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When my mother was a young girl, she had a traumatic riding incident that left her being dragged on her back through a stream by an out of control horse in Missouri. Just as she was about to be dragged over some ragged rocks jutting out of the water, she was able to disentangle from the stirrup and free herself. She’s been terrified of horses ever since.

So naturally, when she generously took my sister and me on a luxurious trip to Iceland, there was one activity I insisted we all do: go horseback riding! I’m pretty sure I wrote myself straight out of the will with this one.

Despite having little experience with it, I’ve always had a little fascination with horseback riding. First of all, I adore animals and take any excuse to get all up in their business. Secondly, I’m really into doing activities when I travel as opposed to just seeing sights or — what’s that thing normal people do? — relaxing.

Plus, Iceland horses (Equus scandinavicus, if we want to get fancy) are kind of amazing. They are direct descendents of the horses brought over by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th century, and have remained a pure stock since. They have a funny little look going on: averaging 4.3 feet tall with sturdy builds and scruffy manes, these horses are often mistaken for ponies! Those attributes equal an animal strongly equipped to survive Iceland’s oft harsh climate.

However, these horses have a dramatic history. In the 1780’s they were nearly wiped out by a volcanic explosion that killed more than 80% of Iceland’s livestock. Later, European horses were introduced to the mix and a lack of immunity killed off nearly 50% of the Icelandic horse population. Due to that little immunity issue, no new horses can ever enter Iceland. Even leather riding gear from abroad can’t make it past immigration, while non-Leather gear has to go through a crazy sanitation process. Now cue the tiny violins — any Icelandic horse that leaves the country for any reason, say a competition, can never return! Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing here but I just found that so poignant. Banned from your own country for daring to leave it. I’m sure many travelers can empathize.

I couldn’t wait to meet these fascinating creatures up close. We signed up for Eldhestar Stables’ , a 1.5-2 hour ride through meadows and lava fields. After being picked up at our hotel in Reykjavik, we were brought to a stable about 40 minutes Southeast of the capital. It was here that we donned helmets and gloves and were introduced to our partners for the day.

My mom requested a mild-mannered horse, as did Olivia, who was still feeling the after-effects of Reykjavik’s wild nightlife. Hangover sufferers beware: Advil is sold only in pharmacies in Iceland, and pharmacies are closed on Sundays. Pack accordingly.

It was during our pre-ride briefing that I heard three of my most hated words in the English language: no cameras allowed. As soon as the warning was spoken I saw my mom shooting me a look that said “Please don’t get us kicked off of this tour because that would be humiliating.” Little did she realize I am a champion stealth photo taker. So I politely put my huge into a locker and slipped my tiny into my vest pocket.

I admit that I was a bit disheartened as the ride started. We were plodding along mane-to-tail line style along a massive powerline. It wasn’t exactly the idyllic galloping through poppy strewn fields that I had envisioned.

Luckily, things started picking up pretty quickly. When our guide announced we would be fording a stream I glanced at my mom for signs of an impending panic attack. So far she was remaining cool and collected but I’m pretty sure she was one errant gallop away from a full on PTSD meltdown.

Thankfully, we made it across the water unscathed. However, I was so busy fussing over/teasing my mom that I didn’t realize that I too might be a little nervous! I shriek-laughed — a telltale sign of nervous energy for me — the entire time my horse gingerly stepped across the stream.

Mid-ride we stopped for a “photo op.” Whoops, looks like I already snapped thirty or so. I understand that they have the rule for a reason — apparently its dangerous to take photos from atop the horse. However I’m not sure if all stables share this same policy. If photography is an important part of the experience for you be sure to ask ahead when booking.

The photo on the right cracks me up. Just two shorties hanging out.

At several points we were able to try out the unique gait of the Icelandic horse — the tölt. While most horse breeds worldwide have three gaits — walk, trot, and gallop — these special snowflake horses have five. The tölt was super bouncy and incited another round of shriek-laughing.

The scenery we passed was stunning — from tiny picturesque farms to fields of crumbling lava. But my favorite part was passing through the open pastures of the off-duty horses from Eldhestar. The stable is home to more than 350 horses in the summer and they rotate evenly so no one horse is overworked giving tours.

It was amazing riding alongside these happy horses as they called out to one another, rolled in the grass, and just roamed freely. A few times I even saw horses galloping through the fields! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse running free like that. It made my heart so happy to see these animals living such a good life.

In fact, that’s one word I would use to describe the majority of the animals we spotted in Iceland: happy. With tons of space and a general sense or respect and love from their caretakers, the horses, sheep, and cows we spotted throughout the week seemed like some of the happiest animals I’ve seen in the world.

Horseback riding is an incredibly popular activity in Iceland and there are a number of stables just within an hour of Reykjavik that are happy to pick you up at your hotel, allowing you to experience the countryside without having to ever unpack your bags. However, once you leave the city it’s hard to drive an hour without passing a small family farm offering rides, often at a great discount to what you would pay in Reykjavik. When I return to Iceland I will try one of these stables where I suspect that in addition to cheaper prices I’ll also find even more personalized service and stunning scenery.

