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An epic journey by horse across Iceland


Holiday company: Íshestar
By Jo Stanford (editor of www.findaridingholiday.com)

There's something extremely heart wrenching about being sung to. I wonder how many others were thinking this as the staff of Íshestar horse treks stood up and belted out a rousing song in Icelandic about riding across the highlands. It's day four of a very special riding holiday. Along with 19 other riders of mixed nationalities, I'm making an epic journey across the centre of Iceland, travelling from South to North covering 238 kilometers of inhospitable terrain.

Covering between 25 and 50 kilometers a day over rugged terrain at a fairly constant trot, this is a ride for experienced riders who are used to long periods in the saddle. Accommodation is in mountain huts and showers are few. This is a chance to say goodbye to civilisation and convene with the Icelandic nature, the elements and of course, the wonderful Icelandic horses.

riding in Iceland riding in Iceland
The herd goes past; crossing a glacial river.

On the first day, our guide Lola issues us with thick orange rain gear, instructs us how to tack up the Icelandic way and explains her commands for mounting and dismounting. She explains that we will ride in a line. Not because this is any nose to tail ride, quite the opposite, each horse is very responsive and individual. But the terrain is so rocky in many places that it's necessary to follow a single soft track that has been worn with time. Also the horses get excited by the herd and riding single file has a calming influence.

As we set off with the rain bucketing down and a mist descending, I had the feeling we’d inadvertently signed up for an endurance test. I was right in that the ride was a challenge, Mother Nature showed us her full range of tricks as the week progressed and we had more than our fair share of wind and rain. But as the days went by I also knew we would all leave stronger and enriched by our experience.

The Icelandic horses are just wonderful, such characters, really great dispositions and so endearing. We changed horses at least once, sometimes twice every day, and travelled with a herd. In total we had 96 horses with us for 20 guests! The herd travelled either in front or behind us and I could never tire of watching them arrive or depart from our lunch spot or a midway grazing spot. Though little over 14hh, these little horses ride a lot bigger than they are and carry heavier riders with ease. Of all the horses I rode I had two favourites, Gudmunder, a little affectionate bay with a light mouth and easy tolt and Heimir, a dun who was a little stockier and had such a smooth trot it was hardly necessary to tolt at all.

For the most part the terrain was rugged, with a moonscape of rocks as far as the eye could see, then it would give way to soft trails and deep spongy grass. We'd stop and graze the horses whenever we reached a green spot, dismounting to rest their backs. It was always a pleasure to watch them graze and see the herd arrive or depart. For three days the large glaciers of Langjökull and Hofsjökull towered above the proceedings and on day four we had the excitement of three glacial river crossings - don't forget your long rubber boots for this one! It's a great experience and the horses make light work of the crossing despite the strong currents.

Our days range from four to seven hours in the saddle and by the time we reach our evening's mountain hut, we're ravenous. Siegrun has gone ahead with the kitchen truck and when we arrive, dinner is almost ready and never disappoints. Each night's meal is different and we are treated to Icelandic staples such as Icelandic soup. She also brings meat from her farm, and the men catch fish at a couple of points along the trail. Despite the challenging facilities of a mountain hut, the food is marvellous. It astounds me how well she manages to cook for 30 people.

It was really something to experience the tolt, the fifth gait unique to the Icelandic horse. It's like a running walk and very smooth to sit to. It allows them to glide over the rugged countryside. A four-beat gait, often referred to as a running walk, the footfalls are back left, front left, back right, front right. It's a fully natural gait which can be observed in wild youngsters. As we were covering a lot of ground each day, we spent much of our time in tolt. At least that was the aim — with some horses it can take a while to find the tolt button so this is also a good holiday in which to develop a deep-seated sitting trot!

The last day was a dream ride for most of us as Lola asked us the night before which our favourite horses were and we were all granted our wishes. It was a fast ride with the herd up ahead all day and the horses keen to make it to their grazing grounds. As the landscape got greener and civilisation came into view, any hardship of the past week was forgotten and nobody wanted to reach the end. After many long days in the saddle, in all weathers, that last dismount still came too soon.

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