Sep 7, 2022
Icelandic horses in New Zealand: A South Island backcountry trek
Those of us here in New Zealand who have discovered and fallen in love with the small but mighty Icelandic horse tend to dream in excess about travelling to Iceland to experience a multi-day trek through the beautiful, barren Icelandic landscape on a smooth-tölting horse.
Obviously, in the current global COVID climate, and considering the fact that we couldn’t possibly be located any further away from Iceland (well, maybe Antarctica?), this has been a far-flung dream for many, which is why a group of local Icelandic horse owners decided to find a similar experience closer to home and book a three-day BYO horse trek at the stunning Island Hills Station in the Hurunui high country in New Zealand’s South Island.
Not quite the same unique landscapes as you’d find in Iceland, however, this location offers true New Zealand backcountry station riding, with varied terrain and lots of hill work, and plenty of natural obstacles on the trails. This sounded right up the alley of what our little Icelandic horses would be capable of! Our group consisted of fourteen riders, including four riders under 14, riding eleven Icelandic and three ‘regular’ horses. Most of us, riders or horses, had never done a multi-day horse trek before and were initially a little intimidated by some of the challenges that we came across!
The first one, before we had even arrived, was having to offload the horses from their floats 1.5 km before our destination to lead them over a very narrow suspension bridge, as the water levels at the ford that we would normally have crossed with our vehicles were very high after extremely heavy rainfall over the past few days. That definitely set the mood and left us a little apprehensive but mostly curious and excited about what was still to come! After a good night’s sleep at the Cook House (the 100-year-old shearers’ quarters converted into comfortable accommodation) and a safety brief by station manager Shaun, we set off on our trail ride, 18 kms through lush green paddocks, narrow bush trails and shingly riverbeds, crossing a number of creeks and rivers, opening and closing farm gates and encountering curious herds of cattle.
After some initial hesitation at the first river crossing, a couple of brave little Icelandic horses took the leap and led the whole group through the water; after that first one, river crossings were straightforward and even something quite exciting and fun! The weather was glorious, and we enjoyed many beautiful panoramas, looking out from the hilltops over the paddocks and the rivers crawling through the landscape far below us. After a good six hours, including a lunch break halfway in a lush green paddock, we arrived at Valley Creek hut for our second night.
A lovely bush setting right next to a crystal-clear creek, this hut normally accommodates walkers, with no designated space to leave horses. Luckily, we knew this in advance and came prepared, setting up some make-do paddocks using tape and pigtail standards, which Shaun had delivered to the hut for us, along with the rest of our luggage. A little worried about whether they would stay put in such improvised enclosures, we left the horses to settle for the night with some hay and access to the creek for fresh water, while we humans prepared our dinner and enjoyed a warm shower after a long day in the saddle.
The next morning, much to our relief, none of the horses had discovered the tape was not actually electric and all of them were still there in the same place, all rested up for the 12 km ride back to base. This time the trail took us a different way, taking us over a very steep hill, which had many horse and rider, (but mostly riders!) out of breath! As climbing hills like these is not typically part of our usual riding routines, we dismounted for the climb and took many little breaks on the way up. Icelandic horses being their typical stoic self, they just wanted to get on with the job and didn’t really want to slow down anyway, my little mare literally pulling me up the steep path alongside her to get to the top, as if to say, “Come on, what are you waiting for?!”
After catching our breath and a good break at the top, down we went again, along a shingly path over a rock cliff, under the hot midday sun, and over narrow trails winding through flowering manuka bush and past busy beehives, until we finally reached the lush wide green cattle paddocks again, where we enjoyed a good tölt and, the youngest members of our group on their non-tölting ‘regular’ ponies a good old-fashioned canter.
Back at the Cook House, we turned out our horses and enjoyed a well-earned cold drink before packing up and heading back to our floats which were still parked on the opposite bank of the river 1.5 km down the road. This time there was no hesitation from anyone to cross the water and our young riders had a splashing great time riding all the horses back through the river to the other side so they could be loaded up for our trip home.
Upon reflecting on this trip, we all agreed what a wonderful experience this was, and how our Icelandic horses took everything in their stride and just got on with whatever we asked them to do, no matter how unfamiliar the situation was for them. Being bred and raised in New Zealand, our Icelandic horses have had a much more domesticated upbringing than their counterparts that grow up in the rugged and harsh environment of their native Iceland.
However, it goes to show that, no matter where they are born, the Icelandic horse carries this robustness and typical level-headedness in their DNA, making them hardy, reliable and perfect companions for treks such as this. Add to this their super comfortable extra gaits, their forwardness and positive working attitude, their stamina, their spirited but easy-going, gentle temperament, and last but not least their beautiful long-maned looks, the Icelandic horse is definitely growing in popularity in New Zealand as well as in neighbouring Australia.
Icelandic horses in New Zealand
The Icelandic horse is still a rare breed in New Zealand, with just under two hundred horses in the country, but numbers are slowly rising with the birth of new foals every year and the occasional imported horse from overseas.
The Icelandic Horse Association New Zealand Inc. (IceHNZ) manages the Icelandic Horse Studbook in New Zealand in accordance with international breeding standards, promotes the Icelandic horse breed, and provides education, clinics and events for Icelandic horse owners and fans all over the country.
For more information on the Icelandic Horse in NZ, please visit the IceHNZ web IceHNZ on Facebook.
IceHNZ webor look up
IceHNZ on Facebook.
Text/edits: Sofia Hansrod. Photos: see below
This article has been edited and adjusted by the author for publication on the Horses of Iceland website. It was originally written for and published in New Zealand Horse & Pony Magazine, April 2022.
- Crossing the suspension bridge after heavy rain caused the river to be at too high levels to cross safely / Sofia Hansrod
- Views over the Island Hills station valley / Sofia Hansrod
- The youth riders had a great time and did very well / Leneke Cox
- Lunch break in the lush grass / Sofia Hansrod
- A moment between horse and rider / Sofia Hansrod
- Valley Creek Hut; our accommodation for the second night / Sofia Hansrod
- Lunch break / Jemma Currey
- Nice views from horseback / Sally Sim
- River crossing/ Sofia Hansrod