“I’m so deliriously happy! I’m going to write to my mum and thank her for giving me riding lessons when I was a child!” Deborah Milner from England is all smiles as I catch up with her, having just crossed Hóp, Iceland’s fifth largest lake, on horseback. “I didn’t know we would be cantering!” she adds, still in a state of euphoria. Deborah is travelling with her husband Simon, who originally came here for salmon fishing. “I went on shorter horse excursions and loved them, so now I wanted to try a longer trek,” he explains – and he invited Deborah along for the ride. In his pastime, Simon practices jumping, but Deborah doesn’t ride regularly. Tiina Puhakainen from Finland has experience with Icelandic horses. She approaches us in fast tölt – a soft gait which is one of the specialities of this compact and powerful breed. When I ask if she’s having fun she laughs wildly and rushes past us, tölting away on the smooth black-sand beach. Ágúst Þorbjörnsson, one of the Icelanders in the group, is tölting, too. “I love this horse: Blær. I rode him last year. He’s such a fast tölter that he easily keeps up with the others that are cantering.”
Haukur Suska, the tour leader, is galloping in front of his protégés. In the fast-paced final ride of Íslandshestar’s “Horse Round Up in Víðidalstungurétt” he’s taking us to the old stone church in Þingeyrar. During the Icelandic Commonwealth there was a parliament at Þingeyrar and in 1133 the country’s first monastery was built here. It’s also one of the sites of the last execution in Iceland (made famous in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites). A herd of loose horses follows us. Some try to break free from the group but Haukur’s band of horse herders quickly put them back in place. People have come from far and wide to join his trek, including the USA, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. “It’s a very diverse group,” Haukur says of his guests. “They are of all walks of life and of different ages but what they have in common is their love for nature and animals.” Some are new to Icelandic horses and riding in Iceland, while others have been here many times before. John Goldfine from Maine holds the record; he’s currently on his 18th horse trek in Iceland!
We began our tour at Hvammur 2 in Vatnsdalur in Northwest Iceland, approximately midway between Reykjavík and Akureyri. This is where Haukur lives, breeds and trains his horses, where he accommodates his guests and from where he runs his tours. Haukur is one of the Icelandic horse farmers who operate travel company Íslandshestar. They offer treks of various levels in different regions of the country and provide insight into Icelandic horse culture and country life. This four-day tour on 2nd to 6th October with up to 40 km on horseback a day, coincides with the Víðidalstungurétt horse roundup. Haukur has led us through the peaceful countryside past bleating sheep, honking geese and whooping swans, across many rivers, to the stunning waterfall in Kolugljúfur and up Víðidalstunguheiði, where, several hundred meters above sea level, we observed local farmers round up their horses from summer pastures. We followed them down the hill and to a farm where coffee, hot chocolate and cakes were served. An elderly gentleman brought out his accordion and the entire assembly burst out singing; young and old reciting the same songs that have been sung at gatherings in the Icelandic countryside for generations. Afterwards, in gorgeous weather, we rode ahead to the Víðidalstungurétt corral. The afternoon sun cast a soft glow on the autumn-coloured landscape, providing a magnificent backdrop to the spectacle of hundreds of loose horses running down the hill to where the main roundup event would take place the following day.
One the day of the roundup we wake up to weather so stormy that people can literally be blown over. Yet the roundup at Víðidalstungurétt takes place as scheduled. We witness how the horses are released into the circular corral in small groups and then sorted according to which farm they belong. It’s mostly young horses and mares with foals that spend the summer in the mountains fending for themselves and both farmers and horses seem happy about the reunion. The wind is no less relentless when the sorting is finished and we begin to worry whether the grand finale – the ride across Hóp – must be cancelled. Fingers crossed, we drive to where our horses are waiting and Haukur and his crew assess the situation. Eventually they determine that the weather is about to calm and we confidently mount our steeds. As we approach Hóp I suddenly notice that the lake is placid! It seems that by magic we’ve entered a parallel dream world where nothing exists but we, the horses and this vast lake, as big as the ocean. I take in the stunning surroundings and a deep breath of fresh air as I follow Haukur into the shallows. Soon enough, my four-legged companion breaks into a gallop. We run even faster, water splashes in my face and I feel as euphoric as everyone else around me. If this is dreaming, please don’t wake me!
Text: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos: Louisa Hackl.