I admit that I fudged my riding experience a bit, having claimed that I was an “intermediate” rider when in fact I’d only been on a horse a half dozen times in my life. Sitting atop an 800-pound beast in a nearly uninhabited landscape two and a half hours outside Reykjavik, it was too late to turn back. I couldn’t exactly hail a cab.
I was in Iceland on a trip organized locally through a horse tour company called Íshestar and advertised via their partner, British international riding outfitter In the Saddle. I had long dreamt of being one of the handful of travelers to participate in the annual Icelandic horse round up, an ancient tradition in which farmers drive their free-roaming foals out from the mountains and back to the pasture each fall. As I squinted through the driving rain, I recalled that nobody had ever said it would be easy or comfortable.
To explain: For a short summer season, typically from July to September or October, the Icelandic landscape is overtaken by blooming flowers and horses that play among them, uninhibited and unrestrained. Every year the young ones, wild until they’re trained for riding between ages five and seven, are allowed to spend each summer running free. But once the weather turns, the farmers must ride out on working horses to herd the young ones back home so they can be kept safe and fed on the farm during brutal winters. Several farms in the community come together to accomplish this task, and it’s a highly anticipated holiday. Our dozen-strong group of riders participated in the Víðidalstungurétt communal corral’s annual round up, but these events take place on different weeks throughout the months of September and October at corrals across Iceland. Tours like the one I experienced give outsiders a chance to engage with the ruggedness of the Icelandic wilderness and witness the age-old custom first hand.
We’d been transferred by van to an area near Hvammstangi in the northwest, where we would sleep for the duration of our trip in the only farmhouse for miles. Surrounding us was an unspoiled view of the tundra, the earth newly minted—all things being relative—by volcanic activity and devoid of trees and houses. Snowy peaks in the distance created a backdrop of white, against which the green in our valley and the red on the hills in between were layered like paper cutouts. From the van I saw the first of many waterfalls, a thin thread of water that leapt from between two craggy peaks and disappeared in the wind.
Our lead guide, Haukur Suska (pictured in orange above), and his scruffy little dog greeted us at the farmhouse, and we sat down to a lunch of hearty lamb stew. “Eat well now, to be strong for the ride,” Haukur advised. “We will start with the herd right away.”
Haukur was a thin, ruddy-cheeked, and ageless horse breeder, like you’d expect from someone who spends his life laboring outdoors, but his blue eyes betrayed a quirky sense of humor. Though he grew up in the city, his grandparents had a horse farm where he’d spent much time as a child. Eventually, he decided to start his own farm. Haukur had been running the tours for ten years.
Horse farming is often a legacy industry that’s passed down through generations of rural families, but it’s common for even urban Icelanders to have an enthusiasm for the beasts. “People who live in the city, they have a couple of horses that they keep on someone else’s farm or a family farm or whatever,” said Lindsay Blatt, the New York–based filmmaker behind the documentary Herd in Iceland. She explained to me that it is less of a status symbol in Iceland than it is in the States, but rather something that the middle class often has access to.
“In Iceland, every single little town of 200 people will have a riding club and a riding ring and groomed riding trails through the countryside,” confirmed Nancy Marie Brown, an Icelandic horse enthusiast and author of four books on Icelandic and Viking history, when we spoke by phone.
According to the International Museum of the Horse, increasing numbers of people are riding horses recreationally in Iceland's highlands and the tours themselves bring in thousands of foreign visitors each year, making it one of the quickest growing businesses in the country. Icelandic horses are also in high demand in the U.S., Canada, and Europe—especially Germany—which has made breeding and exporting them a valuable business. As a result, Iceland currently boasts 80,000 horses, which in a country with a population of only 270,000, comes to roughly one horse for every three people.
After lunch we headed to the stables. “Saddle up!” said Haukur, crushing my hopes that there would be a quick training. I asked him as nonchalantly as I could if he had any specific advice for how to manage Icelandic horses.
“Yes,” he said. “Don’t fall off.”
