When you go to Iceland, one of the first things you’ll hear, right after how expensive it is, is how you really must go Icelandic horse riding.
I was a bit surprised at this – I hadn’t been horse riding since I was a little girl, and it seemed a bit of a random activity to tack onto a weekend away. I couldn’t really see what the big deal would be.
It turns out: Icelandic horses are unique. The only breed in Icelandic, they are descended from horses brought by Scandinavian settlers in the 9th and 10th Centuries, and have a powerful place in Icelandic culture, history, literature and mythology – even today, they dominate the Icelandic landscape. It’s their unique traits that make visitors to Iceland and natives alike love them. Here are just five reasons you’ll find yourself a fan girl:
1. They are adorable
Although Icelandic horses are not ponies (and don’t ever call them such in front of an Icelandic person!)… they kinda look like they are. They are, to put it simply, super sweet. Characterised by a heavy coat, full mane, short legs and small, sturdy build, to the untrained eye they’re basically slightly oversized Shetland Ponies. And they’re everywhere! Drive outside of Reykjavik and the fields are full of them. So cute!
2. They have lovely temperaments
While some use the (fairly convincing) argument that Icelandic horses are called ‘horses’ rather than ‘ponies’ because there’s no Icelandic word for ‘pony’, others argue that it is their large personalities and spirited temperaments that make them horses. Either way, there’s no denying they’re playful little things that seem to just want to make friends. They’re popular both in Iceland and out for being difficult to spook, docile and easy to handle – which makes them ideal for first-time, inexperienced or nervous riders.
3. They are surprisingly comfortable to ride
Every horse in the world has at least three gaits: walk, trot and canter/gallop. The Icelandic horse, however, has five. The two extra ones are skeið, flugskeið or ‘flying pace’ (a fast, smooth pace that can only be performed at high speed by experienced riders, and which not all Icelandic horses can do) and the more famous tölt. The tölt is an ambling sort of walking that allows the rider to cover long distances comfortably, and is something even the newbie rider can experience.
4. They are in tiptop health
Icelandic horses follow the ‘live long and prosper’ philosophy, being long-living and hardy little things who’ve been bred over centuries to withstand the country’s harsh climate and cold. There are very few native disease that affect the horses in Iceland, meaning that Icelandic horses are not vaccinated and have no immunity – for this reason, no horses are allowed to be imported into the country, lest they bring disease with them, while any horses that are exported out are barred from returning. You’re also instructed not to touch the Icelandic horses while wearing anything that’s been in contact with foreign breeds – so leave your riding gloves and jodhpurs at home.
5. There is no better way to see the Icelandic landscape
The Icelandic landscape gives ‘out of this world’ a whole new meaning – on the Icelandic horse riding tour I signed up for (and would highly recommend, by the way), we explored the Rauðhólar (Red Hill) cluster of pseudocraters and were casually informed that these ‘rootless cone’ structures can be found only in Iceland – and Mars. What better way to experience volcanic craters and lava fields than on horseback? It’s like nothing else.
Have you ridden Icelandic Horses? Do you think they live up to the hype? Let us know in the comments below.