Iceland on horseback
Margaret Stefansdottir, left, takes part in the sheep round-up each year. The tradition takes place by the Hekla volcano, right. (Lottie Davies)
The scene is like something from a Biblical epic: 2,000 sheep are being driven across a desert of black lava. The sky overhead is bright blue and filled with the sound of bleating. Every now and again, a sheep breaks loose and heads up the rocky hillside, from where it has to be coaxed back down. Herders, some on foot and some on stocky Icelandic horses, surround the flock, yelling and gesturing to keep the animals in a bunch. A support group of four-wheel drive vehicles is rumbling slowly behind us, but the main actors in this drama haven’t changed in over a thousand years: Icelanders, sheep, horses.
I’m on foot, patrolling one corner of the herd, trying to deter a particularly stubborn ewe from running off. But the key members of the group are on horseback. A middleaged man whose shabby riding gear belies his importance here maneouvres his horse expertly around the rocks. With a few gestures, he dispatches a group of riders to round up sheep from the other side of the valley. His name is Kristinn Gunnarsson and he’s the fjallkonungur, the mountain king. For more than 30 years he has led this annual sheep drive across the rugged uplands of southern Iceland.
Every September, all over the country, groups of farmers under the generalship of a mountain king herd their sheep down from the summer pastures to be sorted and taken to their home farms for the winter. ‘We’ve made a few changes but basically we’re doing it the same way that our ancestors did,’ Kristinn says. ‘You couldn’t do it without the horse.’
Icelanders are crazy about their horses. It’s an enthusiasm based partly on the unique qualities of the Icelandic horse and partly on a debt of gratitude. Without Icelandic horses, Icelandic humans would have died out centuries ago. Smaller, stockier, shaggier, more agile and more even-tempered than their cousins elsewhere, Icelandic horses are perfectly adapted for the harsh climate and the challenging volcanic terrain.
The Vikings who settled Iceland in the ninth century found an uninhabited island. It was an otherworldly place: bleak, windswept, and with a landscape dominated by active volcanoes. There was no king or nobility. To those hardy enough to survive here, it offered a life ruled only by the elements. They populated it, brought livestock by boat, and then quickly exhausted the island’s forests. Without wood to build boats, the settlers relied on horses as their sole form of transport and as food. To this day, there is love but not sentimentality for the horse. If you ask an Icelander if they like horses, be prepared for the answer: ‘Yes, they’re delicious.’
Cut off from the rest of the world, the Icelanders have maintained an extraordinary continuity with their ancestors. The DNA of the people and livestock, the language, and many of the customs have evolved in an unbroken tradition. Today, watching a rangy, red-haired farmer on an Icelandic horse shouting at his long-haired Icelandic sheep in a largely unchanged dialect of Old Norse is the closest any of us will get to a Viking Jurassic Park.
Horses in Iceland are not, as they are in the UK, the preserve of a horse-owning aristocracy who have spent centuries training them to mow down Frenchmen and plebeians. They are the working horses of a free republic of farmers. There are 70,000 horses in a country of 330,000 people: horses are for everyone. One consequence I notice is a completely demystified approach to riding. There is a rustic directness about it. Getting on a horse in Iceland is not like being initiated into an exclusive equine cult. It’s more like being chucked a set of car keys. But I am a novice rider. And before I’m ready to do the sheep drive on horseback, I think I need at least one lesson.
Marteinn Hjaltested is a huge man with a sweep of red-blond hair and an outdoor complexion. He and his wife Lea Helga Olafsdottir run a riding school and a farm called Hestheimar on windswept downs an hour and half outside Reyjkavík. From their kitchen window, you can see the snowy volcanic peak of Eyjafjallajökull. ‘I’ve ridden other horses,’ Marteinn says. ‘When they galloped, I felt every movement. It’s not for me. The Icelandic horse is soft and quiet, they’re like mountain goats.’