Iceland on horseback
Lea helps me onto a 20 year-old gelding called Bleik Besi. I ride him tentatively around the indoor arena. My experience of horses is minimal, but after a couple of circuits, Lea says I’m ready to head out. We ride along the path, downhill through the treeless landscape. Horses are pastured, two or three to a field, in the tawny meadows around us. As the afternoon draws on, the sky clears and the volcano far to the east turns golden.
I feel a strange exhilaration when Bleik Besi goes where I ask. He stops on command when I tighten the reins and call out ‘hoo!’ He uncomplainingly fords a trout stream. We climb a small hill and descend it into a narrow valley. ‘Okay,’ says Lea, ‘Let’s tölt.’ This is what Icelandic horses are most famous for. In addition to walking, trotting, cantering and galloping, Icelandic horses have this famous fifth gait: the tölt.
Lea instructs me to sit deeper in the saddle, shorten my reins, and make a clucking sound with my tongue. Bleik Beisi alters his pace. He goes faster, and his hooves beat out a two-beat rhythm that Lea says should sound like ‘Black and Decker, Black and Decker’. There’s a distinct change of gear: a smooth and powerful surge of energy. This is the gait that Icelanders say makes their horses so comfortable to ride for long distances.
I slow down as Lea points out a low building in the distance. ‘That used to be the community house,’ she says. ‘We used to have card games and dances there. People say it’s haunted now.’ She says it matter-of-factly, as though the problem could equally well have been a leaky roof or a blocked drain. Lea makes it clear that she doesn’t believe in ghosts herself, but there is an undercurrent of superstition in Iceland that takes you a while to notice, and which sits oddly with the pragmatism and self-reliance of the islanders. Back at the stables, over a cup of hot chocolate, Marteinn tells me that there are unexpected hazards for the unwary rider.
‘We had a lot of problems,’ he says gravely. He tells me of a number of incidents when horses behaved strangely. In the worst of them, a young horse bolted as Marteinn was dismounting and smashed him into the bars of a metal fence. ‘You can’t be certain that it’s not elves,’ he says with a surefooted logic that even Richard Dawkins would have difficulty refuting. His solution was to bring down a woman from Reyjkavík who was gifted with second sight. She managed to intercede and make peace with the troublesome sprites. There has been, touch wood, no recurrence.
An hour north of Hestheimar farm, the tarmac gives way to an unsurfaced road that winds up into the mountains. Ominous signs warn the unwary about going further in an inadequate vehicle. It’s the day after my riding lesson. I’m returning in my rented car to rejoin the sheep drive, and I’ve decided to promote myself to the cavalry.
The round-ups that Kristinn leads last five days. Over that time, sheep are gathered in from a 350-square-mile area and driven 45 miles to the sorting pens. At the heart of the group are a dozen farmers and their families and friends, many of whom come year after year, and there are also walkers and riders who have joined the group.