“There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.” Jules Verne
Riding in a herd of wild horses through undiscovered lands with endless wideness, is the dream of every horse lover. Well, in Iceland, this can get reality and it did for me! I was very excited about my adventure, when I left end of June to Iceland. We landed in Keflavík and took a shuttle bus to our hotel, where we stayed the first night. We had booked a riding tour of 6 days, crossing the highlands of Kjölur from the North to South. Every night, we would stay at a new place and discover new things. This has always been your dream? Then, read about my amazing experiences in the country of fire and ice.
We got up early, put on our riding clothes, had a rich breakfast and were fetched by a small bus. That was the first time, we met all of the fellow passengers: three English, three French, four Danish, two Finnish and seven Germans as well as our Icelandic guide. The bus drove four hours along the west coast and we were already completely amazed by the landscape. During the drive, we were asked about our experience with riding, Icelandic horses, tölt and long rides. After lunch, an Icelandic vegetable soup, we packed our provisions from toast, fruits and water. Then, we arrived at the place, where the horses were kept. It was a herd of lots more than 100 animals of all colours and sizes. Horses in deep black, brown over chestnut or grey to ones with stains and blazes in all colours looked at us.
We all gathered and listened to the explications of our guide. In one corner of the paddock old saddles, saddlebags and nose bands were lying and each one of us got one set, which he had to took after for the next days. We got instructions how to handle the horses and how to saddle them and then, they distributed the horses. I got a mold gelding with dark mane and a comfortable canter.
Another guide had joined us; she rode in the front and the other one in the back to look after the group. It was afternoon, when we started our ride and we rode in the directions of the mountains and soon started tölting. Tölt is the super comfortable gait, for which the Icelandic horses are so famous. They say, it feels like sitting on a sofa. Well, more or less. It depends on the experience of the rider and the preference of the horse. The paths were mostly sand or stone paths and the landscape just amazing. We rode alongside streams, wide meadows, passed waterfalls and always had the impressive mountains in front of us. It was about 17 degrees and lots of wind – typical Icelandic summer – and we continued in a fast tölt. In the lunch break, we put our horses in a paddock, where they immediately started rolling. Everyone packed out his lunch to eat and have a drink. Tölting continuously is very exhausting, especially as we didn’t slow down during the whole ride. I was a bit confused, if we could get the same horses again as I had read that we would change during the day, due to the long distance.
In that moment, I heard the clop of hooves and we saw the herd of 100 horses running towards us in a big cloud of dust. Three people from the crew in the front, in high speed so that no horse would overtake, and behind them the herd and some more people who kept the herd together. We watched the scene with open mouths. You have to have experienced this spectacle, if not, you would not believe it. The whole ground was shaking, when the horses passed us. When all of them had been put in the paddock, the newly arrived horses also got a pause and then, we got new horses. This time, the procedure was different. We were told to get on our horses, wait behind the paddock and under no circumstances let our horses run. They let the herd out and when all horses had passed us, we were allowed to follow them with our horses already circling around themselves and rearing from excitement. We should not get in between them, but stay in the back, for safety reasons. Now, we had a lot more speed than before as the herd together pushes a lot. This experience was so overwhelming, I wanted to cry. Of you are riding in a huge herd of horses and hear the sound of 520 horse shoes on the lava stones, words are just missing to describe the feelings…
With the whole herd, we had to make more breaks, because of the higher speed. In the evening, we arrived after a ride of 22km in our accommodation. It was a wooden cottage with four bed rooms. We got dinner and had hot showers, which we were all thankful for, and then fell tired in our beds.
The next morning, we had breakfast. The Danish and Icelandic people were drinking snaps, we preferred the porridge, cereals and toast. After controlling the horse shoes, which are important because of the hard lava stones that we were riding on, we got our horses. Today, I had Rjupa, a sweet grey mare, which was directly offered for sale. Well, I will think about that… She was very pleasant to ride, fast, easy tölt, super comfortable and very beautiful… The question is only, how do I get her home?
I was always in the front of the group. Of course, just to not get all the dust… or maybe also because in the front, it is faster and you always have a good view. At midday, we started at the mountain hut of Galtará and rode over ancient paths that humans and horses have already used for centuries to cross the plateau. The paths are marked with small stone towers to be seen from far. Knowing that we took the same way as so thousands people before us, is pretty impressive. The roads were muddier than the day before, a good condition for tölting. The landscape got rougher, the streams wilder and the vastness wider. There were no electric cables or telephone poles, nor houses or roads, except the road Kjölur, which only consists of gravel and is closed the whole winter. The group one week before, had to get an extra allowance to cross as the snow was still too high. Now, we didn’t see any of it anymore. The wind was stringer and the temperatures lower. I was freezing, even though I was wearing more clothes than the day before, including a scarf and ear protection.
