Iceland by Horse
With glacier-cut fjords, hot rivers, northern lights, and more than 100 volcanoes (dormant and active), it’s no wonder that Iceland is a favorite among adventurous travelers. But for equestrians, there’s an additional, perhaps more powerful draw: the island nation’s roughly 80,000 horses, all descended from Viking steeds and evolved over more than 1,000 years into a breed as beloved for its wild mane and cotton-ball coat as for its unflappable, can-do attitude and silky-smooth four-beat gait.
So, when I was offered the chance to join Wild Women Expeditions’ horseback Golden Circle Riding Adventure, I didn’t hesitate. During the 8-day trip, we forded rivers, visited caves, tölted through Thingvellir National Park, and cantered on a black sand beach. It turns out that traveling Iceland by horse is more than a bucket-list worthy experience: it will make you a better rider.
Riding New Horses
Soon after arriving at Eldhestar Farm — Wild Women Expeditions’ local operator based about 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik — our guide Caroline Owen announced that we would be riding multiple horses throughout the week. My stomach clenched. I used to be an intrepid horse girl, then I spent a few adult years hitting the ground… a lot… and my willingness to “ride anything” receded. Suddenly, the notion of having to adjust to an unfamiliar horse every day, possibly at high speeds in open country, left me anxious rather than excited for the week ahead.
Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of situation WWE prides itself on managing, and on our first night, Owen and her co-guide Annina Wilhelm gathered the group to talk experience, fears, and expectations on this horse riding holiday. The next morning, Owen explained the sometimes murky boundaries between comfort, growth, and panic zones before matching us with our first mounts.
Over the next several days, I rode 8 horses: Hylling, Skjanni, Skumur, Magga, Saga, Lilja, Blika, and Grettir. And sure I had preferences — I loved Skjanni’s impatience to get going, Hylling’s deceptively silky pace, and Grettir’s power-packed, teddy bear body — but at the end of that week, I was a more confident rider than I’d been in years. Not only that, I’d once again embraced the pleasure of figuring out how to ride new horses, each with their unique gaits and preferences.
Horses as Royalty
Back home, it’s easy to get into rote habits with our regular equine partners, especially if we board our horses. Maybe we don’t think about the value of a vacation, letting them graze while we eat our trailside lunches, or removing a saddle before our own gear. Riding in Iceland was the ultimate reminder that the horses must come first, no matter what.
Eldhestar is home to about 300 equines, and all of them spend the vast majority of their nights living in herds on vast expanses of pasture. Sure, they’re still working by day, but all get between 1 and 3 months of vacation every year, and the work is tempered.
On multi-day excursions like the Golden Circle Riding Adventure, the horses get frequent breaks and are swapped out regularly to give them some riderless time. We untacked during lunches so they could graze in comfort, dismounted to do our own walking when trails got too narrow or steep, and made sure they had food and water before settling ourselves. Sometimes it made for a clumsy caravan of 2- and 4-legged hikers, but it also offered an opportunity to appreciate the breed’s skill in Iceland’s rugged landscape.
Riding the Tölt in Iceland
One of the best parts of horseback riding in Iceland is opening up on the multitude of wide dirt roads that slice through the country, connecting villages, parks, hot springs, caves, and other sites. The flat, sometimes straight, sometimes gently winding, surfaces are the perfect place to experience the tölt — that smooth four-beat gait for which the Icelandic Horse is so famous. But to get the gait with any consistency, you must ride like an Icelandic, which generally means deep seat, open hips, light contact, and plenty of half-halts. It also means feeling for a new sensation, and in some cases learning to distinguish between the desired tölt and the also unfamiliar but less appealing pace (a lateral 2-beat gait).
I have a bad habit of wanting to keep my seat off my horse’s back in most circumstances. But learning to get and hold the elusive tölt had me sinking deep and sitting tall in the saddle, and by the end of the trip, I found my perfect partner in Grettir, who participated only when asked correctly. And then, whether we were splashing through the water of the Ölfusá River delta or racing across the packed sand of Thorlákshöfn beach, it felt like we were flying.
Need to Know
Invest in waterproof boots and gloves, and bring layers as temps can fluctuate drastically throughout the day.
Since Icelandic horses are unvaccinated and isolated, they’re vulnerable to diseases from off the island. To keep the horses safe, make sure your gear is disinfected or brand new.
To experience Iceland by horse, book late in the season (September) and the weather will be cooler, but you might see the Northern Lights!
If you want to go on a WWE tour but are part of a mixed-gender group, consider a private booking with them. For additional insider tips follow Stacey McKenna, Nancy D. Brown and Wild Women Expeditions on Instagram.
If You Go
Wild Women Expeditions offers several exclusive horseback riding vacations in Iceland, operated through Eldhestar. The Golden Circle Riding Adventure is suitable for most experience levels, while the Hekla Volcano Riding Adventure involves riding with a loose herd so is ideal for intermediate to expert riders who are fit enough to tack and mount quickly and independently.
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1 (888) 993-1222
This is a guest post by Stacey McKenna. Stacey is a freelance writer and equestrian based in Colorado. This post on Iceland by Horse was not sponsored or endorsed by Eldhestar. All photos belong to the writer.