Heidi Koivula feels that fate must have brought her and her beloved mare Skjóna together.
It’s raining in Rauðhólar. A light-footed, chestnut skewbald mare is tölting along a path that winds between red pseudocraters. Her rider is a long-haired elfish maiden in a grey lopapeysa, Icelandic woollen sweater. The bright green moss and rusty red rock turn the surroundings into a fantasy world. The story of how the mare and maiden found each other also sounds like a fairy tale.
Heidi Koivula hails from Finland. She came to Iceland to work at a horse farm in North Iceland in 2011 and has moved back and forth between the two countries since. “I’m now in Iceland for the fourteenth time,” she says in almost perfect Icelandic. In the summer of 2016, Heidi worked as a horse trainer in Víðidalur stable area in Reykjavík. Among her subjects was a chestnut skewbald mare which kept to herself and seemed wary of people. Heidi thought she was beautiful and decided to earn her trust. “I like challenges,” she smiles. Heidi neither knew her name, nor her owner. Her employer didn’t either, so she decided to call her Skjóna (“Skewbald”).
“I was three when I first sat on a horse and I knew that this was something I wanted to do. No one in the family had horses but my great-grandfather was a horseman, so maybe it’s in my blood?” Heidi’s family lived in the countryside two and a half hours away from Helsinki. The neighbouring farm had horses and that’s where Heidi found her passion. After she and her brother tried sitting on horseback for the first time, she wanted to do it again and again. From the age of six, Heidi’s parents paid for her to attend riding class once a week, but she also went riding at her neighbours’. “My mum said I had to earn it, so I helped out milking cows and could go horseback riding in exchange,” she says. Eventually, her dream came true: “When I was ten, they gave me my own horse, a Shetland Pony.” Heidi also had many other animals and later received an Irish pony.
After finishing school, Heidi I wanted to go work at a horse farm in Europe somewhere. Through a friend she learned of a horse farm in North Iceland in need of riders. Heidi didn’t favour the idea to begin with but after some contemplation decided to give it a shot. “After a few days I loved Iceland, the nature – and Icelandic horses.” She was impressed by the versatility of the breed. “There are all kinds of Icelandic horses. Some can be ridden by anyone; others are very willing and only for trained riders, and everything in between,” she says. “I also appreciate watching them living outside, a real horse’s life. Their mentality is good because of it.” She also values the Icelandic community. “My grandmother, who was really important to me, told me that when she was young, life was different. Neighbours helped each other out. The led a quiet country life. No one had to lock the door. Now, I’m leading such a life.” Heidi feels like she belongs in Iceland. “I’m unusual in Finland. They like to make plans. They’re organised. I prefer the ‘we will see’ or ‘þetta reddast’ philosophy,” she says of the Icelandic phrase for “everything will work itself out”. Heidi explains that her mindset is more Icelandic than Finnish. She has good friends here.
Heidi took Skjóna’s training to heart. “I did a lot of groundwork and she started trusting me. I could ride her, but she was very tense.” Slowly but surely, Heidi noticed that she was making progress. “After two weeks, there was a monumental change. She could be fetched outside. Now I felt a connection. She was able to relax and wasn’t afraid of anything as long as I told her that it was fine. She stared lifting her legs a lot and using her body correctly.” Skjóna turned out to be a high-stepping and enjoyable riding horse. Heidi became fond of Skjóna and therefore felt distraught when all of a sudden, she had disappeared from the stable. “One day when I came to the stable, she was gone. I didn’t know where she had been taken. I thought I had lost her.”
Two and a half years passed. A friend of Heidi’s, who runs a riding school in Finland, asked her to help her buy an Icelandic horse and Heidi posted messages on a Facebook page offering horses for sale. “I received 20-30 messages. I was in Finland at the time. I looked at a message which included a video, from a woman called Erla from the farm Hvoll II, who was breeding and training and had horses for sale.” Heidi corresponded with her about a gelding she thought would do well in a riding school and her friend ended up buying it. “I was curious to see what other horses were for sale at Hvoll II and looked at their Facebook page. There I saw an ad for a mare called Hending, a chestnut skewbald mare, which looked exactly like Skjóna. I thought it couldn’t be true, but read the information about her. It said that she had a special character and was therefore not suitable for a riding school. I looked at my photos and videos from 2016 to check whether the colour matched.” Heidi asked Erla for further information about the mare and was eventually able to establish that Hending was her Skjóna!
Heidi had not been planning to buy a horse but now she became determined to acquire Skjóna. “Also, because she is so special, I didn’t want anyone else to buy her, who maybe wouldn’t understand her.” When Heidi told people the incredible story, everyone encouraged her to make the buy – she and Skjóna obviously belonged together. A friend of Heidi’s offered her a stall for Skjóna in his stable in Víðidalur and to come with Heidi to pick her up. “So, I decided to buy her. On 31st December, 2018, I arrived in Iceland, and on 4th January we went to pick up horses for training and to Hvoll II, too, to pick up Skjóna.” The emotions are overwhelming when she describes the reunion. “It was as if she was thinking: ‘Do I know you?’ First, she kept up her guard. Then, she walked slowly towards me. I could see that she knew me somehow. Enough to follow me.”
Since then, Heidi and Skjóna have been together. As they ride back home from Rauðhólar, the sun bursts through the clouds and casts its light on the Finnish maiden and the Icelandic mare, brought together by fate.
Text: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos: Louisa Hackl.