Due to its isolation, Iceland has developed some fascinating animal species. There were not many land animals here before settlers started arriving in 874CE. Before humans settled here, Iceland contained only one land mammal: the Arctic fox. The Scandinavians first brought horses over in the 9th and 10th centuries, and these horses gradually developed unique characteristics. The Icelandic horse is now recognized as its own breed. And, with these tough animals as your companions, you have the opportunity to go horse riding in Iceland.
The Icelandic Horse
Although some examples of this breed are pony-sized, it is commonly referred to as the Icelandic horse. On average they weigh between 330 and 380 kilograms (730 and 840 pounds) and stand at 13 to 14 hands (52 to 56 inches/132-142 cm). They are hardy and strong, with short, powerful legs and thick coats to protect them from the country’s harsh winters.
Due to having no natural predators, they are generally friendly and do not spook easily. This species of horse is unique in that it is able to perform five different gaits (paces). There are the standard walk, trot, and canter/gallop speeds. Then there is the tölt, an explosive and smooth pace, and the flugskeið, or ‘flying pace’. This last gait involves a two-beat pace, where both legs on each side move almost simultaneously.
Disease within this species mostly does not occur. To sustain this, no horses are allowed to be imported to Iceland, and Icelandic horses that are exported cannot return. Any riding clothes brought into the country either must be new and unused or thoroughly disinfected. Leather riding gear such as boots may not be brought into Iceland. These rules are for the protection of the breed, so they are taken very seriously.
In any case, horseback riding in Iceland is very popular, and you can join in. There are almost 80,000 horses in the country today.
Horse is also eaten in Iceland if that’s something you’d like to try. How do farmers determine which horses to eat and which to ride? Horses that are unsuitable for riding will be sold for meat. Some farmers also produce foal meat by birthing horses in great numbers.
By the way, it’s best not to ask any locals where you can go ‘Iceland pony trekking’. Locals don’t like them being called ponies. Believe me, I tried it.
How Much Weight Can an Icelandic Horse Carry?
A healthy Icelandic horse is able to carry, at maximum, 35% of their own weight, or around 130kg (287 pounds). Now, remember, this is their maximum; they would need to carry far less to remain comfortable. With an average-sized person mounted, they can move freely. The company you choose to ride with will know their horses and will match you up accordingly. Another factor, of course, is the amount of time the rider stays mounted for. Many companies offer Iceland horse trips that range from one hour to several days.
Iceland Horseback Riding Tours
Want to join an Iceland horse tour? There are a range to suit your experience and comfort level. For those who don’t want to ride but want to spend time with Icelandic horses, many companies offer stable visits. You can pet a horse, learn about them, and watch their different gaits.
Then there are relaxed walking tours, which are suitable for beginners. These allow you to experience Icelandic nature on horseback without any stress. You also have the option of a more demanding riding tour, suitable for those with experience. You’ll go faster and tackle more difficult terrain. These two types of tours last for between 1 and 5 hours depending on which you choose.
Multi-day tours are also available, for those that want to leave the city behind. The trips range from two to eight days and explore a variety of landscapes. You can visit glaciers and volcanoes, beaches and farms, even hunt for the northern lights on horseback. Of course, these tours, like any outdoor activities, are weather dependent, and you’ll need to come prepared with warm clothing. Most multi-day tours are only suitable for experienced riders, but the shorter ones may be suitable for beginners. One company that runs all of the above-mentioned tours, Íshestar (Ice horses), is only 15 minutes from Reykjavík.
Horseback Riding Tour in Reykjavik
So, are there any Icelandic ponies (horses) in Reykjavik?
Although this wonderful country has a small population, you will not see horses in the city center. However, you do not have to travel far out of the center to find a stable. So, while it is not an option to go horseback riding in Reykjavík, you can certainly ride near it. One company, Sólhestar (Sun horses), is conveniently located 15 minutes east of the city center. It’s actually just off Route 1, the ring road that passes all the way around the island. Why not stop there on your way around the country?
Other Great Places to Ride in Iceland
In the center of the country are the highlands. This area is almost completely uninhabited and is only visited in the summer months. In the winter, the highlands are mostly unreachable due to the snow and harsh weather. In the summer it is possible to hike, explore, and ride horses in the Icelandic interior. One company, Equitours, offers a seven-day riding tour along the Landmannalaugar Trail, Iceland’s most famous hiking route. You will stay in mountain huts, bathe in hot springs, and experience the country’s wildest areas.
Travel along rivers and up and down fjords at the eastern tip of this Nordic nation. Skorrahestar, a farm-based in Neskaupstaður, offers short and long riding experiences, as well as guided hikes. The trips offer fantastic views of the Norwegian Sea, and there is a converted barn guesthouse on-site. Why not stay a few days and soak up the ambiance of this tranquil area?
If you are completing a ring road trip, a spot of riding in the north will be well worth it. It’s colder and less populated, with just as many hot springs and natural wonders to entrance you. Hesta Sport, located in Varmahlíð, takes you on tours through hidden valleys, across lava fields, and around mountains. They have a series of timber cottages you’ll stay in during a multi-day tour, giving you an enriching Icelandic experience.
This is one of the most beautiful areas of Iceland, and also one of the least visited. It’s the north-western part of the country and has a population of just over 7,000 people. Ísafjörður, the capital of the Westfjords, is where the company Fosshestar (Waterfall horses) is found. This family-run business will take you on a private valley ride tour to show you the Westfjords from the horseback. Your guide will also wear a GoPro to record your whole experience.
Horse Riding in Iceland
So, there you have it. Horse riding in Iceland. Something you didn’t know you could do? This island doesn’t just have puffins and ravens to look at. The Icelandic horse, one of the purest, hardiest breeds in the world, is waiting to join you on an adventure. Experience the land of fire and ice with an animal companion.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.