Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An Icelandic Horse Named “Doubt”

To write The Far Traveler, I volunteered on an archaeological dig in Skagafjörður in northern Iceland. The site was very close to the farm of Syðra-Skörðugil, where in 1997 I bought my first Icelandic horse, Gæska (“Kindness”), one of the stars of my book A Good Horse Has No Color. I’d remained friends with Elvar and Fjóla, Gæska’s breeders, and so one evening, after eight hours on my knees with a trowel, I accepted their invitation for a horseback ride.

Our task was to herd a hundred horses up to their summer pastures, where the sheep had been taken two weeks before. Eighteen people gathered at the farm of Syðra-Skörðugil, most of them, like me, just along for the ride. Fjóla had two horses ready for me. The white one, she said, was “a really fine mountain horse.” His name was Vafi, or “Doubt.” The bay was her eight-year-old daughter’s favorite horse. She suggested I start out riding little Ásdís’s horse and leading the white, then switch when we came to the hills.

Riding With the Herd
To gather up the herd and funnel it through the fences, we rode over fields frost-heaved into knee-high grassy hummocks, up steep moss-covered slopes, through thickets of birch and blueberries, over rushing creeks with stony beds. Our pace seemed terrifically fast on such grueling terrain, but no one else seemed to notice.

Our leader, Eyþór, Elvar’s younger brother, rode point to keep the loose horses from going the wrong way. He sat with his legs stretched long, his back straight but soft, as if out for a pleasant amble. His rust-colored jacket and riding cap complemented both his reddish-blond hair and his two bright bay horses, a high-stepping, athletic pair, relaxed on a loose rein, alert to his every thought.

I rode with the herd, horses of all colors around me: some young and gangly, still growing into their legs, others sleek and fit, a few with ugly heads and big Roman noses, others with pretty little dished faces. All were the short, stocky Icelandic breed, the only horse in Iceland since the Viking Age. I could not fix on any one for long, they blurred and flowed and mixed together. Their hooves kicked up dust as they strung out in a line. Their long manes and tails rippled in the wind.

Loose Horse!
We changed horses once we entered the mountains, and I was just settling down to enjoy the white horse’s smooth, rolling gait, full of energy—when my mount fell into a mudhole beside a little brook. As he leaped and struggled to get out of the bog (with me hanging on for dear life), my handhorse, little Asdis’s horse, decided to jump the brook. He broke free of my grip, eluded the rider ahead of me, and tore off with the loose herd, his reins dangling. Of course we were beyond the last fence. Ahead stretched only acres of grassland.

At the point where we should have had a rest and returned home, leaving the loose horses to wander further if they wished, Eyþór picked out three people to help me catch little Asdis’s horse. We took off like cowboys, and I realized our earlier pace had not, in fact, been fast.

We jumped across, into, and out of the stream, leaping up steep banks and sliding down off them. We flew across the frost-heaved hummocks at a hand gallop. We followed a narrow sheep track along the side of a hill of scree tumbling toward a cliff at the angle of repose—at a fast trot. We got off to lead the horses through a bog, the red-tinted water glistening between the grass tufts, and though I tried to step on the firmest tussocks I sank well above my ankle boots. We scrambled up one very steep hill to where a group of ten or so horses had stopped to graze, but little Asdis’s horse, unfortunately, was not with them.

We needed to ride faster, Eyþór decided, to get in front of the herd. He could see that the white horse (and I) had had enough by then. The fifth rider had taken a tumble, and his horse had scraped its nose on a rock—a flap of bloody skin was hanging loose, looking awful. Eyþór sent us back, and he and his posse continued on.

Midnight Sunset
It was an hour before we reached our friends, sitting on the grass by the bend of the river, drinking cognac from hipflasks and trying to ignore the biting flies. As we headed home, the midnight sunset painted the tops of the hills blush pink, turning to blood orange, then crimson, like the colors of the peat-ash dumped on the Viking Age house I’d spent the day helping to uncover. A full, pale rainbow arced over the sunlit mountains behind us.

At the first fence we could see all the way down the valley to the fjord, the island of Drangey like a blue block floating between an orange sea and a pink sky, the green fields gone gray in the dusk. One of the riders pulled a cellphone from his pocket and called Eyþór —his posse was just behind us, having snagged little Asdis’s horse easily once they circled ahead of the herd. Except for the cellphone, I could imagine Gudrid the Far-Traveler, the adventurous Viking woman I was writing about, taking part in just this sort of excursion one long summer night a thousand years ago.

A Good Horse
When we reached the barn at about 2 a.m., Elvar was there, waiting to take care of the horse with the injured nose. “I guess we know the name of your next book.” He grinned: “A Good Horse Lost in the Mountains.

The next morning John Steinberg, the leader of the archaeological project, kindly gave me a zombie’s job, helping to re-survey the excavation on the farm of Glaumbær, to the centimeter, in five-meter squares. I was to stand still and hold steady the stadia rod, a six-foot pole with a mirror at the top, the target for the Total Station, a glorified surveyor’s transit that measured the distance with laser-beam accuracy and keyed our grid to GPS coordinates.

At noon, Sirri Sigurðardóttir, the curator of the museum on the grounds of Glaumbær, invited us all to celebrate her birthday with a lunch of chowder, rye bread, and cheesecake.

“Did you enjoy your ride last night?” she asked, with a teasing inflection. Apparently the story that I had almost lost “little Ásdís’s favorite horse” was all over Skagafjörður already.

Photos and Links:
On the Syðra-Skörðugil website ( you can read all about the amazing horsewoman little Ásdís has grown up to be (if you read Icelandic, that is). All of the photos in this post come from that website.

To learn about Icelandic horses in general, go to The Icelandic Horse Congress at or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson's video blog,

The Archaeological Settlement Survey project led by John Steinberg at the University of Massachusetts-Boston has its own blog ( where you can learn about what they’ve been up to since I volunteered in 2006.

For updates on Glaumbær, the last home of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, see the website of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum (

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in the medieval world.


  1. I just finished an e book reading A Good Horse Has No Color.

    I'm not a huge reader but became interested in this one after seeing reference to it in a blog written by Jeff Sypeck, our nephew.

    I'm not a horse person but found the above intro really interesting. I read in spurts and found that I got lost using that reading method.

    Loved the book!

  2. Hi – Will you please post a link to your Blog at The Icelandic Horse Community? Our members will love it.
    Members include: Owners, Breeders, Trainers, Experts and Lovers
    It's easy just cut and paste the link and it automatically links back to your website… it’s a win win. You can also add Photos, Videos and Classifieds if you like. It’s free and easy.
    Email me if you need any help or would like me to do it for you.
    The Icelandic Horse Community:
    James Kaufman, Editor