Sad to say goodbye to my new friend!

That said, I had a wonderful time with and they are a great choice for anyone on a shorter stay that won’t bring them outside Reykjavik. They have wonderful facilities and horses and the staff are knowledgeable and kind. In addition to short rides like the one I did, they also offer full day tours that bring you to destinations like hot springs and beaches, or combo tours that allow you to combine riding with visiting the Blue Lagoon or rafting or any number of other activities. And for the serious rider, they offer multi-day trips that are a truly unique way to explore Iceland!

Have you been horseback riding on your travels?

Thanks to Eldhestar for hosting me on this tour. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

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43 Comments...
  • Gram
    August 31 2012

    Your posts just get better and better
    Of course, I could really relate to this one because of the “mom” story; also liked learning the history of, and information about, the horses there. Good one!!!

    • Meihoukai
      August 31 2012

      Thanks Gram! I found the history of the horses there absolutely fascinating too… glad I’m not the only one 🙂

      • stacey
        October 6 2013

        Rules are made to be broken! lol

  • Grandma Burr
    August 31 2012

    As a teen-ager in Michigan, I had a horse – used only in summer. He was boarded for the winter months by a farmer near our summer home in Forrester, Mich, And, guess what – I can’t remember his name! Showing my age now. Gram E

    • Meihoukai
      August 31 2012

      I hope I never forget Tucker’s name! Although I guess you spend more time with a dog than with a horse 🙂

  • Dayla
    August 31 2012

    Tell your mama, not all of our horses in Missouri are bad! Loved this post, dying to ride the shorties in Iceland someday!

    • Meihoukai
      August 31 2012

      Aren’t they cute?! I think she got over her fear a bit that day, but she’s probably not going to join an equestrian club anytime soon or anything 🙂

  • Idun
    August 31 2012

    Horse riding is awesome! Although I think my feet would be kinda close to the ground if I were to ride an Icelandic horse…
    Idun recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      Haha yes my shorty status definitely was an advantage for me here!

  • Chris Shaw
    August 31 2012

    WOW!!!!! Cool ride! Takes me back to the days when my Dad and I rode the trails through the Adirondacks. Note to self: Don’t ask your Mom to hit Saratoga,… ;>)

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      Yeah she’s not a fan of the track either!

  • Gaelyn
    August 31 2012

    They are awesome looking animals. A friend in Arizona has adopted two. I hope to ride one of her Icelandics but would also like to ride in their native home. Sounds like your Mom made it through.
    Gaelyn recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      So interesting that two of these guys are living in Arizona now! Did they leave Iceland for competitions or for another reason?

      • Gaelyn
        September 2 2012

        I’m not sure why they left Iceland but they were transported from Washington State to Arizona. I’ll have to ask her about that.
        Gaelyn recently posted..

  • Wes
    September 1 2012

    Most horses have 4 gaits – you missed the canter.
    Also, why do Americans call it horseBACK riding? What other bit is ridden there, making it necessary to specify?

    That aside, I love this. My folks breed, ‘break and ride horses, hence my nitpicking 😉 in fact, I’ve sent them a link – I know they’ll be amazed by the pictures (if they ever download on their dial up connection.)

    My couchsurfers ordered Micky d last night, so thought of you, but I heard you’re a racing snake these days!

    Ciao,
    w

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      That is a great point about the horseback phrasing — is it only Americans who say that? I had never thought about it before but as usual you got the gears moving! So interesting about your parents… is there anything boring about you?!

      And yes, working hard towards racing snake status but its a new lifestyle not a diet… which is my way of saying I still totally snarf down the Micky D’s when the occasion warrants.

  • Thor
    September 1 2012

    Wow. You got nice photo. Many years ago I did ride Icelandic horse and they are amazing

    Reg, Thor
    Thor recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      Thank you Thor! They were some photogenic horses.

  • Amanda
    September 1 2012

    I rode horses and competed for 10 years of my life so this post made me miss it! I love to do horse riding tours on my travels but unfortunately they are usually expensive. I’m glad that the horses there seem to be so well cared for– I know some people who have horses for vacation tours do not treat the horses well and overwork them.
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      You’re right, they can be super pricey. One of my big travel regrets is when I was living in the Cayman Islands I won a free horseback riding tour — and I never did it! I think I was “busy” and no one would go with me…. why I didn’t go on my own I’ll never know. Ugh!

    • thatgirlshanna
      September 3 2012

      Hi! Do you have tips for how to determine how well the horses are treated? After reading a truly horrifying story about the treatment of sled dogs used for giving tourists sled tours, I’m wary for signing up for these things. I’d love to ride the horses, but I don’t want to enable people who hurt them accidentally.

