I’m not a horse rider. I know which end bites and which end kicks and that’s about the limit of my horse knowledge. But horse riding is one of the most popular activities you can in Iceland, so I thought I’d give it a go. And having given it a go, I gave it three more goes.
1) Icelandic horses are generally placid, easy-going horses who are just as happy to trundle beginners as experts.
People like me are probably the most common kind of visitor to an Icelandic horse farm. There are big companies like Íshestar (Ice Horses) and Eldhestar (Fire Horses) in the south west, which are used by the big tour companies to tie horse riding in with various other half-day trips (Riding & Blue Lagoon, Riding & Golden Circle, Riding & City Sightseeing etc etc) and there are small private farms along tiny gravel tracks with hand-painted signs inviting visitors to stop and try their horses. You’ll generally be paired with a suitable horse – a nice calm one for an absolute beginner but if you know your horses and you want to try the famous tölt, the fifth gait common to Icelandic horses, they’ll give you a livelier one and you can go off with one of the guides to tölt across the lava.
2) Icelandic horses are not ponies.
The internet is very vague on the definition of pony vs horse. The best I can find is that a pony is a small horse that may or may not have a defined height. The Icelandic horse is a horse. The horses themselves will be offended if you call them ponies and when I went riding, we were shown an instructional video which prominently featured “do not call them ponies!” Yes, they’re pretty small. They’re descendants of the original Viking horses brought over during the Settlement. In fact, no horses have been imported to Iceland since the tenth century and now no horse may be brought in even if all it’s done is go to a competition abroad for fear of bringing in foreign disease and diluting the bloodlines.
3) Icelandic horses are very hardy.
In winter, they’re lovely and fluffy and a lot of them live outside year-round. I don’t go as far as to say that the cold doesn’t bother them at all but they seem to cope just fine. Their coats seem to thin out a little in summer but they’re still lovely and soft and most of them are very keen to run to the side of their field to greet the visitor hanging over the fence with a hand outstretched.
4) Horse riding is hard work
I’ve heard experienced riders talk about sore and aching muscles but that’s from people who are actively riding. But it turns out even a beginner who does nothing more than sit on the horse and cling to the reins will probably slither off with stiff legs and numb feet after an hour or so’s riding. It’s particularly hard work in winter because it’s really cold. I’ve been with Íshestar and they provide fluffy overalls for the cold and lovely orange waterproofs for wet days, as well as wellies and of course, helmets. But wellies aren’t insulated and even if you’re wearing really good socks, you’ll still probably get cold feet.
5) Icelandic horses like to nibble.
It’s ok, they generally don’t nibble people but while you’re walking around a lava field, your horse will almost inevitably spy something greenish and stop to eat it. If you’re lucky, it’ll be at head height. If you’re not, it might be on the ground and you’ll suddenly find you’re struggling not to fall straight over its head and crash on the floor. I had one horse that even decided the snow piling up on the railings around the paddock looked tasty and went round hoovering it all up.
6) The scenery is great.
There are lots of places to ride. If you’re good and experienced, maybe you’ll do a multi-day trip across the Highlands. If you’re a beginner, maybe you’ll go over a lava field or up into the hills. Wherever you go, it’ll probably be spectacular and even more so with a horse in the foreground.