When Linda Barnard left for her trip, I asked her to keep an eye out for blog-related tidbits. She came back with far more than a tidbit. Welcome Linda.
Disclaimer #1 – I am not a horseperson.
Disclaimer #2 – I am not a blogger.
However, my friend is both.
When I arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, on a cruise ship, I was offered a number of sightseeing opportunities. Day One was spent exploring volcanoes, waterfalls, and geysers. Day Two offered museums, culture, bathing in the Blue Lagoon, and … wait for it … riding Icelandic Horses. To honor my new friend, I chose the latter. Out of 1100 passengers, only 9 of us opted for this adventure; the others are wimps.
In support of Disclaimer #1, my last horseback riding experience ended in near calamity but that story will have to wait for a future blog, assuming I am invited back (Yes! RS). Whatever trepidation I may have been feeling mostly vanished when I met my mount, Tango, a 21-year-old Icelandic and all-round marvelous creature.
I am always perplexed by whatever thought process trail guides use to pair horses with riders. A fellow traveler of similar height, weight, and sex initially approached Tango but the guide told her “No” and pointed at me. As it turns out, Tango was perfect since we were both sporting black and tan and for all I know that was the selection criteria.
While I confess to limited riding experience, it has all been on Western saddles so the English saddle typical to Icelandics was the first challenge. The assurance that the horse could be mounted from left or right didn’t help since mounting from the left is ingrained. The second challenge was the absence of a horn. The guide told me to grab a handful of mane since the horse wouldn’t mind but I minded and settled for an awkward grasp around the saddle collar*. Challenge three, with left foot poised in stirrup, was the sudden realization that lifting my aging body up and swinging my leg over was more difficult than I remembered. My guide noticed that Tango was standing slightly uphill from me and suggested that I mount from the right side which wasn’t going to happen. (See Challenge #1). Instead, I had Tango execute a U-turn and was safely in the saddle.
Then it was just a matter of waiting until the remainder of the riders got situated. Waiting is not good because it gives you too much time to think: Why am I doing this?! And Tango was thinking: Where do they find these people?! Impatient to get going, Tango took off on his own, heading toward the corral where all his friends not going on the ride were congregating. I gently pulled on the right rein foolishly thinking he might do what I wanted but that didn’t work. I decided that Tango had way more experience at this than I, so I gave him the reins for the rest of the day and sure enough, he found his place in line and off we went.
Icelandics are a sure-footed breed, capable of walking on uneven terrain from rocky outcroppings to sheets of ice. Today’s trail was a relatively flat, unremarkable dirt path except for the fact that it wound through a 6000-year-old lava field. The landscape stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with beautiful wildflowers: blue lupines, yellow butter cups, purple for-get-me nots, white poppies, and dozens of floral treasures only an Icelandic botanist could identify. There were low shrubs and miniature evergreens but no trees. When the Vikings settled here, they pretty much devasted the tree population and reforestation has been a longtime coming. The lava fields serve as a uniquely charming carpet leading to towering volcanoes and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The sun was shining, the temperature mild, a gentle breeze: a perfect day.
Icelandic horses have five gaits: Walk, Trot, Gallop, Tolt, and Flying Pace. Tango and I mostly walked, although the guide thought it might be fun to trot some, which we did in a few short bursts. Halfway through the ride, the guide told us we could grasp onto the saddle collar if we felt nervous. This was redundant to me since I hadn’t let go since leaving the corral. When we came to a fork in the trail, the guide gave us the option of going left if we wanted to finish at a faster pace or right if we wanted to continue walking. Since Tango still had the reins, my fate was entirely up to him. Brilliant animal that he is, Tango turned right and meandered home.
Dismounting proved difficult as well. Instead of leaving the left foot in the stirrup and swinging the right leg over, you remove both feet from stirrups and awkwardly slide to the ground. Once off the horse, we were instructed to tie them to a rail, remove the saddles, secure them, and step away. As soon as the guides removed the bridles, an incredible ritual unfolded as every horse fell to the ground and rolled back and forth in the dirt for several minutes. It was an amazing sight to see and so ended a Great Adventure.
*”Saddle collar” was the term used by the guide to designate the slightly raised contour at the pommel area on the front of the saddle.
(I have now added tolting in Iceland to my bucket list. RS)