Last week, while one of us was scuffing the floor on a weekend trip to Nashville, the other was gearing up for a trek through Iceland’s rivers, highlands, and lava fields on the country’s world-famous gaited horses. We mentioned the trip a few weeks ago in a story titled “Six Rides of a Lifetime,” and promised to share all the details upon return. Below we provide a CliffsNotes guide to our very highly recommended horseback adventure in Iceland.
Iceland is a Nordic island situated halfway between Greenland and Norway. Its mountains, volcanoes, glaciers and hot springs make it a top destination for adventure seekers, and its [very small] horses (read: ponies) make it even more enticing for the equestrian jet set. There are direct flights from Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital) to countless locations in Europe and the United States, thus it is easily accessible from almost anywhere.
Technically, though pony-sized, Icelandic horses are considered horses. They are hardy, sturdy, spirited, and – unlike many of the performance horses with which the average equestrian is familiar – have an additional gait called the tölt. The tölt is a very smooth, four-beat gate (think racking or run-walking) that can be ridden at high speeds. This makes it perfect for trail riding, as it is minimally jarring, but ground-covering. They also gave us major tail envy.
Icelandic horses are born with the ability to tölt, but like a lead change, a proper tölt requires training. Many poorly trained horses will choose some variation or combination of trotting/tölting that is quite uncomfortable, so choosing the right tour company is essential. We’ll get to that…
The terrain in Iceland varies from “What planet am I on?” to grassy plains dotted with grazing sheep, but most of the tours take place in the latter. The horses we rode were calm, obedient, and well-trained. Sheep (and border collies hot on their heels) repeatedly darting out of the bushes didn’t faze them, nor did freezing streams, very strong winds, or four hours of hard work.
The weather in Iceland vacillates from a sunny seventy-five degrees to snow and back, all within minutes. Pack layers (and more layers), water/windproof outerwear, gloves, and boots that can handle a bit of mud. We are devoted helmet-wearers at OR, so we happily borrowed some well-worn helmets from our guide, but next time we would consider packing our own.
Before traveling to Iceland, we did some extensive research on available equestrian tours. After a long string of WhatsApp messages and a handful of emails, we were connected with the owner of a horse farm who occasionally offers private tours to travelers that are experienced riders. While this tends to be a bit more expensive, it is well worth the additional króna!
At 8am on the morning of our ride, we hopped in our rental car and drove the 1.5 hours to horse country, where we found the farm with the help of Siri and a few U-turns. We explained our riding levels to the owner/guide, saddled the horses ourselves, picked helmets from a bin, and departed. A combination of walking and tölting led us past fields of grazing sheep, through ancient lava flows, down into a valley where we crossed a shallow river, and up to a stunning, little-known waterfall (the location of which we promised never to disclose). We dismounted, then picked and ate wild berries while the horses munched grass. After the short break, we rode to the top of a high ridge with a breathtaking view of the country in every direction. We arrived back at the farm in time for a late lunch and well-earned ale (or two).
For an arena-queen who has never developed an appetite for trail riding, the tour was perfect. Short, sweet, and safe, it was the ideal way to experience the beauty and tranquility of Iceland. Top it off with an afternoon dip in a local hot spring, and it’s an unbeatable day!
We recommend skipping the tour company and going the private route. We already did the research and found the perfect ride, and are happy to share the details exclusively with OR subscribers. Contact us through the link below and we’ll give you all the information you need to book your own Icelandic adventure.