Ancient and modern, adrenaline-fuelled and sublimely relaxing, Iceland is an island of contrasts and holds serendipitous surprises in every mountain, glacier and grassy valley. Iceland boasts the title of greenest country in Europe thanks to its innovative use of geothermal power. While freezing cold highlands of sand and lava fields are completely uninhabitable, the mild coastal region seldom dips below zero and is fast becoming one of the world’s favourite travel destinations.
Iceland and Eldhestar are home to some of the friendliest horses and people you’re ever likely to meet, and their quirky smiles are incredibly contagious! Iceland’s human and equine populations are famous for doing things in their own unique way and this brings us to a glowing, glittering highlight for the horsey folk: those extra gaits. The first is a four-beat, lateral ambling gait called tölt. Known for its fiery acceleration and speed, it’s a natural gait that’s present at birth, renowned as the most comfortable ride and the best for ground cover. It’s characterised by a footfall pattern that’s the same as the walk (left hind, left front, right hind, right front), but it can be performed at different speeds, from a fast walk through to a canter-like speed.
The second distinctive pace is called skeið, or ‘flying pace’, and is used in races and short sprints. It’s fast and smooth, with some horses able to reach up to 48km/h! This is a two-beat lateral gait with a moment of suspension between footfalls, so each side has both feet land almost simultaneously (left hind and left front, suspension, right hind and right front). Not all Icelandics – ‘Icies’ as they’re commonly known – can perform the skeið and it’s reserved for well-trained horses and skilled riders. Horses who can perform both skeið and tölt are considered the best of the best.
These small, surefooted horses have been an essential part of Icelandic life ever since the first Norwegian settlers arrived more than 1,100 years ago, and they cross rough terrain with ease. You’ll feel the difference from the very first steps, and an excellent way to begin is the farm’s ‘Riding and Relaxation’ day trip. Two to three hours on horseback is a great way to get up close and personal with the surrounding lava fields and meadows, and following a delicious light lunch you’ll be more than ready for a warm, soothing swim in geothermal pools or a steam in the sauna, topped off with scrumptious home-baked cake and freshly brewed coffee.
The rest of your stay is yours to plan from an extensive menu of one- and two-hour, half-day, full-day and longer rides and excursions. Every direction offers incredible scenic options, such as lush green meadows, wetlands rich in birdlife, and the vast river delta of the mighty Ölfusá. During the summer months, you can also ride out to the islands that form between the river delta and the black, sandy coast of the Atlantic Ocean – in tölt of course!
Most Icelanders speak English well, and Eldhestar’s expert guides are no exception. They are extremely knowledgeable and will provide valuable information and riding tips, regardless of your age or level of experience. They will also provide you with all the safety helmets, rain gear, overalls and rubber boots that you need to enjoy every minute of your trip without worrying about Iceland’s unpredictable weather!
When to go
Summer is of course a popular time to visit Iceland, and June has the lowest rainfall and longest stretches of sunshine – more than 20 hours during the solstice. Winter months provide very limited daylight hours, although coastal temperatures remain a few degrees above zero.
How to get there
The standard holiday arranged by Priority Travel is a bargain at under R20,000 (including flights ex-JNB and full board) but should you wish to spend more time in the farmlands, coastal areas or cities, this can easily be arranged.
Text: Francois Swart, photography courtesy of Priority Travel.
This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of HQ Magazine.