After 22 km, we arrived in the afternoon at four o’clock in the new mountain hut at the shores of the river Strangakvísl. After having taken care of the horses, we got coffee and cake and after resting a bit, set off to discover the area. We had arrived on the plateau and now, had a fantastic view on the glacier and the surrounding high mountains. Just dreamlike! For dinner, we had fish from the glacier lake, rice from the neighbours and a very delicious desert. They always take regional products and cook them freshly. Just delicious! In the evening, the whole group gathered around the oven. In this hut, it was already a lot colder and we all needed one more blanket. Also, we didn’t have hot water, so had to take cold showers.
Day three started for everyone with sore muscles and lots of moaning about pain. We are not used to sit so long on a horse. But the Icelandic horse is truly a loyal companion. Without hesitating, it runs over every ground, nor matter of sand, gravel, mud, hilly meadows or lava stones. It doesn’t even slow down, in high speed every terrain gets crossed. Often, I was afraid that they were going to break their legs, but luckily it never happened. That day, we had started early in the direction of the glacier. The wind got freezing and the sky greyer. I had learned from the days before and put even more clothes, even two layers of trousers and it payed off. We crossed the three glacier rivers Strangakvísl, Svartakvísl and Blanda. Normally, this is quite an adventure as the crossing of the ice cold river is highly exhausting for the horses and often, they have to swim. At the time, we were there it was so flat as it hasn’t been for long and the water only reached to my ankles sitting on horseback. As the days before, the herd caught up in the lunch break. Soft rain had started, but we were well prepared with rain jackets and the moving kept us warm.
We left the herd in quite some distance of the hut and so still had to walk a long way. being completely wet and just wanting to change our clothes, it felt even longer. After once more 22 km of riding, we arrived at the mountain hut Hveravellir and were served coffee and cake to warm up. Afterwards, we went in bathing suits to jump into the hot pool. We found ourselves directly in a geothermal area between the glaciers Hofsjökull and Langjökull. The hot springs reach a temperature between 80 and 100 degree, why the water is mixed with cold one to make it pleasant. And that truly was a fitting ending for that day and really necessary to relax the muscles. Only the foul smell of the springs was slightly disturbing.
After the warm bath, we had traditional lamb soup, which was just perfect. There is nothing like a soup on a cold day and this one was especially delicious. Three times, you have to help yourself, say the Icelandic people, to don’t insult the cook. I gave up after the second, completely full and satisfied.
After the breakfast, we explored the geothermal area. There are some small geysers, hot springs with crystal clear water. Together, we searched for a cave, in which in Icelandic man had lived for many years after having been exiled. He survived using the hot springs to cook stolen horses or sheep, eating seeds and roots and hiding in the mountains from the Icelandic government. Only when his companion died, did he give up and after these many years got even granted immunity. It is strange that he got older than most of the other people. The cave was only discovered many years later.
We started at about ten in the morning and rode high in the mountains, through snow and over frozen rivers, which was especially exciting. The guide tested the ice on foot and when, it was safe enough waved us to follow him. We rode to Thjófadalir -the valley of the thieves-, a grassy valley, surrounded by high mountains. We had to lead our horses to the valley as the way was very steep and with the snow not very secure. So we sled, with distance to our companions, down the path. Back on our horses, we continued our way along the Fúlakvísl -stinky river- through the bold lava fields of Kjalhraun. When we left the valley, we could see the glaciers Langjökull and Regnbúðajökull. So impressive! Until the lunch break, we were completely wet from the rain and didn’t want to move anymore. It seemed forever until the herd caught up and then, they still needed a break. We just wanted to continue and then arrive. At least, this would be longest day of all and just today, we had to have this bad weather!
After the break, I got Pálmi, a beautiful and fast chestnut gelding, which was really a walking sofa! I was happy to have a comfortable horse, especially as we still had a long distance to cover. As the weather got better, meaning it didn’t rain any more, so did our mood. From the diversity of the landscape, it was the most beautiful day until now. After 50 km and the most exhausting ride of the week, we were completely tired and wet. Perfect time for a hot shower… of wait, there is no hot water in the mountains. So, we washed us reluctantly with the cold water from the glacial lake. We slept in the mountain hut Árbúðir at the shores of the river Svartá, the majestic glacier Langjökull in the background. What a breathtaking scenery! For dinner, we had, as always, regional specialities: mashed potatoes, red cabbage, vegetables and sausages. After a fantastic desert and a tea for warming up, we all fell in our beds, unable to stay awake.
We left at 10 in the morning, as it would also be a long day, and rode alongside the glacier Langjökull and its lake. The weather was astonishingly good and when the wind stopped, it got even warm. Pleasant weather for riding. It was the first time that we came along some roads and also met some cars on the gravel roads, all of them with GoPro on the roof to film their adventures. Before lunch break, we crossed the only bridge on our way, over the only river that was too strong to cross it in the water. We sat in quite a distance to the bridge, when the herd came, but you could hear the many hooves banging on the wood like you were standing directly next to it. Wow, what a goosebumps feeling! The day was wonderful and the island shone in all its different colours. For the first time, we could take of our jackets and it felt almost like summer, the Icelandic summer.
