“Hey you,” Svala shouts at me, “take this horse,” and hands me the reins of a white Icelandic pony tall enough that its withers meet my chest. I was distracted taking photos of this charming herd that’s been corralled into a pen and distributed, one by one, to a group of tourists from all over the globe. Svala, a full-time employee of the stable, is tasked with the job of getting everyone focused and tacked up.
Others assisting her translate the instructions into various languages depending on whose riding that day. A summer placement at the Is Ishestar Riding Centre outside of Reykjavik, Iceland is a dream job for horsy girls who love to spend their time among the equine. The facility hires from everywhere – the U.S., England, Sweden, German – to reflect the clientele that make their way to the lava fields of this Scandinavia country, once known for its Viking heritage, but recently in the news thanks to an enormous volcanic eruption that shut down flight paths across Europe and spewed ash miles into the skies.
But none of this seems to matter to the playful ponies, likely to roll in the dirt after a trail ride. Little do they know they’ve got historical pedigreed. These horses have been part of this country’s identity since they were brought here by Norwegian settlers in the 9th century. All Icelandic ponies on the island are descendants of this original stock, and once one is exported they can’t come back for fear of viral contamination.
They are a charming sturdy breed, and unlike other horses, Icelandic ponies have a fourth gait, a combination trot/walk that has the stout puppy-like creatures kicking their hooves slightly sideways. They are also the reason I came to Iceland.
I’m introduced to Friah, a white mare who’s as interested in meeting me as an under-achieving high school student is in physics. I, however, fall immediately in love with her. I can lean on her back with my elbow.
“Are you sure she can carry my weight?” I ask. “You have one of the larger ones,” the guide shouts.
I mount easier than I do my friend’s fourteen-hand quarter horse cross back home and feel a little like I’m riding a graceful mule. Other members of the ride aren’t so confident. A woman from Boston panics a bit on the back of her mount and her husband coaxes her down. “She’s afraid of heights,” he says.
“Heights? You’ve got to be kidding,” I think.
The mother and daughter team from Greece do much better, as do the clearly skilled riders from Sweden who don’t speak English.
We head out over the harden lava fields that resemble the surface of the moon dotted with scraggly underbrush, a few trees, many bushes and looming mountains in the distance. This is the land of volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, hardened lava fields and tectonic plate crevices. Eighty percent of the country’s energy is geothermal – heat generated by the activity below the earth’s surface.
There’s no industrial air pollution and, for an hour and a half of my life, I feel transported back in time. There are few power lines, not a car or highway in sight across the barren but beautiful landscape. We cross a small stream, cold on the horse’s legs and some are reluctant to go. But on the other side is a patch of green grass, a treat after a nine-month long winter that sees very little sunlight.
From here we break into two groups – beginner riders who want to remain at a walk and advanced riders who want to step it up a notch. The Boston couple stays with the walking group but I pull Friah out of the line up and follow three others, led by Svala. Mounted without saddle, she’s grinning as wide as the landscape and I realize we’re in for a good run.
Our group heads off for more hilly trails, sometimes walking, sometimes trotting and sometimes full out galloping past dusty boulders and clumps of wildflowers. These animals are surprisingly comfortable at a canter, yet incredibly bouncing during their unique walk-trot gait. Svala occasionally slows the group down, checking over her shoulder to make sure she hasn’t lost anyone.
We get back to barn safely; the experiencing ending too soon. If you paid extra, you can have lunch of chilli and buns back at the stable tack house, office and gift store. Otherwise, you wait for a drive back to your hotel. Pick up and return transportation is included in the price of the trail ride, as it is with so many tour packages around the capital city of Reykjavik.
I drive back with the office manager who tells me about the history of this stable with 72 horses – there are many other operations in the area and most rural Icelandic farms keep ponies as pets. She says they’ve had few complaints from customers and only once took a rider back out for a one-on-one ride with Svala. “Wait a minute, if I had complained, I could have gone out again?” I ask. She laughs.
But I am back two days later for the sunset ride late evening. Keep in mind, however, in the summer Iceland experiences twenty hours of sunlight a day, so an evening ride is very similar to morning, only the light has a strange end-of-day hue. I’m feeling a little less alien in this land so far away from my day-to-day world. Next time I’m here I vow to venture even further from the civilization of downtown Reykjavik and go on a three-day long overnight camping hack, via Iceland Pony.