed, and for good reason. The origins of the Icelandic horse date back to between 860 and 935 AD, when Viking Age Scandinavians brought the ancestors of these hardy horses over to the island, which would be crossed with Norse ponies that soon followed. In 982 AD, Icelandic parliament passed laws forbidding importation of horses into Iceland, ending any cross breeding. As a result, Icelandic horses have been bred pure in the country for over 1,000 years. The horses have played a big role in Norse mythology, have proven to be indispensable war horses, were instrumental in the development of the country, and still remain a crucial part in the livelihood of Icelandic people.
Also, don’t ever call them ponies – although small, they are always referred to as horses. Their strength and sturdiness are hard to miss.
I experienced the majesty of these ancient horses at a beautiful family farm in West Iceland. My host Josefina was originally from Sweden, but moved to Iceland largely because of her love for the Icelandic horse. She and her family run a farm there with 25 horses and nearly 1,000 sheep, and during the summer she offers visitors the opportunity to experience Iceland from the saddle. I was so excited!
Josefina had me ride a little black mare named Iðunn, who had a flowing mane and a forward tölt. Ever heard of a tölt? This is an “extra”gait that Icelandics come equipped with; it’s a very comfortable, smooth four-beat lateral gait that allows the horse to cover a lot of ground quickly. Check out this video – pretty cool!
On the back of Iðunn, I experienced the tölt firsthand and never wanted to stop! No need to post – pull your shoulders back and this gait is smooth as can be. Also, I was amazed at how surefooted these horses are; the rocky terrain was no problem, and Iðunn never once stumbled. We splashed through streams where salmon were spawning, and chased herds of sheep up towards the mountains where they spend their summers. Josefina and her neighbors will soon ride up into the mountains over several days to gather the wandering sheep back towards home for the winter.
Dismounting, all I could think about was the next time I could get back on an Icelandic horse. I fell in love with the breed and all that these powerful little horses have to offer. Maybe there’s room in my barn for one? Only, I don’t know if I’d ever be able to choose a color!