In retrospect, this “you’ll be fine” attitude seems illustrative of Iceland’s rough-and-tumble culture. Playing it cool as ever, I forced a laugh at his obviously very funny joke and mimicked the woman beside me as she tacked up her horse.
“Is this your first time in Iceland?” she asked, having not overheard.
“No, no, I used to live here.”
“Ah,” I said. “Do you have any advice for managing Icelandic horses?”
“Don’t fall off!” She said, and swung herself onto her horse.
I too had been quite confident that I’d be fine until I realized that we would not be riding in the Western style to which I was accustomed. In the English style practiced by Icelanders, riders use the reins in both hands to communicate with the horse, rather than gather them in one—an arrangement that granted me a sense of comfort by allowing me to (incorrectly) grab the horn of the saddle with my free hand. Nevertheless, my strategy was to stick to what I knew: cling to the lip of the saddle with one hand and pray there would be no need to steer.
We had four grueling days of riding ahead of us—six to eight hours per day, much of it at a trot—to get us acquainted with our horses and the vast, diverse beauty of the Vatnsdalur valley. At least we were “lucky,” they told us, because it was still "summer” at 35 degrees Fahrenheit; apparently some years are much worse. If anyone could handle it, though, it was the intrepid travelers on my tour.
Although we were expected to follow the guides on predetermined routes (advisable in a country with active lava fields), this tour was neither coddled nor concerned with clichéd photo opportunities. Iceland does not attract busloads of querulous, selfie stick–clad tourists (yet), but a different breed altogether: tough, athletic, adventurous, risk-prone, and this group was no exception. Though my fellow riders were well-heeled, there was no complaining about the mud, the rain, the hard work, or the fact that we had to pack and carry our own lunches every day. This worked out nicely because Icelanders don’t seem to have much patience for all that anyway. As Blatt, put it to me, the sagas have instilled a sense of pride in Icelanders as to the fact that “you have to be a sort of hardy character to make it there.”
Each night, we returned to the Hvammer Farm for small luxuries: a hot tub to nurse our aching legs and backs (and in my case, a weeping saddle sore) and warming, high-calorie meals of cheese, bread, lamb, potatoes, and Icelandic Happy Marriage cake, a local treat made of rhubarb, oats, and cardamom. Afterwards, guides and riders passed around candy and alcohol popular in Iceland—both of which were always heavy on licorice flavors—and assembled in the common room to sing Johnny Cash, John Denver, and Elvis.
“I will play guitar for you guys,” Haukur said. He was constantly singing wordless tunes he’d invent as he went along, riding, driving, eating soup. “But I only play the same good old chord. It’s a secure one: E.”
I gathered that this was the preferred pastime of many Icelandic cowboys. It makes sense, when you think about it. The landscape was august but desolate, austere. And as anyone who read Halldór Laxness’s Independent People will remember, maddeningly lonely. The urge to fill the space somehow, to challenge the tyranny of harsh mountains, is understandable.
Over the next few days, I learned quickly. We rode through meadows and riverbanks and spongy moss fields and brambly undergrowth dotted with blueberry and crowberry, past canyons and waterfalls and basalt columns and many, many herds of bored-looking sheep. We rode in landscapes that looked uncannily like the bottom of the sea, moss and lichen of every color blanketing a rocky terrain. We also rode down the middle of the highway. “We have as much right to ride in the road as the cars have to drive in it,” Haukur told us. “It’s written in the law.”
Horses are a point of great pride to Icelanders—and if you’re aiming to avoid offending anyone you’d be advised not to call them ponies. Sure the breed is shorter, stockier, and fuzzier than most horses, but they have a far more spirited personality than you’d find in ponies, as one guide was eager to point out.
Icelanders’ love of the breed no doubt stems from pride in their heritage. Today’s horses are descended from herds that Vikings brought over from northern Europe in the ninth century, and they’ve been genetically isolated for more than a thousand years: Icelandic laws, which prohibit foreign horses into the country, protect the breed from disease, as well as interbreeding that would threaten its particular traits.
