Icelandic horses have remained unchanged since Viking times and hold a special place in the hearts of Icelanders, remaining one of the best ways of exploring the rugged landscape
As we rode across the dramatic terrain of black volcanic ash, Einar Bollason reined in his horse to look at the ground. To the uninitiated he appeared to be studying a random pile of stones, but we soon discovered the lava rocks had been carefully arranged to create a way-marker.
Einar waved us on and it was time to forget the ‘heels down, hands down’ riding lessons of my distant youth, with instructions bellowed by strict Pony Club matriarchs. In addition to their small stature, one of the unique features of the Icelandic horses (don’t make the mistake of calling them ponies) is their extra gait, known as the tölt.
As I raised my hands up high and pushed my feet far forward in the stirrups, my horse Flosi changed gear from a familiar bouncing trot to the incredibly fast running walk – so smooth that proud Icelanders boast you can ride the best horses with a glass of champagne in one hand and never spill a drop! But there was no time for that as the path opened up into a wild landscape and the horses, which work and live together as a herd, fanned out and sped across the lava field.
This was horsepower as nature intended and the exhilarating freedom of being able to ride across uninhabited expanses of open land was not lost on the group of English riders used to the restrictions of bridleways and built-up areas back home. As Europe’s least populated country, Iceland offers an unforgettable holiday experience. A land of extinct - and active - volcanoes interspersed with glaciers, spectacular waterfalls and bubbling geothermal fields, the geography is as awe-inspiring as it is amazing.
Since no other horse has ever been imported to Iceland, this pure breed has remained unchanged since Viking times. These tough little equines, capable of carrying large weights for their size, are also gentle enough for the most novice riders. But it’s best to have clocked up some miles in the saddle before embarking on a long expedition such as our three-day trek, and there are plenty of shorter rides and introductory sessions available.
A two-hour drive from the Icelandic capital Reykjavik took us to the foothills of the southern highlands and Fossnes Farm, where we met our genial host Einar and four-legged companions. We were about to take part in a genuine tradition, not something laid on for tourists, and there was a tangible excitement in the air.
Every September farmers move sheep from high summer pastures to the lowlands. As well as being the biggest annual event in the agricultural calendar, it also signals the end of summer, as within a few weeks the two main overland routes, which follow ancient trails once only braved on foot or horseback, are inaccessible.
Before the advent of 4x4s, farmers were reliant on their horses and today they still provide the best form of transport for the round-up. As we set off from the remote Hólaskógur mountain cabin, where our horses had been kept overnight, it didn’t take long before we found what we were looking for. Sheep, and hundreds of them, spread out along the hillside.
In a country where sheep far outnumber the population, there’s no doubt who has right of way. Although traffic can be held up for hours as the flocks make their way along the one road to the holding pens, we only passed two cars all morning and as they waited patiently the drivers engaged in good-natured banter with the farmers.
At the pens it was a real family affair, as youngsters clad in brightly coloured woollens waded into the woolly mêlée to help segregate sheep belonging to different owners. The horses that had been ridden that morning trotted by in free running herds, heading back to the farm, as fresh horses for the afternoon arrived. Meanwhile, the farmers caught up on the news with the aid of some unidentifiable liquid that had been decanted into more recognisable Famous Grouse bottles.
That afternoon the heavens opened and we exchanged nervous glances as hailstones began to rain down. Einar laughed. “Here you just have ‘examples’ of the weather,” he said. “Just wait a minute.” Sure enough, within five minutes the sun emerged from the clouds and a rainbow spanned the blue sky. Further on, we rode through glacial streams and rivers, where both horses and riders quenched their thirst in the clear, ice-cold water.
Each night we joined Einar and the farmers for a rousing celebration, culminating with a full-blown party on the last night when all the sheep had been accounted for. We sat down to the traditional and delicious meal of, you’ve guessed it, lamb soup followed by skyr, a yoghurt-based farmhouse dessert served with sugar and cream. The farmers sang with gusto as we discussed the day’s adventures.
The following morning we bade a reluctant farewell to our trusty steeds, and found it easy to understand why the Viking horse is held in such esteem. Einar described them as being part of an Icelander’s soul and in ancient times owners would ask to be buried alongside their favourite horse.
Riding holidays, or short treks for less-experienced riders and first-timers, can easily be combined with a stay in trendy Reykjavik and a tour of Iceland’s other famous sights, including the beautiful Gjáin valley, majestic waterfalls at Gullfoss and Hjálparfoss, Geysir hot spring area, Thingvellir National Park and, of course, the Blue Lagoon where you can immerse yourself in geothermal water and soak away any saddle soreness.
Despite our aching muscles, there was no danger of insomnia after our exciting days in the saddle and party nights at farmhouses. And if anyone did need help in falling asleep, well all they needed to do was count sheep...
Ishestar Riding Tours has centres around Iceland and organises a wide variety of riding treks, ranging from one-hour rides suitable for complete novices (at around £42 including hotel transfers) to tours such as the five-night sheep round-up that costs around £722. Horse rides, with operators such as Ishestar, are available from Reykjavik.
From 1 May 2009, Iceland Express will fly from Gatwick to Reykjavik eight times a week, with fares starting from around £69 one way.
Scandinavian experts Taber Holidays offer three-night breaks at a choice of hotels in Reykjavik from around £565, including B&B accommodation and flights with Icelandair from Heathrow.