The annual horse roundup at Víðidalstungurétt in Northwest Iceland took place on 5th October. Quite a few tourists observed the spectacle and rode with the farmers.
The storm is strong enough to blow people over, yet it’s business as usual at Víðidalstungurétt corral in Northwest Iceland. It’s 5th October and farmers have gathered to round up and sort their horses that have been grazing in mountain pastures all summer. Bystanders observe as small groups of horses at a time are released into the circular corral and then placed in the compartment of their respective farms. “It’s 350-400 horses,” says roundup manager Steinbjörn Tryggvason, adding that everything has run smoothly in spite of the weather. “My role is to take care of the horses’ wellbeing, make sure that everyone has the right horses and that everything goes according to plan.” Steinbjörn, who lives in Hvammstangi, has managed roundups in Víðidalstungurétt for 20 years. He also offers horse treks, some in connection with the roundup, along with his wife. The colourful horses run around in circles until the owners have made sure that they belong to them. “Usually the farmers recognise their horses,” states Steinbjörn. When in doubt, they can scan their microchips. “These are mostly youngsters,” says Steinbjörn of the herd. There are also some mares with foals. In the early summer, the horses are driven to the mountains where they are left there to fend for themselves until the autumn. “The farmers are sparing their fields at home. There’s plenty of grass in the mountain pastures,” he adds about the purpose of this tradition, which goes back centuries. “And it’s a lot of fun!”
Roundup manager Steinbjörn Tryggvason.
Gunnar Þorgeirsson, horse and sheep farmer at Efri-Fitjar in Víðidalur, is scanning a blue dun beauty when approached by Horses of Iceland. “I had 12 horses in the mountains; I just wanted to make sure this one was mine.” It is indeed. “The young horses change during this period. They are fat when they are sent up to the pastures in the summer but are much leaner when they return. The get more exercise.” The day prior, Gunnar took part in driving the herd down to the corral in gorgeous autumn weather. “We ride to the mountains to round up the horses and sheep for a few days in September and afterwards bring them down to fields that are closer to home. Yesterday [4th October], we drove them down to the corral,” he explains. That evening the milestone was celebrated with a country dance at a nearby farm. But the main celebration is in the evening of the roundup when people from near and far gather at Víðihlíð community centre for the official roundup dance.
Horse and sheep farmer Gunnar Þorgeirsson.
Horse roundup is a traditional event which provides special insight into Icelandic farming life. Among those who observe the roundup and sorting are foreign tourists from various countries. Many of them also rode with the farmers as they drove the herd down the mountain in the afternoon sun the day prior. Haukur Suska from Hvammur in Vatnsdalur is one of the horse farmers and tour operators who operate Íslandshestar. For the past four days he has taken a group of tourists on treks around the countryside, across rivers, to the waterfall in Kolugljúfur and up the mountain to meet the herd. The tour ends on the day of the roundup with a fast ride across Hóp, a shallow but large lake. “People come here to experience Icelandic culture and roundup tours are perfect for that,” says Haukur. “Most of my guests are foreigners but there are also some Icelanders among them. The Icelanders love the atmosphere but maybe don’t have a connection to the countryside anymore. These are treasured guests. The majority of them return. Many describe it as a powerful experience – a life-changing experience, even.”
Haukur Suska taking a group of horse lovers on an adventure.
John Goldfine from Maine in the USA is currently on his 18th horse trek in Iceland. When asked what it is that makes him come back again and again, he smiles and says: “One word: Horses!” He has gone horseback riding in other regions, too, but this place is especially dear to him. “I know and trust Haukur and Vatnsdalur feels like home to me,” he says. He also favours the Icelandic horse above other breeds. “Other horses that are ridden in large groups are not as responsive. People don’t know how to control them and then they shut down with their ears backwards. I feel like I can get a better connection with Icelandic horses. It’s possible to communicate with them. ‘You would like to trot? Alright. You don’t have to tölt up the hill but maybe until we reach it?’ You can negotiate with them. Find a compromise. I like that.” Haukur too appreciates the qualities of his four-legged friends. “To feel how strong the horse is as it runs in smooth tölt across varied terrain. It’s a fabulous means of travelling. It’s very valuable to have the Icelandic horse and be able to travel freely across the country.”
Text: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos: Louisa Hackl.