Text by Kat, images by Frog
When we began researching Iceland and its unique features, I decided that one thing I simply had to do whilst here was ride the Icelandic horse. Brought in during the initial Viking settlement of the country in the ninth and tenth centuries CE, the breed has been isolated since then and is thus fiercely protected by the Icelandic authorities to maintain its genetic identity as well as protect the entire population from diseases.
One of the most interesting things about the horse is its famed fifth gait, the tölt, discussed in this article (pronounced “terlt”, with chewy “t” sounds). Having seen the horses running about in the past couple of weeks, I was a bit doubtful about the gait on a few scores. First, it looked for all the world like pacing to me (then I found out there was another gait in the breed’s repertoire, the flugskeið, which must have been what I was seeing). Secondly, the reputation as a comfortable alternative to the trot had me a bit skeptical.
So yesterday morning, Frog and I anxiously awaited our pickup for the horse riding tour, which was, predictably, late. Away we went to the venue, a horse rental and hotel establishment named Eldhestar. I’d there, we were assigned horses according to our levels of experience and confidence, and given instructions with typical Icelandic economy of time and words. We mounted, Numpty here managing to dislocate her thumb again whilst getting on the horse (don’t ask, I don’t even know…), and did a leisurely turn about the big yard.
Then it was off and away, and after we had negotiated a lava field and gotten used to our mounts, the guide tried to get our twenty-something-strong party to all tölt. It was a bit stop-start because of the usual rental horse attitude (“aha, this idiot on my back has no idea what he’s doing, I’m gonna take it reeeaaaalllll easy”), so at one point, one of the guides peeled four of the more confident riders, on faster horses, off for a good long go at the tölt. Lucky me, I was in this group.
Now, I’ve ridden my fair share of horses, of all shapes, ages, sizes and dispositions. It’s been a few years, so I’m loathe to claim that I’m still experienced, but I know how to trot. I’m happy trotting, although not for extended distances because I’m not fit enough.
The tölt, however…not so much. It doesn’t require the muscle input that rising to the trot does, but on the other hand, it feels like nothing so much as being out through the tumble dryer with a sack of lead-filled potatoes for company. I dunno, I think I must have been doing something wrong. We rejoined the main group after a while and Frog reported that the other instructor had told her she was very good at the tölt, so I think I’d just need more practice.
Sorry for the lack of photos – the camera was too big to take on the horses!