Horse and rider in Iceland

Icelandic Horses in the Land of Fire & Ice

“Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice.” Poet Robert Frost would have loved Iceland. He could view the landscape shaped by both forces, in the present. I doubt Frost had the chance to visit Iceland, but I can picture him riding across the countryside peering into steaming vents and examining great fields of ice with wonder – if he’d had the chance.  

You have that chance.

A weeklong Around Iceland journey circumnavigates the island, one of the youngest land masses on the planet. Sailing roundtrip Reykjavik, the itinerary visits Heimaey Island, Akureyri, Isafjordur, Grundarfjordur and overnights in Seydisfjordur. See fishing villages, narrow fjords, and colorful villages.

It’s in Akureyri, a major fishing port close to the Arctic Circle, where you can ride an Icelandic horse – a distinct breed and a top experience for visitors to the country. The two hour tour includes one hour on a guided horseback ride along the Eyjafjordur River with a view of surrounding mountains. After settling into your saddle, choose to stay with the meandering group at a more relaxed pace or trot off with the experienced riders at a faster pace.

View of back of rider and horse in Iceland
Take a Icelandic horse out for a ride

Viking settlers brought this breed of horse to the island between 860 and 935 CE. It was the most important possession. They used them for transportation, to plow fields and to transport wares.

No other horses are allowed on the island, and if an Icelandic horse leaves the island, it cannot return. It’s a unique breed and Icelanders are especially proud of it. The Icelandic horse is generally 56 inches tall, broad at the withers with muscular legs. It’s considered the purest breed of horse in the world.

Besides being ancestors of Viking horses, what makes the breed unique?

  • Five gaits – Most horses can perform three gaits (walk, trot, canter/gallop), but this breed adds two more. The tölt is a four-beat ambling gait similar to the walk but can be performed at different speeds up to a canter (run). The other additional gait is called skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace.” Not all horses can do it. It’s fast and smooth and used in pacing races. Some horses can reach 30 mph!
  • Comfortable ride – Icelandic horses may be small, but they are sturdy. Don’t call them ponies. Short, strong legs, and especially the tölt gait, are perfect for a comfortable ride across uneven terrain.
  • Easy-going personality – They are known to be sweet, friendly and curious. Maybe it’s the freedom of their early years spent running in pastures. Of course, every coin has a flip side and they can have a stubborn streak. But still sweet.
  • Colors – Wow! These horses come in more than 40 colors with over a hundred pattern variations. They grow a thick winter coat that they shed in the summer. And some have blue eyes.

Horses are still a big part of life in Iceland. Many races are held throughout the country. In the winter, events are held on frozen bodies of water. Regular shows are held which focus on the quality of the breed and farmers in the highlands still use them to round up sheep. But most horses are used for leisure riding like the tour in Akureyri and in competitions.

A white horse and rider approach a river in Iceland
Rider have the option of selecting a faster tour which crosses a river

There are about 800,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland and a human population of 317,000. It’s clear the people of Iceland care for and protect their unique breed.

A horse is the perfect partner for taking you to see the fire and ice of Iceland – remote, off road places you can’t access by a motorized vehicle. And as you ride, settle into your saddle and recite this poem by Robert Frost.

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

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