Tolting through the snow: Horseback riding in Reykjavík

Riding an Icelandic horse

This may have been my favorite day in Iceland.

I didn’t know how Luke felt about horses, but I did know how heartbroken I’d feel if I left Iceland without riding one of those fluffy, fluffy creatures. So, I booked a package with Íslenski Hesturinn called Horses and Beers. It comprises a tour of the Reykjavík lava fields followed up by a visit to MicroBar for a flight of local beers. Spoiler alert: good choice.

After waiting in a very wet snow flurry for our pickup, our gruff but nice driver informed us that no one else had booked the afternoon tour like we had. So we ended up with a private tour that I, for one, will never forget.

Boyfriend Perspective: My knees certainly won’t forget it either…

 

The education

I wish I had a decent shot of our guide, Orsi, teaching us about Icelandic horses and how to handle them. He’s incredibly animated! While we sat, thawing, on benches on top of the heater, he switched off between sitting on a huge milk can and a stool, as he gave us a history lesson and showed us how to keep proper tension on our reins and sit so the tolt would be easier on the horses.

Boyfriend Perspective: It’s amazing how much practice you can get when you put a bridle on a milk can.

Icelandic horses, he explained, are unique in many ways.

  • They evolved over centuries of isolation from up to three different breeds of horses imported by Norse explorers when they settled the island.
  • Don’t call them ponies.
  • Unlike breeds, Icelandic horses develop thick winter coats.
  • They have stocky builds and can support surprisingly huge loads.
  • They eat very efficiently – one bale of hay can keep one of these guys fed for over a month.

The most noticeable of their unique traits, though, is their extra gaits. Most horses have 3 solid gaits – walk, trot, gallop. Icelandic horses have 4-5 – nearly all have walk, tolt, trot, and gallop. Some naturally have a fifth gait, called the flying pace. These extra gaits, the tolt and flying pace, are incredibly smooth and comfortable for both rider and horse.

 

First contact and getting settled

Once he felt we were suited up and educated enough to meet our mounts, Orsi escorted us through the barn and out to the corral. There, Logi (sounds like “low-yieh” and means “flame”) and Tigul (sounds like “tee-gool” and means “diamond” like the card suit) were all saddled up and waiting. We mounted up and took a few laps around the pen so we could all get used to each other. Left turn, right turn, whoaaaaaaa. Then, it was time to roll out.

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Because I have a wee bit of riding experience, they paired me with Logi. This silly boy wasn’t very keen to listen, and even the other guide who came with us joked about his bossiness. Should’ve known, with a name that meant “flame”!

Boyfriend Perspective: I don’t know how Meagan had so much difficulty with her horse. I felt like I had a good relationship with Tigul. I honestly let him do what he wanted and maintained control of the brakes with the occasional adjustment to direction. Wonder who was actually the bossy one?

But after everyone got a little startle – we’d walked through a tunnel under a highway and had a loud truck drive overhead – and got to comfort our horses, it seemed like everything evened out, and the ride really began.

 

The ride

Despite being in a country called ICEland, Reykjavik doesn’t usually see a ton of snow accumulation. Thanks to the wind, most of the snow doesn’t settle in one place for long. However, our last few days in Reykjavík, the wind died down and the snow ramped up. Which meant, among other things, that we got to take our horseback riding tour in several inches of delightfully fluffy pow.

Even the horses weren’t sure what to make of clumps of snow falling off of branches, but they soon calmed down and started to enjoy the ride as much as we did.

Boyfiend Perspective: There are not many things more unnerving than a startled horse that hops into a wide stance before you realize what the hell just happened. Not sure what would’ve happened if these guys hadn’t had so much chill.

Then, we hit a straightaway, and Orsi suggested we pick up the tolt. You’ve never felt anything like this gait. Once the horse settles into the tolt, everything smooths out. It feels like you’re floating quickly down the road on a furry, chuffing, horsey-smelling cloud. I totally get what all the fuss is about.

Boyfriend Perspective: I can’t say that I was “floating” when Tigul tolted along. I was more transported back to when my father bounced me on his knee as a child. Ehhh.

We rode out over the lava fields near Reykjavik. All the while, Orsi gave us a history lesson of the area, from its part in World War II to the geological conditions that led to its formation.

All throughout the ride, the weather kept changing. Snow flurries, clear skies, menacing clouds – and every second was fabulous. Just imagine flying across a snowy road, flakes collecting on your clothes, fingers damn near numb – and feeling this amazing creature working and breathing under you. Talk about a once in a lifetime ride.

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After the ride

After an hour or two out in the lava fields, we guided our horses back home, tolting where we could and just enjoying the view and the chatting. On the way back, Orsi told us that the tolt is so renowned for its smoothness that there are actually competitions where riders hold a glass of beer while they tolt. Of course, the rider who spills the least amount of beer wins. And being a very visual teacher, he demonstrated with his crop.

Finally, it was back to the farm and time to dismount. Once the horses got unsaddled, they all did precisely the same thing: they grabbed a nosh, took a sip of water, and immediately shouldered down and started to roll in the snow. They looked like giant, hooved dogs! Then they came back to us, looking for treats and rubs.

After admiring and laughing at the horses for awhile, we went back inside, signed the guestbook, and gathered our belongings. Since it was just the two of us, we piled into Orsi’s car so he could drive us back to town. The drive was pleasant and chatty, and before long, we were in front of MicroBar.

Notes

  • Guests aren’t allowed to record the trip, and you need to hold the reins with both hands, so Orsi took tons of pictures of the trip, and they were emailed to us within a few weeks. Most of the pictures you see here were actually taken by Orsi.
  • If you feel weird about wearing other people’s hats, make sure you wear or bring a bandana or flat ski cap that will fit under your riding helmet – no pompoms.
  • Icelandic horses don’t spook like the horses I’m used to, but they’re still horses. Be respectful, slow, and clear about your actions.
  • I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this excursion. DO IT.

Boyfriend Perspective: My only word of caution: don’t take the beer portion of this package lightly. Plan to share. Flights of 10-5oz Icelandic beers per person ensured a good night of fun, but if we hadn’t shared it with a couple that we met at the bar, it would have put us to bed much sooner.

 

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Also published on Medium.

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