The Icelandic Horse: Horse-riding in Iceland

The Icelandic horse is one of Iceland’s biggest (but not literally – they’re quite small) and cutest attractions and horse-riding in Iceland in Iceland is big business, there are stables just about everywhere offering tourist treks. I am really looking forward to a horseback archery course at the end of the summer and I’ve only ridden once in the last year so I needed to get back into the saddle (excuse the pun). If you’re interested in horse-riding, or just want to try it out (and I really recommend you do) here’s my take on horse-riding in Iceland. First off they are not ponies. They are quite small for horses (on average 13-14 hands which for other breeds is pony-sized) but are getting bigger over time with selective breeding. Personally I love their size as I can actually get into the saddle unassisted, whereas with other regular horses I either have to be hoisted into it or climb onto a fence first. And that’s just undignified. They also rarely kick and are really gentle. Though they have definite personalities. They are hardy little creatures and are usually left outside in all weather, even in the winter, with the exception of pregnant mares or older and sick horses. They are quite furry (even their little furry ears!) and just now they’re shedding the last of their winter coats. They live much longer than other breeds, on average to their mid-thirties but the oldest mare recorded was in Denmark and lived to be fifty-six.

The horses are bred from horses the Norse brought here 1100 years ago. Horses are not vaccinated against disease here and any that leave the country are not allowed to return. Likewise riding equipment must be certifiably disinfected before being allowed to pass customs. Desirable traits included the obvious suitability for the harsh climate and terrain, and also some distinctive gaits: the tölt (a running walk) and skeið (flying pace – though skeið also means spoon in Icelandic but hey I’m not that far advanced in it yet). The tölt involves the legs being lifted very high and is an incredibly smooth gait to ride – you don’t feel it at all. They even have competitions where the rider hold a pint of beer and whoever has the most beer at the end of the race is the winner. The skeið is with two legs on each side and horses can reach speeds of 50km/hr. Not all horses have the skeið gait but all can tölt, though each horse will have a personal preference (as I am finding out – Rauðheita loves her trot). As canter/gallop is considered one gait in Iceland you then have four or five gaited horses.

They are also really – and I mean really – intelligent. I’ve ridden with my eyes closed – they know where they are going much more than we do – a huge plus when you’re riding in bad weather and you have no idea which way his home. Trust the horse. My favourite Léttfeti is a natural tölter and just knows what I want to do and does it without even having to ask him. He’s a bit anti-social, so maybe that’s why we get on so well, but he’s full of hugs and snuggles for me anyway. Also he has the most amazing hair. Like a rockstar. Though that being said, they’re all different and they can be stubborn and will make a break for home if they’re feeling lazy – as I have learned the hard way. They come in many, many different colours and combinations including chestnut, dun, bay, black, grey, palomino, pinto and roan. Some horses are bred just for their meat and before you get squeamish it tastes really good, it’s better than the carcass being wasted and also if the Norse hadn’t eaten all the non-tölting horses we wouldn’t have the Icelandic horse today. There’s a lot of good information on the Horses of Iceland website if you’d like to know more.

Secret Hot Springs in Iceland: Hrunalaug | Horse riding in Iceland
Secret Hot Springs in Iceland: Hrunalaug | Horse riding in Iceland

As I was looking to go every week and not just for an hour’s hack I contacted Núpshestar just 12km on Route 30 from Flúðir, not far from me, and I would really recommend them. Elwira, Svenni and their team at Breiðanes farm, including the fabulous Katie from Canada (who’s teaching me how to throw axes, cos you know in the countryside a girl needs a hobby) are just brilliant. As I don’t know what horse I’ll have for the course I’m trying different ones every time (but I have a real soft spot for Feti), and working on specific things for that including tölt, and riding without the reins (as they will be busy holding the bow). The horses are all in excellent condition and we ride along the river and some lovely paths between the farms, away from the road. They also do riding tours in the highlands, quite an adventure. So if you’re in the Golden Circle area contact them.

Photos of me on a horse © Núpshestar 2017

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