The Vikings were fond of them for their unique gait, the tölt. Once upon a time, most European horse breeds carried the genetic trait that made them capable of performing it, but the tölt fell out of favor because it doesn’t work well for carriage teams. The Vikings preserved it because it’s much more comfortable for riding long distances than the usual violent bouncing of other breeds. I’m told that modern-day Icelanders compete to see who can hang onto the most of their beer while they ride.
By the third day I’d become confident; I no longer held onto the saddle, and I’d urged my horse into several exhilarating canters, relishing the sound of her hooves and how her mane spilled backwards in the wind. I convinced myself that I’d become genuinely helpful in driving the herd of 30 working horses that ran with us. I could direct my horse enough to backtrack when another had stopped for a snack, then tap the lingerer’s butt with the “hup-hup-hup” sound that meant “move along.”
And then, of course, I did the one thing I’d been instructed not to do. We were fording a river that was chest-high on the horse when she slipped on a rock in the riverbed. She stumbled forward, then I watched as her head went underwater. She rolled left, and so did I. In a flash I, and everything I’d stuffed in my saddlebag, was engulfed in the icy water. The horse and I swam for shore independently, and she took off running, spooked, with the saddle hanging askew. I tried to run after her but weighted down by layers of soaked clothing, I knew it was a fool’s errand. Haukur, up in front of the herd, was informed via walkie-talkie and came to find our group at the rear.
"Ok, who fell?" he asked, an amused smile playing across his face. He caught sight of me, dripping and pathetic: "Ah, the New Yorker."
I was freezing, and we still had hours of riding to do. Haukur offered to have the van pick me up. It was tempting, but perhaps the fortitude of the Icelanders had rubbed off on me. Or perhaps I had just been sufficiently embarrassed. I refused; but, I did not turn down the flasks of Cognac offered by my fellow riders.
The day of the round up, farmers and a few dozen tourists alike spent a good deal of time waiting around while other teams fetched the young horses over a vast expanse of land. This was considered an excellent opportunity to sing and drink beer, and, having awoken many hours before us for the long day of herding, the Víðidalstungurétt farmers had quite the head start. In circles of five to ten men, they bellowed Icelandic folk songs and slapped each other’s backs. This continued all day, in fields and barns, though they switched to liquor in mid-afternoon. Many wore chunky Icelandic wool sweaters, with the classic collar of patterning (“lopapeysa”) around the neck and shoulders. It's tradition for each farmer’s wife to knit him a new one for the round up each year.
The custom of letting the horses roam can likely be traced back to the settlement in 870, according to Brown. And at the very least, she explained, the Icelandic sagas mention the need for rounding up the horses to bring them closer to home in the wintertime, which would date the round ups to the 13th century. Little of the tradition has changed over time. There is no longer a chieftain who controls the grazing, as there once was, and now they occasionally use small planes to locate the horses from the air, but the process is otherwise true to custom.
Blatt told me that the strategy stems from two factors: a practical need to feed the horses in the summer, while also preserving some grass on the farmstead for the winter, and the rather romantic belief that these playful summers influence the personality of the horse.
“You want to keep them as wild as possible,” Brown explained. “You want them to be taught by other horses in the herd, not by humans. You need to be able to herd them into a pen and to get close to each one of them so that you can give them worm medicine, you can trim their hooves, things like that, but then you let them go. The horse has opinions,” she said, emphasizing the importance of the natural instincts they learn from one another. “Sometimes they’re very valuable; sometimes they save your life.” The International Museum of the Horse gives another reason for independent roaming: “The landscape creates a sure-footed and muscular horse, toughened by harsh weather and wide-open spaces.” In other words, it makes them hardy—just like Icelanders themselves.
Of course, setting them free over the summers isn’t the only way to accomplish this, and since the advent of plastic-wrapped hay bales—which have facilitated a steady food supply all year round—many Icelandic farmers no longer engage in the practice. “The only reason to graze your horses in the highlands now is tradition,” Brown said. “They’re sending fewer and fewer every year, because it’s difficult!”