For the last section, we got the slowest horses as we were heading in the direction of their home farm and the horses knew that. They would get faster and faster and the guides were afraid that some of us might loose the control over their horse, which is very dangerous. Even on the slow horses, we had a great speed, a lot faster than the days before. Our way led through great field of snow and over many roads. For long distances, we had to stay in a line and it was the only they, where we had some parts of going slower, because the paths were narrow and the mountains steep. More than 130 horses in a row make an incredible picture and many cars stopped to take pictures of this spectacle; a mountain biker even joined our parade for some time. The last part was mostly downhill and along the street, on which we met many cars as we came closer to civilisation. After a small break and a long day, we finished our ride of 45 km at a paddock, where we were fetched with a car and the crew would bring the herd alone home.
Soaked with water from the last hour, we ate cake and drank coffee and then fought about the hot showers- Finally hot water, what a luxury! The shower made us all more relaxed and brought back the good mood. The food was extremely delicious: local fish and vegetables and an Icelandic desert. The farm, where we stayed was cosy and decorated with love with old materials that were not used any more: horse shoes, nails, saddles, barbed wire… Everything was furnished very cute and gave it the special charm. We had a convivial evening in the barn and went to sleep completely satisfied.
Sadly, our last riding day. Everyone was said and we thought that the time had passed very fast. That day, we rode without the herd and the crew as they could stay on the farm, we didn’t need horses to change for the short hack and our way led us along strongly used roads. There was almost no wind, which made all the insects buzzing around us and soon we were bitten all over our faces and neck. It was a lot greener and the vegetation lusher than the last days on the plateau, sometimes there were even some trees. On our way, we visited a deep gorge and then, continued along the gorge to the famous Gullfoss waterfall. Gullfoss means golden waterfall. Some say, there is gold hidden underneath it, others tell the legend about the landlord of this estate, who had been offered lots of money to sell it and build a hydroelectric power station. He didn’t accept – lucky for us, so we could see it today -, but the gold should represent the huge sum of money that the estate is worth. The most logic explanation is the rainbow, which appears with the good weather over the waterfall. In winter, the waterfall completely freezes and offers a great location for ice climbing. That must also be an amazing sight. The landscape is just stunning and even bad weather doesn’t reduce the beauty of the Icelandic nature.
Back on the farm, we made our way on foot to the geothermal area, where you can find the geysir. It is only three kilometres along the street, hemmed by green meadow with blue flowers on both sides and often paddocks with horses. In the background, the snow-peaked mountains and glaciers rise above. I cannot say it often enough: the landscape is just breath-taking. In the geothermal area are the hot springs and the geysers Strokkur and Geysir, last one being the one to give name to all the others. In the past, people used to throw stones over the shoulders into the geyser, which should bring luck. As a consequence the geyser got blocked and they had to bore a hole. Geysir is the second highest geyser in the world and reaches up to 80 metres, but doesn’t erupt any more. Strokkur is only the third-highest with up to 35 metre, which is also already impressive. It erupts every 5 to 15 minutes naturally and at night, the water pumped out, so that the residents can sleep. Our goodbye dinner consisted traditionally of lamb and vegetables and a sort of apple crumble for desert. After receiving our certificates of having been part of this expedition and long talks until late in the night, we went to bad and this was the end of our interesting journey.
Iceland is a true treasure trove of natural phenomenons and the horseback is simply the most authentic way to discover this country. On the bad roads, a horse is the fastest and also most reliable means of transport – by the way, they also always have priority on the roads – and there is no way of being closer to nature than on a uninhabited plateau with only few people and a huge herd of horses. The weather in Iceland is changeable and unpredictable. You should be prepared for everything as the weather changes within minutes from bright sunshine to strong storms, which then is blown away by strong winds. You might truly experience all seasons in one day. During summer, the sun doesn’t set, which makes you lose all your sense of time. Still at night, you can explore the island with enough light. The only problem is that some people cannot sleep and have to shut out all light from their rooms. On the contrary, in winter, you have to make the most of the few hours of sun. But, you might have the chance to get a glimpse of the aurora borealis, which must be fantastic. I am convinced that there is enough to discover on the island of fire and ice during every season. I cannot wait to explore other parts of this fascinating country.
The wonderful tour that I shared with you, has been carried out by Ishestar and its friendly coworkers. They offer trip on every level and with different lengths through different parts of the country. Also beginners are well catered for. Our last night, we stayed at the beautiful farm Geysirhestar, which can be highly recommended.