You'll see these enigmatic animals wherever you go in Iceland. But the best way to get to know them is to take a riding tour, says Penny Bunting
With big brown eyes peeking through a long shaggy mane, and a friendly, gentle nature, it's hard not to fall in love with an Icelandic horse.
Most visitors to Iceland will encounter these endearing animals at some point during their trip. Seen grazing in herds across the country, you'll spot horses of all different colours – grey, chestnut, brown, black and white – as you drive along many of the country's meadow-side roads.
The first settlers brought horses into Iceland in the ninth century. There was very little space on those first Viking boats, as they headed across the northern seas from Norway. So only the smallest and strongest horses were selected to make the journey.
There has been no interbreeding of the species since. No other horses are allowed into Iceland, and if an Icelandic horse leaves the country, it's not allowed back in. As a result, Icelandic horses are one of the purest horse breeds in the world.
Until the 20th century, horses were the only form of overland transport and an essential part of the Icelandic way of life. For farmers, horses were indispensible. They helped out with all sorts of tasks – from moving hay from the pasture and rounding up sheep, to transporting goods to market.
Icelandic horses today are as strong, sturdy and resilient as their ancestors were – making them ideally adapted to an often harsh climate, where ice, snow and sub-zero temperatures are common.
You'll see Icelandic horses everywhere you go in the country – and although it's easy enough to get a glimpse of them during your trip, the best way to really get to know the animals is to go on a riding tour.
Before travelling to Iceland we had made a long list of things we wanted to do there: swim in a geothermal pool, get a glimpse of the Northern Lights, walk behind a waterfall, visit a black sand beach. And near the top of that list was to go riding on an Icelandic horse.
So we headed for Eldhestar, a horse-breeding centre in the heart of the countryside, a short distance from the small village of Hveragerði in the south of the island.
A large range of tours is offered at Eldhestar. You can head out on a multi-day hike, or choose from many different day options – from an hour in the saddle to a full day exploring mountains and geothermal areas, with breaks to take a dip in the hot springs.
We opted for the 90-minute-long Countryside Charm tour, which is an ideal way for beginners to get a taste of the Icelandic horse's qualities.
The day of our tour was bitterly cold. Snow had been forecast, so we were provided with warm overalls and gloves – as well as a safety helmet – to keep us protected from the elements as we rode. At the stables we got to meet our horses for the afternoon: sweet-natured Ella, laid-back Patti, spirited Sprangur, and handsome, chestnut-coloured Ingiþór.
It was quite hard to mount the horses in our padded overalls, but once in the saddle we were ready to go.
There is one major difference between riding an Icelandic horse and other horses.
Most horses have just four gaits: walk, trot, canter and gallop. But Icelandic horses have a unique, fifth gait, called tölt – and they're the only animals in the world that move like this.
Tölt is a jogging gait that's faster than a walk, but not quite a trot. For experienced riders, used to gliding smoothly into a rising trot, it can be quite unsettling. Tölt is fast and bouncy – in fact, at first, it can feel like you will be bounced right out of the saddle!
But once you've mastered the tölt technique – shortening the reins, sitting back deep in the saddle with heels firmly down and a straight back – the gait is exhilarating, and great fun!
On our riding tour, between energetic bursts of tölting, the horses settled into a relaxing walk – giving us riders the opportunity to fully appreciate the beautiful setting. Meadows and mountains surround the farm at Eldhestar, and we rode along rural paths through fields crisscrossed with streams.
By the end of the ride, we were cold and our muscles – some of which we hadn't even realised existed – were sore. But luckily, we were booked in at Hotel Eldhestar, so were able to recover with an evening soak in the hot tub and a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed.
A stay at Hotel Eldhestar is a great idea if you want to fully immerse yourself in the Icelandic horse experience. Many of the 37 comfortable, modern rooms are named after individual horses that have lived and worked on the farm.
On each door there is a little story about each horse – and from browsing through these you learn that each Icelandic horse is a unique character, with his or her own strengths and personality.
Our room was named after Vettvangur – a champion at tölt. On other doors we learnt about Frosti, a strong, grey horse with a long mane and a willing nature, and Steinn, a sensible hard-worker.
There are horsey decorative touches throughout the hotel too, such as curtain tiebacks and towel rails crafted from horseshoes, as well horse-inspired works of art on the walls.
All the guest rooms at Hotel Eldhestar feature superbly comfortable beds – made by Hästens in Sweden, and handcrafted from sustainable, natural materials.
We stayed in the family room – a spacious, en-suite room that sleeps five. The room had a cosy atmosphere, with soft, knitted blankets in muted Icelandic colours of cream, grey and beige.
Windows on three sides of the room let in lots of light and made full use of the views. Horses could be seen grazing in the meadows, there were snow-capped mountains in the distance, and a steaming stream just outside one window reminded us that we were in the heart of a geothermal area.
From the room, French doors led onto a large, decked verandah – a lovely place to soak in the view, and in winter – if you're lucky – spot the Northern Lights dancing in the night sky (unfortunately, due to cloud cover, we didn't). One morning I woke early and stood on the verandah to watch the horses cantering along the path on their way to the stables, tossing their manes as they went.
The distinctive, plaintive call of oystercatchers could be heard as they flew past our windows – and one morning we had a group of redwings visiting the verandah.
The hotel's interior design is inspired by nature, featuring tones and textures from the surrounding Icelandic landscape.
Three hot tubs are provided in the grounds for guests' use – these were not at all busy during our stay and we had a tub to ourselves on both evenings. From the hot tubs you get fantastic views across the meadows, where the horses graze, to the mountains.
A delicious breakfast is served each morning in the dining room, and guests can help themselves to complimentary fresh coffee, tea – including a range of fruit and herbal teas – and hot chocolate, at any time of the day or night.
Hotel Eldhestar is luxurious, but is also an eco-friendly choice. It was the first hotel in Iceland to receive the Nordic Swan Ecolabel, meaning it is constantly working to reduce energy and water consumption, as well as making use of environmentally friendly products and local food.
In the guestrooms, the complimentary Scandinavian White eco-certified toiletries are provided in large, refillable dispensers, rather than small, single-use bottles. Guests are also encouraged to recycle their rubbish – and this is made easy with the provision of divided recycling bins in rooms.
Hotel Eldhestar is not just for horse-lovers. There are some great hikes in the area, with the chance to get out into some stunning natural surroundings.
From the village of Hveragerði it's possible to explore a geothermal area featuring boiling, bubbling pools in a steam-cloaked landscape.
There's also a popular nearby hike through the lush green valley of Reykjadalur, or 'Steamy Valley'. The walk takes about 45 minutes each way and follows the course of a thermally heated river, with numerous hot pools to take a dip in – these get hotter as you head upstream, and some are too hot to bathe in, so take care!
Unfortunately, on the day we set off to do the Reykjadalur hike the path had been closed temporarily due to heavy rainfall. But some compensation was available in the form of hot coffee and delicious homemade cakes in the Hot River café – a wonderful place to relax and enjoy spectacular views across the geothermal valley.
Green Adventures October 2018