Monday, July 9, 2018

Iceland 5 - NOT PONIES!

Today I realised an ambition. Two, actually – to ride an Icelandic horse, and to experience the tölt. I waited under a grey sky in a chilly wind by the big church for my lift to Íshestar (chosen purely because I once had a photo book about Icelandic horses titled ‘Hestar’ which, just the fifty years later, I have learnt means horse) on the outskirts of Reykjavík. It’s a big operation – they have about 180 horses, 2/3 of which are at the stables at one time – and very efficient.

It’s also very well equipped: there was a whole room of complimentary gumboots, waterproof jackets, spine protectors and full-body padded suits, which seemed entirely over the top. So I spurned all that in favour of my own overtrousers and jacket – only to be told by the guy behind the counter that I would regret it and should wear the suit. “The weather’s not going to get better,” he warned me. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.” So I did as I was told and, dear reader, he was entirely right and I thanked him sincerely afterwards.
There were lovely hairy, chubby horses outside milling about in a couple of yards, and also some in looseboxes inside next to the tackroom. They had a bucket of used shoes in there, free for the taking, which I did, mainly for the novelty of their being studded. A nice American lady, novice rider, was interested to see them but recoiled at the nails still in some of them. “Doesn’t that hurt the horse’s feet?” she asked. Good grief.

We were shown a disclaimer notice and a video - which was very stern about these animals being horses, not ponies, despite their size. They have been such valued partners throughout Iceland's history that to call them ponies is genuinely considered an insult. Then we were taken into the stables to be assigned our mounts according to a blithely trusting self-description of our riding ability. My horse was a pretty dun mare called something unpronounceable meaning ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – but I was warned the name is misleading and she could be a bit bouncy at sudden noises like zips being undone. She was only about 13.2hh (= hands high: that's about 134cm height to the withers, for you unhorsy types) (withers = base of the neck) though it was still a struggle to mount, embarrassingly, because of my gammy knee from yesterday’s glacier falls – but we managed.
In short order, all twelve of us were up and on our way with the two guides, one local, the other American. She was kind of irritating: she kept talking about “having a speed-up”, later told us to “tighten your saddles” (she meant girths) and thought cantering and galloping were the same thing. Pft. I’m used to people working with horses being obsessives like me who have read endlessly about every aspect of horsemanship.

Anyway, the first hour of the three-hour ride was a bit of a let-down, as it was so suburban: out past houses and gardens, and various cranes on building sites. The track was purpose-built, which was good, and there was open country on our right, but I began to despair of getting the sort of ride I had envisaged. Finally, though, we crossed the road and went into what I assume was a national park of some sort. There were mossy lava rocks, sheets of purple lupins, even some trees like spruce and birch, a big sky, and distant mountains. It was much better. There were big black ravens on the rocks, but no other sign of life other than us and our horses.
Mostly we walked, and every so often did a collective “speed-up” which was, finally, the tölt: this is a pace that only the Icelandic horses can do, a bit faster than a trot, smooth and efficient for covering long distances. Or at least, it’s meant to be smooth. Even concentrating hard on relaxing into the saddle and being loose at the hips, it was still a bit jarring and I was deeply thankful I didn’t have a full bladder. I did wish I’d worn a sports bra. But it wasn’t uncomfortable and I could appreciate what a useful pace it could be. So, tick.
We also occasionally had what the American insisted on calling a gallop, though it wasn’t, which was fun although too short each time. We rode in single file and I was impressed at how amenable the horses were – no ears back, biting or tail swishing. Anywhere else, we’d have been instructed about keeping distances for fear of kicks. Icelandic horses are much more laid-back – apparently because they have always lived in a land without predators, so they're not nervy at all.

There was a break halfway, and then we mounted again for the ride home, which came far too soon. It was so lovely to be out in that wide-open landscape, on pretty little horses, just enjoying ourselves. The three hours had sped by.
Back in Reykjavík, I had a last wander around, seeing two more cats with neck ruffs – must be the fashion here for felines – and enjoying again the colourful architecture, clean streets, and feeling perfectly safe. For form’s sake I visited “the world’s best hotdog stand!” according to Pàll, which did have an eager queue for their lamb-meat dogs with mustard, mayo and raw and fried onions. Not my scene: I went back up the hill to the church (which I went into earlier – it’s as sparely decorated inside as it is out, with a huge modern organ). Across the road from there is Café Loki, which felt authentic (there were some locals inside it, at least) and served a very fast and tasty lamb broth with oddly sweet rye bread, with my last Einstök White Ale probably forever. Good day.

2 comments:

the queen said...

I would apologize for America, but I know I would do every one of those things (except for thinking horse hooves would feel pain).

Pamela Wade said...

It's more about my pedantry than her (presumed) ignorance. Though I am still kind of surprised that she didn't seem to know, or bother with, the terminology I took such pride in learning as a horse-mad kid.

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