The first Icelandic horse I met was nearly dead.
Well, it certainly looked like it was. I was so concerned for the creature that my convoluted scheme to save the thing was fully fleshed out – with at least two backup plans – by the time I’d completed the 10-minute stumble over pot-hole-ridden grass mounds to inspect it.
I don’t usually like to approach unknown farm animals out of respect, but if some misfortune had befallen this one, perhaps I could let someone know.
My husband and I had paused our roadtrip for a beach stroll near Knarraros Lighthouse, about 20 minutes south of Selfoss, when we spotted the flat horse off to one side of the trail. There were no other people around, no apparent owners.
Though I was barely a metre away, the horse hadn’t shown any signs of movement at my approach, further confirming my grave suspicions about its state of health. All previous experiences with horses had solidified my belief that they are, by nature, easily-startled animals. They are herbivorous prey, after all, with a strong instinct to run at the slightest sign of stranger-danger. They generally don’t just lay around remote fields and nap all day, carefree and nonchalant, like a poolside vacationer after a few piña coladas.
Anxiety rising, I stared intensely at the horizontal lump’s fluffy chestnut coat, bobbing stiffly in the erratic Icelandic wind, trying to decide if the wearer was breathing or not. I turned to my husband, who was doing exactly the same thing.
“The other ones don’t look worried. Would they be freaked out if their friend was dying?” he asked.
As I looked over at the nearby herd of five stumpy horses, I noticed four were standing around calmly, while one was lazing in a half-propped-up position, chewing on grass as if it were watching a mildly interesting TV show from a comfortable chaise lounge.
“That one’s kinda laying down… maybe it’s normal for them?”
I turned back towards the suspected-dead horse to find myself face to face with a mop of chestnut hair and fluffy nostrils flaring gently towards my nose.
“Ahh!” I was far more startled than the herbivorous prey.
The definitely not-dead chestnut proceeded to sniff my hand, perhaps hoping for food. I gave it a cautious pat on its chunky neck, which it accepted graciously. The rest of the herd then proceeded to stroll over and check out what was going on, poking their equally hair-covered eyes into our faces and nuzzling at our hands.
This kind of laid-back, confident and slightly sassy nature persisted in many of the horses we came across in Iceland over the next few weeks. It turns out they lay down more than the average horse for a couple of suspected reasons: one is that their short, thick legs are quite flexible, so it’s easier for them to make the journey down and up again than it is for taller, leggier breeds. The second is they’ve gone at least a thousand years without any natural predators on their island, so they’re just not as worried about being ambushed.
Anna, a German seasonal stablehand who led us on an icy sunrise horseback ride from a farmstead near the northern town of Sauðárkrókur, explained the effort that goes into preserving this uniquely evolved breed of horse.
“No other horses are allowed to be imported into Iceland, to keep the bloodline pure,” she said. “It’s an ancient law. They also don’t need to get vaccines like other horses, since the diseases aren’t here. If Icelandic horses leave, they aren’t allowed back in again.”
There’s still disagreement on exactly where the horses first came from, though it’s generally agreed they sailed over with early Viking settlers from somewhere in Scandinavia. The most interesting thing I’d read about them, and the reason I was so keen to ride one, is they have two additional natural gaits on top of the usual walk, trot, canter and gallop of other horse breeds. The tölt is a super smooth cross between a fast walk and a trot; there is always one or two feet on the ground and zero suspension, making it very flat and comfortable to ride. The skeið, or “flying pace,” has been described as looking a bit like a human running – albeit much faster – with both legs on one side of the horse touching the ground at the same time.
“Almost all of them can easily tölt, but only some of them like to skeið,” Anna told us.
She didn’t recommend people try the skeið on their first ride, and my horse Gravy wasn’t willing to anyway, apparently, but we got to try tölting, which I had expected to be the highlight of the experience.
And it was excellent. Very smooth, very enjoyable – I loved it. But if I had to pick one highlight, that wouldn’t be it.
We traversed very uneven terrain with these horses. Potholes, ice slicks, lava lumps, rocky ledges. Terrain that most other horse rides would steer well clear of for fear of injuring the animals. Not these sturdy beasts. The horses clearly knew what they were doing, without needing much direction. Anna often instructed us to just let them figure out how to cross a thinly iced creek, safely descend a slippery slope or pick their way up a rocky outcrop – they knew a lot better than we did.
When it came time to pause for a drink, our horses calmly began stomping the icy ground with their front hooves, making little holes for themselves through which to suck trapped water – producing some very amusing noises in the process. If one horse made a particularly productive hole, the other would mosey over to share in the spoils.
Purely being around the intelligence and charm of these quirky horses, learning first-hand about their unique history and traits that have allowed them to thrive in such harsh environments, was a surprising highlight of the trip for me.
Despite my ample online research and solid pre-conceived impressions, these horses were just one little example of the unexpected joys I’ve often discovered on the outskirts of expectations. I can anticipate part of what to expect about a place before travelling there, but the exact feelings I end up experiencing are impossible to predict. It makes me ponder the assumptions we unconsciously make about other places, other people and other cultures from afar. We may think ourselves informed, that we know enough about things we haven’t experienced, that theory and stories and media will sufficiently fill us in.
But that sweet element of surprise, no matter how small, is what I find to be the most valuable aspect of travel and real-life experience in general. We just don’t know what highlights and lowlights might be encountered, what special characters we might meet, and what we might learn along the way – until we do: a potent reminder to always keep an open mind just in case more lessons nuzzle their way into our lives.