From what I could tell, Brown was right. It was afternoon before we finally took our places at the bottom of a hill, for a nonpareil view of all 537 horses from the communal corral being driven home. Browns, greys, whites, and blacks streamed past us, and after nearly a week spent on horse farms, we got our first glimpse of the furry foals. Based on their gaits and their demeanors, some of the foals would be used for competition, some for tourism, and some for herding sheep; some would be exported to other countries; and still others would be slaughtered for horse meat. Though some believe it’s possible to identify the most prized horses within the first week of their lives, the final judgment of a horse's riding and breeding potential usually takes place after its fourth birthday.
The sorting turned out to be even more work than the herding. “Generally they prefer to stay together,” explained Haukur. The horses were directed to the sorting corral, where they were kept in a holding pen before being guided, ten or so at a time, down a corridor to the inner circle of two concentric circles of fencing. All horses had been marked with their farms’ colors prior to being released in the spring, and the farmers redistributed them accordingly until the herds were reunited. The farmers—mostly men and boys—stood in the inner circle, moving like basketball players on the defense; their hands high in the air, they shuffled side to side and shouted to scare the animals in the right direction. The horses, unaccustomed to humans, often whinnied anxiously or reared up, but the Icelanders were unfazed by this display.
We tourists were rather relieved that our assistance was needed for neither the herding nor the sorting of horses. Despite assurances in the brochures that we would “help,” it became clear that the farmers had no need for additional hands on deck and that we would only get in the way. Haukur readily confirmed this. Ultimately though, it was more satisfying to observe those dedicated to the tradition accomplish what was both a practical and historic chore passed down from generation to generation.
A well-deserved celebration followed later that evening, and it was the event of the year for the people of the surrounding community. The annual party is similar to a harvest festival, or as Blatt put it, “one last hoorah before winter officially sets in.” Haukur, who traded his rain gear for a black velvet blazer, and the other guides were practically vibrating with excitement.
“There will be some singing, some dancing, some drinking, maybe some flirting—I don’t know,” he told us, smirking. “I will not interfere.”
We piled into the van, Haukur and the other guides up front passing Red Bull and beer around. “This is the party bus! Are you ready?” asked one guide. We started down a very straight, long country road; the drive would take an hour. Haukur turned on the radio, and a soporific contemporary Icelandic tune played.
“If this is the party bus, can we listen to some party music?” someone in the back asked.
“We only have one station here,” said Haukur. “You call and ask for a song, so it takes a little while. But I can be your jukebox, if you want.”
“Bohemian Rhapsody!” requested a Danish guy.
“Of course,” said Haukur, and he began his a cappella rendition.
Our dozen-strong group was the only group of foreigners who came. The Icelanders outnumbered us 30 to 1, and while they were not unfriendly they were totally uninterested. “It’s a pretty tight-knit society,” said Brown. “The farms look like they’re far apart, but they’re not really.” Extended family living in the cities or abroad will often come home for the round up, and indeed I noticed a giddiness to their interactions that suggested they were enjoying the company of very old friends.
A live band played covers of American country classics, and everyone danced and hollered. Exhausted from riding, finally clean and dry, all I could think of was bed. At several points I even fell asleep at one of the tables, my head propped on a fist.
When we finally began our journey home, Haukur sang to himself at the wheel while most of his charges dozed. It went like an old Irish sailor tune, but carried with it a prideful Icelandic twist:
What shall we do with a drunken rider?
What shall we do with a drunken rider?
What shall we do with a drunken rider, early in the morning?
Put him on a horse that doesn’t tölt.
Put him on a horse that doesn’t tölt…
Thankfully, our group of tipsy riders, as deliciously spent and satisfied as children after a long day at the beach, were spared this practical joke. But as the van rumbled down the long, lonely highway, the horses never strayed too far from our thoughts.
In the Saddle offers a 5-day riding trip in September and October, from $1,853; inthesaddle.com.