      • Meihoukai
        September 4 2012

        That’s so sad to hear about the sled dogs! I didn’t look into that activity at all so I had no idea, and I’m sorry to hear it. Amanda might have a better answer than me, but I would say as for the horses, and any sort of animal attractions, I always read Tripadvisor reviews first. There will always be people who blindly think anything is great but often if there is cruelty or mistreatment there have been in-the-know people who have witnessed it, and made a big fuss on Tripadvisor. If everything looks good there I like to just ask a few of my own questions when booking, for example for often the horses are ridden etc. And honestly in the end it comes down to a gut feeling — I think you can tell whether or not the staff has respect for the animals when you see the environment and how they interact. I’m glad to hear that people care about supporting ethical businesses, Shanna!

      • Amanda
        September 5 2012

        Meihoukai has good tips! Check to see if the horses have nice living conditions, like this one has huge fields for them. Ask how often they’re ridden/have breaks, see if they have any injuries, ask whether they stop when it’s too hot or too cold. And just see if the horses look generally happy or not!
        Amanda recently posted..

        • thatgirlshanna
          September 10 2012

          Thanks you two! I have been super skittish about doing anything like this since I know absolutely nothing about horses, so thanks for the tips! If I can’t convince my husband to ride with me, I’ll at least have to drag him out to let me say ‘hi’ to the ponies. These guys are ridiculously adorable.

          • Meihoukai
            September 10 2012

            Shanna they are all over Iceland! If you go for a drive in almost any direction I bet you’ll find some friendly horses hanging out just waiting to say hi!

  • Rachel
    September 1 2012

    Someday I’ll ride an Icelandic Horse in Iceland. Sooner, though (in about a week), I’ll be riding a Mongolian horse in Mongolia! Their horses here are also pretty small.
    Rachel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      UM, that sounds absolutely amazing! Mongolia seems so wonderfully exotic…

  • Alison
    September 1 2012

    I have done 4 1-week horseback tours round Iceland. Up in the bleak highlands. Amazing! If you want a recommendation try the little farm of Steinsholt, outside Selfoss. They also do day tours. Lovely people, great horses and they speak English. and look for Eng. pages. Good luck

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      Thanks for the recommendation Alison! I don’t know if I’m a passionate enough rider for a full week tour, but who knows, maybe someday!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    September 2 2012

    I was obsessed with horses when I was a little girl, but alas, my parents never let me take lessons, so to this day I’ve never ridden one! As a fellow short gal, however, it looks like Iceland might just be the place for me to finally try this out though!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      That sounds like the perfect splurge to end your RTW trip with!

  • Bravo to your Mom for getting back up on the horse, I’m so proud of her. What a fun experience!!! I’m starting to slowly become obsessed with horses…
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 2 2012

      They are really amazing animals! And yes my mama is a brave one, I must have adopted some of my adventurous spirit from her!

  • Sam
    September 2 2012

    Hahaha you crack me up – you and your stealth photo taking. That’s so good of your Mum to get on a horse! I rode horses all through my childhood, I think my Dad had high hopes for me being some sort of equestrian prodigy, as opposed to a diver slash wanderer still trying to decide what to do when I grow up ! xx
    Sam recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 3 2012

      Well, I think prodigies of any kind are overrated! …Or maybe I’m just jealous. Hard to tell.

  • Sky
    September 2 2012

    This is something that I would just love to do! Recently, I’ve been hearing a ton about Iceland and seen quite a few posts about riding these lovely little horses. As a horse lover, it sounds like a dream come true. Hopefully I can make it there for a ride of my own someday soon!
    Sky recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      September 3 2012

      Yes Iceland is definitely a buzzed about country right now! It definitely deserves the hype too…. hope you get there soon!

  • Stacey Rider
    June 18 2013

    This is the second blog I have come across today about horse riding in Iceland. The horses look so different. Then Iceland looks very different o what I imaged too. I didn’t expect to see so much greenery.

    Did they tell you why they didn’t want you to take photo’s?

    I can really relate to the Mum angle too. My mum has always been the same as soon as her feet leave solid ground. Boats are the most amusing events! 😉
    Stacey Rider recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      June 19 2013

      They said that they didn’t want us to be distracted from riding the horse, so I know that really it was for our own safety. But when can I say… I’m a rule breaker!

  • Charles W
    March 4 2017

    Never thought Iceland would be a good destination for horseback riding, but the internet is teaching me many things.

    It was interesting to learn about the ban on horses reentering the country. In a way it’s sad, but due to their funny builds I doubt they’d be able to enter any competitions. These horses are made for trail riding and they’re great at it, and apparently very happy. Heh, I’m actually even a bit jealous.

    • Meihoukai
      March 20 2017

      Interesting insight! They do have pretty cute little statures 🙂

  • Liana Delaney
    November 7 2017

    Hi Meihoukai,

    You mentioned in your post that there are a lot of family farms along the road offering horse backing riding. Are these a fairly common sight? As a planner, I would rather pre-plan an excursion but I would also prefer helping out a local business too and maybe save a buck. Any insight would be great! No other blog has mentioned this so I am very intrigued as we are leaving for our trip in just about a month.

    • Meihoukai
      November 10 2017

      Hey Liana! I’m so sorry but I’m afraid I have to admit that six years on, my memory is failing me! I can’t quite remember any details past what I wrote here… my apologies! Let me know what you find though 🙂