Horses of Iceland partner Riding Iceland invites Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir and photographer Gunnar Freyr Gunnarsson to join them on a horse riding tour into the heart of the highlands.
Flying manes and tails. The thunder of hooves beating the ground. The herd is on the loose! A flurry of colours – white, black, bay, dun, pinto – disappearing into a cloud of dust. My chestnut mare Vegsemd has no problem keeping up. An extremely powerful creature, she quickens the pace into a fast tölt, so smooth that I hardly move in the saddle. We chase after the horses gone astray, tempted by lush grass on the other side of a mountain stream. We drive them forward and get them back into order.
Jessica Sadick from the US is enjoying the horse herding to the fullest, ecstatic about her third four-legged companion of the day, a slender skewbald mare called Lilja, or Lily, as she calls her. While significantly smaller than the Irish draughts and other breeds Jessica is used to riding, what Lily lacks in size, she makes up for in endurance and strength.
“Go Lily, go Lily!” encourages Jessica as they chase after the runaways. “Hey! hey! … I love yelling at horses!”
Tours in all parts of the country
We’re on a seven-day tour called Grand Canyons run by Riding Iceland. It began on July 31 with a ride along the spectacular Laxárgljúfur canyon and the following days will take us into the central highlands of Iceland, to Kerlingarfjöll mountain range by Hofsjökull glacier. We’re a party of 15 riders from the US, Germany, Sweden and Iceland – all women, apart from the photographer and three tour operators. On such a long tour, it’s important to have horses to spare. Hence the loose horses.
Many of the women have been on riding tours in Iceland before but Jessica is here for the first time. I wonder why she chose Riding Iceland. “A mixture of things,” she says. “The company has received good reviews and the timing of this tour suited my schedule.” Founded in 2010 by Sigurður “Siggi” Björnsson, Riding Iceland is now one of the leading operator of horse riding tours in Iceland, offering multi-day tours in all parts of the country. Siggi’s sons have now taken over the tours in the south, while couples from three farms in other regions run tours from there. It’s very much a family affair and the horses belong to the family, too. We’re introduced to them by name, informed of their qualities and characteristics, and the operators make sure to pair each rider with a suitable horse. By the end of the tour, everyone has a favourite.
Dream landscapes, delicious food
The sun shines brightly. The view of pristine white glaciers Langjökull and Hofsjökull against the endless blue sky is unbeatable. Guide Guðmundur Hólm Kárason confirms that the peaks I see in the distance are Kerlingarfjöll. I ask him about the ancient Kjölur route, which Riding Iceland’s Mystic Trail tour follows. He points out Kjalfell mountain, which looks like an upturned boat, along which the route lies. On our left, at the foot of Langjökull, is an impressive ridge of 20 mountains. “They’re called Jarlhettur,” explains Guðmundur.
At dusk, we arrive at Svínárnes cabin, where we will stay for the night. It’s been a long day and humans and animals are equally relieved. Tour operator Bjarni Hörður Ansnes invites us to help feed the horses. Our four-legged friends appreciate the hay but our stomachs rumble, too. Marianne Wittbom from Sweden speaks for all of us when she asks: “When do we feed the people?” Dinner is almost ready. Tour operator Gunnar Sigurðsson and his wife Taylor Lappage – who drove the trailer with our luggage and supplies to the hut – have fired up the barbeque and are preparing a delicious chicken and vegetable dinner with rice. As we take a seat at the table, Marianne announces: “Today is Marie’s birthday!” Her friend Marie Sjölander pops open a bottle of bubbly and we sing “Happy Birthday” in different languages. It’s only the first day, but it feels like we know each other already.
The tour continued in beautiful weather and all agree that it was a great success. “We had an incredible view of Kerlingarfjöll, all the surrounding mountains and glaciers,” Anke Heyer comments upon her return to Germany. Anke elaborates that not only did they see Langjökull and Hofsjökull up close, but also the mighty Vatnajökull – Europe’s largest glacier – in the distance when they rode across the mountain pass by Kerlingarfjöll. She and her friend Anna Quellman, who was equally delighted about the tour, are already planning their return to the wilderness next year.
So are Marie and Marianne. “Imagine that we didn’t cross a single road in six days!” Marianne writes in an email. “How often do you get the opportunity to experience something like that? That for a few days you can be ‘one’ with nature and animals and see the world the way the Vikings must have seen it once: from the back of a horse, without power poles, roads and cars. People and animals become so close to each other on such tours.” Anke, too, was left with strong impressions. “We never met any other people. It was only our group and the horses. A lovely calm and stunning colours.”