Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My America2Iceland Lesson

We were six riders and 20-some horses. "Do you want to be in front or in back?" asked our riding instructor, Gudmar Petursson. The loose horses would be sandwiched between us for our day's ride of 30 kilometers, from Gudmar's farm, Stadarhus, up to Langavatn, the Long Lake, in the highlands of Iceland's Borgarfjord district. It was the first of four days of horse-trekking, in a tour the company America2Iceland designed around my book Song of the Vikings.

I chose the back. I would see the herd running ahead of me--a splendid sight, a splash of color in the otherwise muted landscape of moss and lava rock, sand and just-greening grass. I could chum with Gudmar, who would be cowboying. And I would have more control over my horse's speed. Or so I thought.

I'd ridden Magnus, my morning horse, twice during the previous two days of riding clinics under Gudmar's direction: once in the indoor arena and once on a two-hour trek. I loved him. Magnus was not a flashy horse. No pretty color, no impressive mane. Gudmar had introduced him to me as "that ugly one over there. The one who needs a brushing."

He's the one at the far left in this picture. He might have been black. He still had reddish patches of winter coat and his dull gray forelock seemed stuck with glue. He came right up to me and let me scratch his forehead, which he'd obviously been rubbing against a fence post. Before tacking up, I spent a long time with the curry comb, removing knots and fuzz; he stretched his neck down and sighed. When I paused he swung his big head toward me, as if to say, more, please.

"I think he likes that," Gudmar said, before pointing out (again) where I could find a saddle.

In the arena, Magnus was very smooth, with a big, ground-covering tolt, the signature running-walk gait of the Icelandic horse. He was heavy on the reins, but I preferred that to the first horse I rode, who was so light in the mouth that a feather touch was too much. (We will not mention the fact that the bit was in upside down and backwards; I wasn't the one who put the bridle together).

So before we headed out on our first all-day trek, Magnus and I waited, patiently, with Gudmar and Ian, while Halli (our trekking guide), Kathy (below), Julia, and the loose horses passed us by. Then we started off from the barn.

And Magnus reassessed the situation. He passed Gudmar and Ian. He began weaving in among the loose horses. I hauled on the reins: nothing. He began cantering--or at least, cantering with the back end. It was not a gait in the books. I yelled at him. No use.

"Just go with it," Gudmar shouted.

So I went with it. Magnus settled back into his long-stepping, ground-covering, smooth-as-a-rocking-chair tolt and in short order we were leading the parade and could slow down to a comfortable speed, just fast enough to stay in front. I relaxed. I would be riding in front all day, I knew, and so it turned out.

I saw amazing scenery (Ian took these two photos before his camera died). We rode along the rushing River Langa, a prime fishing stream apparently, with dozens of marked pools. We passed spectacular rapids and rode up a steep ridge to a rugged farm squeezed in at the base of the cliffs. We crossed the river four, or five, or six times--I lost count.

We left the river-road and headed cross-country, our path a combination of Halli's dead-reckoning and frequent glances at his GPS unit, which he managed to read while riding along at a good clip over boulders the size of bowling balls, through bogs, and along crumbly scree slopes. Halli (below) has four hands, I'm convinced: one for the reins; one for the whip, which he extends sideways to keep the loose horses behind him; one for his GPS; and one for a cigarette.

I rode in front even after lunch, when we changed horses. Which, of course, begs the question. Was it only Magnus who was most comfortable in front? Riding on a horse-trek in Iceland is sometimes like taking a personality test: Do you want to be in front, leading by example, or in back, chivvying the loose horses along and keeping them in line? Being a follower is not an option. Only riderless horses are followers.

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


  1. It is always interesting to see where in a ride the horse is most comfortable, but I can't believe you yelled at him. I never found that to be very effective with a horse, but I have tried it myself. :)

  2. In my experience, the horse you're riding will assume your yells aren't directed towards him/her

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