I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for horses.
There’s just something about these gentle giants that melts my heart — their big eyes, their personalities, they way you can make their top lip wiggle if you tickle their nose… I even volunteered at a horse barn up the street from my house when I was in middle school and junior high.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I made sure to get to know some of Iceland’s unique horses during my trip there last month.
Icelandic horses are such cool animals. Not only do they have long, shaggy coats and adorably thick manes and forelocks (fringe), but they also are some of the sweetest horses I have ever “met.”
Not to mention that they are genetically unique, too — they are directly descended from the horses the very first Vikings brought over to Iceland back in the 9th and 10th centuries. Since they haven’t been introduced to any other horse genes over the years, the result is a hardy breed that can withstand Iceland’s often-harsh climate with no problem.
Plus, they’re freaking adorable.
But this genetic uniqueness also means the horses in Iceland have to stay contained to Iceland. At one point, some other horses were brought over from mainland Europe, only for people to discover that Icelandic horses were not immune to the same diseases that the European horses were. This resulted in nearly half of the Icelandic horse population dying from disease. These days, no foreign livestock is allowed in the country, and any Icelandic horses that leave the island (such as for an international competition) can never return.
The Icelandic horse is also unique in that it has 5 different distinct gaits. Most horse breeds have 3 — walk, trot, and canter/gallop. The Icelandic horse, however, also has a gait called tölt, which is a smooth, very fast walk; and a gait known as skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace,” which is a quick gait that’s often used in pacing races.
I was lucky enough to try out the tölt for myself (as well as cuddle plenty of horses) when I booked a 2-hour riding tour through lava fields with Ishestar (literally “ice horse”), a stable located just outside of Reykjavik.
I settled on Ishestar because I’d heard good things about the stable and the treatment of their horses — something any horse lover should care about. And I definitely feel like I made the right choice.
Upon arriving at the riding center, everyone who was planning to ride was asked to watch a short safety video and stow away all bags and valuables. Then we quickly suited up — helmets were required, and they also offered boots and warm jumpsuits. Even though the jumpsuits looked ridiculous and the sun was actually shining, I put one on anyway for the warmth.
Then we were paired up with our horses. Since I have a bit of riding experience, I was paired up with a lovely mare name Fryk, whose big brown, intelligent eyes made me fall in love with her right away.
After getting some help mounting up on our small horses (seriously, they’re not much bigger than ponies!), we headed off in a straight line into the surrounding lava fields, the sun shining strongly for the first time since my arrival in Iceland. It was magical.
The horses in our group were some of the sweetest, most even-tempered horses I’ve ever seen. Usually on nose-to-tail trail rides like this, you see horses biting and kicking one another, and others totally disregarding the commands of their riders.
Not these horses, though.
In fact, Fryk was so responsive and obedient that I was able to snap plenty of photos and let my mind wander a bit every now and then. I can’t remember the last time I felt so comfortable on a horse.
Halway through the ride, our guides had us dismount to give the horses a break. I’ve never known a riding company that did this before, but I loved it. Just a further testament to how well the Ishestar horses are treated. Plus, it didn’t hurt for us humans to be able to stretch our legs, either.
On the way back to our stable, we had plenty of opportunity to try out the tölt gait. It was so smooth and fast that I couldn’t help but grin stupidly each and every time Fryk got going. You could tell she didn’t want to stop, and neither did I!
We got back to the stable far too quickly, and I wished I had booked a longer ride than what the Lava Tour provided. Everything was just so perfect on this ride — from my horse to the weather. And of course it didn’t hurt that we had just ridden through some truly stunning Icelandic countryside.
This is definitely something I’d love to do again someday!
Would you add Icelandic horseback riding to your Iceland itinerary?
*Note: I did NOT receive anything from Ishestar in return for this post. But I think they’re a fantastic company, and highly recommend them if you’d like to ride horses near Reykjavik!