A couple from California developed an interest in riding horses after buying two Tennessee Walking Horses. They went on to try different breeds, including Peruvian Pasos and Icelandic horses. They found the Íshestar website and went on a tour, which included a horse roundup. They were impressed by the smooth gait of the Icelandic horse and enjoyed being part of a large herd of horses. Here is the story of how they got to know the Icelandic Horse and fell in love this unique breed.
Nearly 25 years ago, my wife Joan and I moved to a 32-acre (13-hectare) ranch in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley of California. She was an expert rider; I a novice. She suggested that we buy two Tennessee Walking Horses because this American gaited breed is smooth to ride: you can stay seated and don’t have to post. We rode our Walkers on trails near our home and I soon learned to collect the horse so as to get the smoothest gait. Many people in our valley have Peruvian Pasos, another gaited breed and one descended from the horses brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Spanish Conquistadors. We decided to try this breed by joining a riding tour in Peru’s Valley of the Incas. We enjoyed riding them so much that when we got home we bought two Peruvian Pasos from ranches near us. Walkers have a 1-2-3-4 even gait, whereas the Peruvian Pasos throw their front feet out and to the side in a kind of paddling motion that produces a rhythm like the phrase Black-and-Decker, Black-and-Decker. This wonderful experience made us curious to ride other gaited horses, which we knew included Icelandics.
We found the Íshestar website and in 2014 signed up for the October horse roundup at Daeli, with Haukur Hauksson as our tour leader. Eggert Palsson provided the horses. We arrived at Eggert’s farm in the early afternoon, where the horses were corralled. We were handed our saddles and the bridle of our designated horse, tacked up, and rode off as a group of maybe 25 riders toward the nearby river.
I had never ridden tölt and only knew it was faster than the gait of either a Tennessee Walker or a Peruvian Paso. I was not a confident rider and quite nervous, but I had no trouble. One my most vivid memories from the many hundreds of miles I have ridden in Iceland by now was when in the middle of the river, I looked back over my shoulder and found the entire rest of the herd, following loose behind us. This was a total surprise as we had not known Icelanders ride with a whole herd of horses, swapping them every few hours. Indeed, to me this is the greatest attraction of riding in Iceland: to be part of a huge herd of horses.
We rode down the river to the fjord and back to Gauksmyri, where we and the horses spent the first night. From there we rode to Daeli for the remainder of our stay. The highlight of the trip came as we stood atop a hill and watched 800 horses race down the road and into the big corral. Later we watched the Icelanders sort them out in a ritual that must date back many hundreds of years and listened to them sing old songs while we sipped our coffee. I learned to ride tölt and found it as smooth as either of other two breeds, but indeed faster. We knew we wanted to ride again in Iceland and asked Haukur, who soon became a close friend, where we should ride next. He responded, “Come with me to Snæfelsnes and ride on the beach.” This we did in the summer of 2014 and each summer since, except for 2020. Usually on the tours at least one person had never ridden an Icelandic horse and in rare cases never ridden at all. On our most recent trip in July 2021, when asked how much she had ridden, Olivia replied, “six hours.” Yet she was soon tölting away with good posture and hand position, looking like an experienced rider. This is one of the things I like about Icelandic horses: almost anyone can ride them, but a serious rider can always find small adjustments in posture and collection so as to get more out of the horse. Plus, one can ride tölt for a while, then switch to trot to give rider and horse a change of pace. Neither the Walkers or the Peruvian Pasos trot, and none has a flying pace. Riding tölt is the only way I know where, even at my age, you can ride for 18-20 miles and feel better when you get off than when you got on.
Iceland came to mean much more to us than a place to ride horses. We read the history of the island and marveled at how the settlers managed to eke out an existence without native mammals, and soon without wood, meanwhile surviving the Black Death, pirates, Danish occupation, and more. I read Egils Saga and tried to comprehend how the Icelanders could have produced such a powerful literature when the discovery of America was still 300 years ahead. We learned more at the wonderful National Museum in Reykjavik and its many wonderful exhibits (I used to be a museum director.) One of the things that has meant the most to us when we ride on Snæfelsnes is that we stay for a week with Siggi and Ólöf on their farm Storri Kálfalækur, about 20 kilometers west of Borgarnes. We have been there seven times, enough to make it seem more like coming home than a vacation in another country. We have watched the grandchildren grow up and new ones born.
When we tell people in the states that we like to ride Icelandic horses, they often say something like, “But aren’t they too small—ponies even”? I respond that when a country has bred horses for 1,000 years, the result must be a horse that is ideally suited to their needs. Our friend Haukur once paid us the no doubt tongue-in-cheek compliment of calling us “California Vikings.” This is what they call a contradiction in terms, I believe. Nevertheless, we were proud of it. As we left our latest tour, Siggi said to me, “Vinur minn,” and knowing what it meant, I repeated it back to him. We hope we have become friends of Iceland, as well. My only regret is that I did not discover Iceland and her horses decades ago.
Dr. James L. Powell