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The Incredible, Adorable Icelandic Horse

horsesIn a land full of natural wonders – waterfalls, geysirs, glaciers, and volcanoes – it seems somehow right than even the horses are special. Short, stocky, and strong, they’re unique among other breeds for their fifth gait, the tölt. They’re also just about the the cutest and friendliest animals on the planet.

Icelandic horses played a big role in encouraging me to take my first trip to Iceland. I was flipping through a travel magazine and came across an article about Iceland. Halfway through, there was a large photo of the Icelandic horse. The caption read “Stout stock: Icelandic horses (don’t call them ponies) are about 4.5 feet tall and strong. Full-grown, they can carry 250 pounds, or about a third of their weight.”

“I want to go ride a ‘don’t call it a pony!’” I exclaimed to my husband. He ignored my strange outburst, but I was hooked. The more I read about Iceland, and about the Icelandic horse, the more I wanted to go. I grew up riding horses and sorely miss it and I was especially excited to try the Icelandic horse which, unlike most horses (who only walk, trot, canter, and gallop), has a fifth gait called the tölt, which is super-smooth and very fast. The horses were also reputed to be incredibly docile and friendly, a rumor that I soon learned was certainly true.

The Icelandic people are justifiably very proud of these horses. It’s estimated that there are about 80,000 horses in Iceland (compared to about 300,000 people) and there are several stables and riding trails located near, and even in, Reykjavik. The breed is so beloved, and its purity and bloodlines so protected, that no other horses can enter the country and once an Icelandic horse leaves, it can never return.

Where to ride

riding2There are several farms that offer riding within a 20 minute drive from Reykjavik city center, and many include hotel pick-up in the cost of the day’s excursion. Laxnes Farm and Ishestar are two that offer excellent excursions. Both offer riding for all levels – from the experienced to those who’ve never seen a horse up close. All gear, including safety helmets (and, in winter, insulated coveralls) is provided. Large groups are separated by riding level so that more capable riders will have the chance to experience the Icelandic horse’s tölt.

In addition to short (1-2 hour) rides around the farm, many stables also offer longer rides that can last anywhere from a full day to several days and pass through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. Some tours go through the Golden Circle and others can be combined with a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Shorter rides generally cost 10,000 to 15,000 ISK. Week-long rides can be as much as 300,000 ISK (about US$2500 per person).

If you don’t actually want to ride, just drive around the countryside and stop when you see a few horses grazing in a field. Approach the fence with a few carrots and it’s nearly guaranteed that you’ll make some new furry friends. As though they know they are a tourist attraction, Icelandic horses always seem eager to meet and greet with passerby, jostling for attention and enjoying a few pets on their fuzzy faces.

Friendly, docile, sturdy, strong, and with a magical fifth gait, Icelandic horses possess big heart in a small package. . . just don’t call them ponies.

Photos by marie-ll, Anna Fischer