I was unsure during this trip if I was going to be able to ride an Icelandic horse, the sturdy, fluffy-maned little powerhouses that make this island their own. Our six days in Iceland were filling up quickly and our departure was close at hand, but the flexibility of my husband and daughter, combined with our speedy visit to the island of Viđey on Wednesday, allowed me to squeeze in a ride. Good thing too, or I would have missed out on this truly amazing little animal. A purely Icelandic breed, the bloodlines of the horse (they get offended if you call them “ponies” even though they rarely stand over 14 hands) are carefully guarded. No other breeds of horse are allowed into the country, and once an Icelandic horse goes overseas, he is not allowed to return. This vigilant monitoring of genetics has allowed the Icelandic horse to retain some truly remarkable characteristics. Besides their super cute fluffy manes, they generally have a long disease-free life and amazing surefootedness. I was told the stable horses are rarely ill beyond a cold or the very rare internal parasite. As a horse person, I can imagine the bliss of never having to deal with the multitude of respiratory, digestive, foot and leg ailments that plague American horses. This is the reason that no other breeds are allowed into the country, as any kind of new epidemic would surely have devastating effects.
A second thing I noticed was Icelandic horses consistently lying down in their fields and paddocks. Normally, when I see a horse lying down, I immediately run over to him in a panic, paranoid he has colic or a broken leg. Once I’ve nudged him enough to get him up (because he’s ok if he can get up), he rewards me with a big horse eyeroll and farty groan. The long, thin legs and large body of most American breeds generally means it takes more energy for a horse to lie down and stand up than it does to simply sleep standing up (there go those big ol’ lazy Americans again). Icelandic horses can lie down a lot for two reasons. One, their thick, short legs and general flexibility allows for ease of motion that larger, leggier horses find just too tough. Imagine a gymnast vs. a supermodel in some kind of physical obstacle course. Second, Icelandic horses have survived for thousands of years in the wild with no predators, their only foe being the harsh, dark Icelandic winters. Their little herds on the lava plains generally assign a few horses to stand lookout, while the rest all take a snooze. I wondered, with no predators, what are they looking out for? Advancing glaciers? Drunken Russian backpackers? The exact opposite of a zebra, which is impossible to train and ride due to thousands of years running from all kinds of predators on the African savannas, Icelandic horses are easygoing, intelligent, and difficult to spook, which makes them easy to train and very fun to ride.
Once I was sure the Icelandic horse possessed all the characteristics I find pleasing in a mount – fun personality, good spirit, health, and the obligatory über-fluffy mane – it was time to experience what I had been looking forward to the most, a gait unique to the Icelandic horse, the tölt (rhymes with “cult”). Like other five-gaited breeds, the Icelandic horse has the typical walk, trot, and canter, a pace for speed and then a fifth gait that is generally smooth and rolling. Some horses do the tölt better than others, and they often need the correct signals to break into it. The tölt is similar to the rack of the American Saddlebred or running walk of the Tennessee Walking horse, both of which I’ve experienced lots in my life and truly adore. Anyone who has bounced uncomfortably atop a typical trotting horse for any length of time might agree that another option would be welcome, to say the least. If I were male, I think I might refuse to ride a horse that wasn’t five gaited, or at least learn to post like a proper Englishman, even if it meant being decked out in jodhpurs and a dandy red coat, spouting things like “I say, Nigel! The hounds are chasing the fox across the moors? Talley ho then, old chaps!”