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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

All About Icelandic Horses- riding tours and fun facts

Riding horses is something I rarely do on vacation.  It seems silly to pay all this money to go ride a school-broke lesson horse that usually involves 95% walking on a dirt path with 20 other people who have never ridden a horse before.  BUT, Iceland was going to be an exception to this rule.  Icelandic horses are so unique, and the countries landscape so insanely beautiful, that I couldn't pass the opportunity to tolt (more on that later) around the Icelandic countryside, taking in the views of Iceland from the saddle.  If I go back to Iceland, I would certainly sign up for one of the more advanced overnight tours instead of the 2 hour session open to all groups.  I have so much to tell you about our tour, who we used, how much we paid, and why we went riding but first, it's time for some fun facts.

1.  Five Gaits:  The Icelandic horses have five gaits; walk, trot, canter, tölt (tolt) and skeið (flying pace).  Usually horses have walk, trot, canter, and gallop.  To watch all five gaits, please enjoy this awesome demonstration- make sure your volume is turned up high and thank me later.

2.  Viking Cargo:  The Icelandic Horses were brought by Viking ships to serve as the sole source of transportation.  Selective breeding and natural selection (cold rugged environment that these horses live in) has made the Icelandic Horse what it is today.  Horses are currently used for farm work, showing, racing and recreation. These horses are a huge part of the Icelandic culture and man are there a lot of them.

3.  No imports/exports:  Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported in the country. Since 982 AD, Iceland has banned the importation of horses and any horse that has been exported cannot return again. Locked down disease control is in order to protect this breed.

4.  Purest Breed:  This is the ONLY breed of horse in Iceland.  1000 years of no cross breeding means that the Icelandic Horse is the purest breed in the world. 

Me on my horse- you can see just how TINY they really are

5. Horses, not ponies: Icelandic horses are short, and have many of the characteristics of a pony (and are pony sized) but are technically a horse.  Registries for the Icelandic refer to it as a horse and according to the internet, the Icelandic language doesn't even have the word pony in their language.  Icelandic horses weigh between 730 and 840 lb and stand an average of 13 and 14 hands high. The short of it (pun intended), don't call them ponies. 

6.  Value:  The Icelandic horse used to be buried with his owner. Again, these horses are a huge part of the culture here and they are everywhere from art, folklore, to thousands dotted across the country side.  Side note:  some are also raised for meat and they are in all grocery stores and most dinner menus.

7.  Coats:  Some Icelandic horses can change color by season.  They have a double coat to keep them warm in Icelandic winters.  This breed has also been called the most colorful breed in the world, with over 40 different colors and over 100 variations.

Famous wild Icelandic horse main (very long and thick!)

8.  Age Matters:  Icelandic horses are usually not ridden until the age of 4.  The horse’s structural development is usually complete by the age of 7 and they can be bred up until 25.  The oldest Icelandic was named Tulle and lived up to 56 years in Denmark.

9.  Not Naturally Spooked: probably due to not having any natural predators in Iceland. For this reason they make great trail horses.

10.  Lots of Horses:  Today, there are close to 80,000 horses in Iceland, an incredible number for a nation that counts only 330.000 people.  The Icelandic word for horse is "Hestur".

Some of the horses in the paddock

Due to our busy schedule, we decided to get our riding out of the way during our first day in Iceland, at a farm just outside of Reykjavik with a tour company called Ishestar (here is a link to where we went riding - we booked our tour online before we left on Viator). There are many different tour guides and farms around the island but this one fit in our schedule and seemed like the most riding time for the best price. This also gave the other half of the jet lagged group a chance to sleep while Amanda and I went riding.

A shuttle service (included in the cost if you request in advance) will pick you up from major hotels in Reykjavik and deliver you to the farm. Before we started, everyone piled into the gear room and put on any gear they needed. Here is the thing with Iceland, the weather does NOT influence any activity, you just dress around it. Rain dates? No such thing. If it is raining during your tour you put on a gigantic raincoat, waterproof pants, and tall boots. The riding agency had all of this for you and required everyone to wear a helmet (also included). You were NOT allowed to bring any of your own riding gear unless it was properly washed or dry cleaned. Gloves are highly recommended due to the weather and if you forgot yours, you can sift through the lost and found bin for a pair.

We watched a quick information video that gave you the basics of stop, go, turn, and how to ride an Icelandic horse. You were urged to sit the trot (no posting), not pull on your horses reins but keep a short rein, and avoid any large sudden noises or movements (yes, a girl did the classic dropped her stirrups, flailed her arms, and started screaming at one point when her horse picked up the trot).

Some of the horses in the barn

In our huge helmets and lots of layers

After gearing up, we were matched with horses based on our riding abilities. I was matched with Laura and met her outside in the paddock. Most of the horses are tied to the fence outside with their saddles and bridles on. The first funky thing I noticed is that they DO NOT use saddle pads. The saddle goes directly on the horse and according to the instructor this was more for fit and convenience. The saddles fit better this way and there is much less laundry at the farm. We use saddle pads to protect our saddles more than to protect the horse. Some of the horses did use a type of wither pad. Second funky thing was the bridles. Every bridle had a sort of drop nose band and every set of reins attached by a clip to the bit. When you were done riding, you pulled off your saddle and left your horse alone in the paddock with its bridle and reins on (something VERY different from how us English folk untack and maintain our horses in the US).  Lastly, they ride more dressage style, with their stirrups EVEN LONGER than dressage riders.

Close up of one of the horses

We started off in one big line, riding nose to tail along gravel paths leading out from the farm. About 30 minutes in, we split into two groups “Fast” and “Slow”. The slower group would walk only while the faster group would have a chance to try the famous tolt. The only issue here was that anyone was allowed to join the fast group, no prerequisite included. It was slightly chaotic at some points watching brand new riders trying to control their horses and sit the tolt. It was a little frustrating to have to ride this nose to tail single file formation but I understand for safety reasons this is the only way they could control the group of beginners. Ideally, I would have loved to have a third group split off for experienced riders who could control their horses and possible trot and canter.

Amanda on her horse

After our ride, we met back at the barn, untacked our horses and enjoyed some hot coffee or coffee before getting on the bus to head home. Overall I enjoyed the experience, getting to ride an Icelandic horse in two of its gaits, with amazing views of the Icelandic landscape. Some of the trails were steep and loose and the 2 hours of riding was more than I expected. If I went back to Iceland, I would try to do a more personalized tour and avoid any group tour like this. However, for someone who is not an avid rider, this is a fantastic way to enjoy the views, learn about the horses, and spend some time in the saddle.

Wild manes

View along our ride
Finding some horses towards the end of our trip

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