Iceland on horseback
I arrive in time for dinner. The group spends each night in huts in the mountains, eating together and sharing rooms. In the communal dining room the dim light gives the place the feeling of one of Iceland’s ancient turf-roofed longhouses. Knitted socks hang over the edge of a bunk. A group of children play cards. Hungry farmers and riders eat plates of smoked lamb, potatoes, beetroot and canned peas. Towards 10 o’clock, people start freshening their fruit juice with shots of Jim Beam. Outside, the sky is radiant with stars, the sound of Icelandic songs rises into the freezing air.
In the morning, the group saddles up. Ingvar Gudbjornsson farms sheep in the mountains and is driving his flock down to the pens. He has the task of coordinating the less experienced riders. There’s a Latvian called Pavel who has never ridden a horse. He’s joined late in the round-up, but after a quick introduction to his horse, he’s off. Ingvar has picked me a horse called Snillingur, whose name means ‘genius’.
Trying to recall as much as I can from my riding lesson, I put my foot in the stirrup and swing myself into the saddle. My excitement is accompanied by fear. The terrain is difficult: we’re riding up and down rocky hillsides. The day before, a rider fell badly and had to be helicoptered to the hospital with two broken ribs. And you can never rule out the possibility of elves.
I follow Ingvar and we ride in two widely spaced columns along either side of the flock. Our task is both challenging and gratifyingly simple. We ride in a loose formation, forcing the sheep into a single bunch as we move towards the neck of a valley. We are a mounted offside trap. Snillingur is obedient and nimble, picking a careful path through the rocks. When a rogue ewe threatens to break out from the group behind me, I’m able to turn her with ease and escort her back to the herd.
We head uphill, across crumbly volcanic rock through a narrowing defile that rises to the top of a ridge. Nothing has prepared me for the view: a vast valley of black gravel sweeps into the distance under a sapphire sky. To our left, the snowy summit of Mount Hekla soars above the valley. We remount. The herd of sheep – now swollen to about 5,000 – pours downhill like a river of white water. Bleats and shouts rise above the flock. What strikes me most of all is the connection I feel to Snillingur. I’m proud of his equanimity. He doesn’t stumble on the tricky terrain. He’s unfazed by the yelling all around him. There’s no hyperbole in his name – the horse is a genius.
The herd and riders leave a dusty imprint across the valley floor. On its far side we begin climbing again. The final section is so steep that most of us dismount. From the top, we look down into the valley of Afangagil. Half a mile down, there’s a fenced off section of pasture. The ewes seem to recognise it and stream towards it. These are the sorting pens, from where the sheep will be taken back to their home farms for winter. After five hours in the saddle, and with huge regret, I dismount. I see Latvian Pavel, the other novice rider. He’s intact, saddle-sore, and radiant with sunburn and elation.
The next day ’s sheep sorting is the equivalent of a harvest festival. It’s a celebration for the farms and communities that live near Hekla. It’s a free-for-all in the sheep pens as children help identify the animals and drive them into the sections for each farm. There are warm handshakes and promises to see each other at next year’s round-up.