When my mother was a young girl, she had a traumatic riding incident that left her being dragged on her back through a stream by an out of control horse in Missouri. Just as she was about to be dragged over some ragged rocks jutting out of the water, she was able to disentangle from the stirrup and free herself. She’s been terrified of horses ever since.
So naturally, when she generously took my sister and me on a luxurious trip to Iceland, there was one activity I insisted we all do: go horseback riding! I’m pretty sure I wrote myself straight out of the will with this one.
Despite having little experience with it, I’ve always had a little fascination with horseback riding. First of all, I adore animals and take any excuse to get all up in their business. Secondly, I’m really into doing activities when I travel as opposed to just seeing sights or — what’s that thing normal people do? — relaxing.
Plus, Iceland horses (Equus scandinavicus, if we want to get fancy) are kind of amazing. They are direct descendents of the horses brought over by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th century, and have remained a pure stock since. They have a funny little look going on: averaging 4.3 feet tall with sturdy builds and scruffy manes, these horses are often mistaken for ponies! Those attributes equal an animal strongly equipped to survive Iceland’s oft harsh climate.
However, these horses have a dramatic history. In the 1780′s they were nearly wiped out by a volcanic explosion that killed more than 80% of Iceland’s livestock. Later, European horses were introduced to the mix and a lack of immunity killed off nearly 50% of the Icelandic horse population. Due to that little immunity issue, no new horses can ever enter Iceland. Even leather riding gear from abroad can’t make it past immigration, while non-Leather gear has to go through a crazy sanitation process. Now cue the tiny violins — any Icelandic horse that leaves the country for any reason, say a competition, can never return! Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing here but I just found that so poignant. Banned from your own country for daring to leave it. I’m sure many travelers can empathize.
I couldn’t wait to meet these fascinating creatures up close. We signed up for Eldhestar Stables’ Heritage Tour, a 1.5-2 hour ride through meadows and lava fields. After being picked up at our hotel in Reykjavik, we were brought to a stable about 40 minutes Southeast of the capital. It was here that we donned helmets and gloves and were introduced to our partners for the day.
My mom requested a mild-mannered horse, as did Olivia, who was still feeling the after-effects of Reykjavik’s wild nightlife. Hangover sufferers beware: Advil is sold only in pharmacies in Iceland, and pharmacies are closed on Sundays. Pack accordingly.
It was during our pre-ride briefing that I heard three of my most hated words in the English language: no cameras allowed. As soon as the warning was spoken I saw my mom shooting me a look that said “Please don’t get us kicked off of this tour because that would be humiliating.” Little did she realize I am a champion stealth photo taker. So I politely put my huge Canon Rebel into a locker and slipped my tiny Canon PowerShot into my vest pocket.
I admit that I was a bit disheartened as the ride started. We were plodding along mane-to-tail line style along a massive powerline. It wasn’t exactly the idyllic galloping through poppy strewn fields that I had envisioned.
Luckily, things started picking up pretty quickly. When our guide announced we would be fording a stream I glanced at my mom for signs of an impending panic attack. So far she was remaining cool and collected but I’m pretty sure she was one errant gallop away from a full on PTSD meltdown.
Thankfully, we made it across the water unscathed. However, I was so busy fussing over/teasing my mom that I didn’t realize that I too might be a little nervous! I shriek-laughed — a telltale sign of nervous energy for me — the entire time my horse gingerly stepped across the stream.
Mid-ride we stopped for a “photo op.” Whoops, looks like I already snapped thirty or so. I understand that they have the rule for a reason — apparently its dangerous to take photos from atop the horse. However I’m not sure if all stables share this same policy. If photography is an important part of the experience for you be sure to ask ahead when booking.
At several points we were able to try out the unique gait of the Icelandic horse — the tölt. While most horse breeds worldwide have three gaits — walk, trot, and gallop — these special snowflake horses have five. The tölt was super bouncy and incited another round of shriek-laughing.
The scenery we passed was stunning — from tiny picturesque farms to fields of crumbling lava. But my favorite part was passing through the open pastures of the off-duty horses from Eldhestar. The stable is home to more than 350 horses in the summer and they rotate evenly so no one horse is overworked giving tours.
It was amazing riding alongside these happy horses as they called out to one another, rolled in the grass, and just roamed freely. A few times I even saw horses galloping through the fields! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse running free like that. It made my heart so happy to see these animals living such a good life.
In fact, that’s one word I would use to describe the majority of the animals we spotted in Iceland: happy. With tons of space and a general sense or respect and love from their caretakers, the horses, sheep, and cows we spotted throughout the week seemed like some of the happiest animals I’ve seen in the world.
Horseback riding is an incredibly popular activity in Iceland and there are a number of stables just within an hour of Reykjavik that are happy to pick you up at your hotel, allowing you to experience the countryside without having to ever unpack your bags. However, once you leave the city it’s hard to drive an hour without passing a small family farm offering rides, often at a great discount to what you would pay in Reykjavik. When I return to Iceland I will try one of these stables where I suspect that in addition to cheaper prices I’ll also find even more personalized service and stunning scenery.
That said, I had a wonderful time with Eldhestar and they are a great choice for anyone on a shorter stay that won’t bring them outside Reykjavik. They have wonderful facilities and horses and the staff are knowledgeable and kind. In addition to short rides like the one I did, they also offer full day tours that bring you to destinations like hot springs and beaches, or combo tours that allow you to combine riding with visiting the Blue Lagoon or rafting or any number of other activities. And for the serious rider, they offer multi-day trips that are a truly unique way to explore Iceland!
Have you been horseback riding on your travels?
Thanks to Eldhestar for hosting me on this tour. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.