Monday, September 19, 2016

Horse Trekking Iceland

Jon and I just returned from a great vacation to Iceland.  All I knew from the beginning of planning this trip was how much I wanted to tolt!  I would happily have done a cross island horse trek but for Jon that wouldn't be so fun.  So we did one ride together and I did, ahem, 3 additional rides solo.
I could have stayed here for days, watching the waves on the rocks.  Iceland is pretty.

Per usual, I like to write up the experience both for future reference and to pass along anything I learned.

My disclaimer for this one is that I haven't done a lot of research, I am just reporting what I was told by the guides and mentioning what I observed during my week there.
I held an iceberg

First, Iceland has A LOT of horses.  I had no idea how many horses were on this island but it felt like everywhere we drove (and we did the ring road so a significant portion of the country) there were horse farms and they all had at least 10 horses.
This guy wants to come live with me

I asked about this and was told that people have horses for pleasure, to move sheep around, for actual transport in some areas, for horse trekking which is insanely popular there so that many people have started a business.  The largest growth area is breeding for export.  Apparently Germany exports many Icelandic horses since that is cheaper than buying one there, much like we do with european warmbloods in the states.  Some people also breed and export for meat.
Adorable babies

Second, the only horse in Iceland is the Icelandic horse.  It is illegal to import horses and if an Icelandic horse leaves the country it may never return.  This was largely marketed as disease control since Icelandic horses do not have immunity to the diseases of other countries.  In fact, bringing riding gear in country wasn't even worth the effort.  Used leather goods like saddles and gloves are flat prohibited, some things require extensive disinfection certified by the government (can you imagine the US government giving you a disinfection cert for your helmet?), at least breeches only required a 40C wash so I was able to use my own.
Dettifoss waterfall, complete with rainbow

On to the riding.  Our first ride was outside the town of Egilsstadir on the northeast portion of the island, at a place called Stori Bakki. A farm that breeds as well as does horse treks.

We had a two hour private ride.  Another fun fact, I did not have one single Icelandic guide, they were all Europeans who took this job to work with Icelandic horses.  My guide here was from Germany, where she exclusively rides Icelandic horses but wanted to up her skills so came to Iceland for a year.

The horses were probably 12ish hands, although I guess they don't measure with hands.  They all took up my leg relatively well, but hell, I am short.  The two horses we rode were incredibly well behaved and had natural tolts.  This will come up more later, but something I had no idea about - not all Icelandic horses will tolt.  Some can be trained, some can't, and some have to be taught to trot.  Our trek horses were natural tolters.

Their hair is amazing
It was a cold but beautiful morning and Jon loved this ride.  His horse (sorry their names were unpronounceable) was 27 and still the fastest guy out there.  His tolt covered huge ground and Jon was like, why don't you own one of these instead of a bouncy Thoroughbred? My guy had a great natural tolt too.  We weren't actually given any instruction because the guide knew these horses would tolt regardless.

It was basically a trail ride through sheep farms with a nice overview of a lake, with plenty of opportunities to test out the tolt at different speeds.  The privacy and solitude were exceptional.

My second ride was at the Skjaldarvik guest house, where we spent a night.  This ride was my personal favorite because it was like a combination of a trail ride and a lesson in riding Icelandic horses.  A fairly small group went out but they quickly split us into two groups - beginners and experienced.  Only two of us were on the experienced group and our guide was from the Netherlands.
Just terrible scenery for riding

My horse was a lovely mare named Svala who I want to steal and bring home and snuggle forever.  She had a great tolt.  Our guide explained the gaits in far more detail.  Icelandic horses can have up to 5 gaits: Walk, trot, tolt, pace, and canter/gallop which are considered one gait.

The flying pace is used for racing so it can be sought after but she said if you want to buy one of these horses for the tolt she would recommend getting a 4 gaiter.  Because the problem with gaited horses is how they will switch between the gaits so when you have trot, pace, and tolt, it can be harder to get the one you want.  And pacing often seems preferred so if you get a horse with a natural tolt and no pace, the tolt is very easy to get and keep.
An iceberg lagoon to break up the text wall

Trotting is necessary for muscle building but of course trotting on small horses (don't call them ponies there) sucks.

The instructions for tolting correctly seemed very dressagey, here is what I was told: lift your hands so they lift their head, maintain contact but don't pull, and then massage the reins alternatingly.  The horse really needs to step under themself to tolt correctly so keep your weight back (also weight forward means trot) and use your leg to encourage them to use their butt.

Svala tolted no matter what but when I did it right she hit a whole different gear, fast and smooth.  It was amazing.  We also did a slow tolt which is pretty tough for them but feels great on the lower back.  I tried to go back and forth between tolt and trot but I was not that skilled and she stumbled once and I figured, ok, we will just tolt
I so need her

We were also able to gallop some and that was also incredibly fun on these guys.  Svala was probably only 11 hands tall, I should have tried to put her in my suitcase.  LOVE.

The final place I rode was outside Reykjavik and is a HUGE hack stable called IsHestar.  So I had lower expectations and my two rides there were a mixed bag but overall my concerns of being stuck in a huge group of beginners were unfounded.  I signed up for the Viking ride which was really a morning ride, then back to the barn, then an afternoon ride.
I called him the ewok

The morning ride was a giant group but they broke it into 3: walk only, people who wanted to try trot/tolt, and advanced.  The advanced group only had 3 of us and man, our guide let them run.  She was German and her English wasn't great so she didn't talk much but then again we were blazing around the area so we couldn't have spoken much.  My gelding had a fantastic tolt and a real turn of speed so I wasn't complaining but I actually felt a little bad for him by the end.  Icelandic horses are tough and supposedly have incredible endurance but mine was super sweaty compared to the others when we got back to the barn. I don't think he was ridden again that day (I saw him in a field the rest of the day) so it probably wasn't a big deal.  And I think he was more worked up because the guide horse pranced instead of walking during breaks.  Still, crazy fun to tolt and gallop all over.
Poor sweaty guy

The last ride was my only real disappointment of the trip.  The original horse I was supposed to ride ended up having pulled a shoe (actually had the clip embedded in his foot and wasn't even showing lameness.  They really are tough).  So they had to pull another horse out for me last minute.  Dyrmee was a little chestnut guy, sweet and obedient.  But just one problem - he didn't tolt.  So I spent a 3 hour ride getting my lower back beat up by the tiny trot.  Whenever we could I had him canter, he did have a great canter.  But cantering is faster than most tolting so I was stuck with a lot of trotting.  My back is still killing me.

The ride itself up to an extinct volcano was pretty and really fun.  And it was no one's fault that they had to replace my horse last minute.  The guide said it is possible he had a tolt at one point, but after years of being a trek horse, some lose it.  And some just never have it.  So if you ever go to Iceland, make sure you request a tolting horse!

Icelandic horses are supposed to be known for their friendly dispositions and every one I
encountered met this description.  Snuggly and letting me play with their faces and manes
I was in 12 year old heaven!

Overall, these horse treks were incredibly fun, worth the money, and informative.  I think my next horse might need to be an Icelandic - tough, close to the ground, and good for back pain.  I would be concerned about buying one in the US and in theory would probably import.  But then would have concerns about who to go to for training if we needed to work on our tolt.  But since Odin is only 5, I hopefully have a long time to work through those details!


  1. So much fuzz and adorableness!!!! It sounds like an amazing trip and I love your pictures.

  2. Omg I want to steal all those small tolting horses!!!!!

  3. Oh my gosh. This is totally on my bucket list. What a fun trip.

  4. This is so fascinating, and what a gorgeous place to visit!!

  5. <3 thanks for this! T and I have been talking about going to Iceland and I totally want to go on a trek (probably a short one because he's not interested in a long ride either)