Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Herd-riding in Iceland

Across wind-ravaged plains and up icy mountain trails, Tarquin Cooper takes on a buttock-breaking 70km ride in the company of several hundred wild Icelandic horses.

September 29 2011
Tarquin Cooper

It’s the question I dread whenever I sign on for a challenge: “So, how much experience do you actually have?”

Do I go for slight exaggeration and risk being put hopelessly out of my depth? Or tell the truth – not much, over the past 15 years – and risk being treated like an imbecile?

One truth I can admit to: I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland. Sitting on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that separates the North American and Eurasian plates, just three hours from London, the land of glaciers and geysers makes for an ideal weekend hit. And exploring it by horse makes for an ideal adventure – if you’ve a great deal of mettle. Introduced by the Vikings in the ninth century, the sturdy Icelandic “ponies” can go for hours on end in any weather, ford rivers better than a 4x4 and, crucially, don’t get grounded by the odd cloud of ash. They’ve even evolved their own gait – the tölt – for covering long distances. They are the best way to get off the beaten track and onto the country’s ancient pathways – provided you can take some seriously rough riding. Long days in the saddle, deep river crossings and harsh winds that sweep across the plains were expected; but here in the open country, the horsemen ride in the midst of herds of up to several hundred horses, adding a wild and unpredictable element to what’s no small challenge to start with.

I word my answer with truths and half truths: “I did ride as a kid…” and hope I’ll be all right. I’ll find out soon enough.

FRIDAY 2315

I emerge from the airport blinking. It’s midsummer and the sun still hovers above the horizon, casting a hypnotic flare across the sky. My hotel is a functional no-frills affair chosen for its practicality for tomorrow’s pick-up, which suits me fine. It’s going to get rougher before the luxury spoils of Reykjavik can be enjoyed.

SATURDAY 0800

A minibus arrives to take me on the four-hour drive north. I meet up with the rest of the group, a mix from Europe and the Americas, all drawn by Iceland’s challenging landscape and unique horses.

Last to board is Edda Pálsdóttir, our 22-year-old guide, all smiles and long blonde hair. “To ride with the herd is very special,” she tells me. “At the end of summer, we bring the horses down from the highlands. We can herd up to 1,000 horses. It’s amazing – and a bit crazy.”

Our plan is to ride along the ancient Kjölur trail, which carves its way north to south between the heaving glaciers of Langjökull and Hofsjökull. It has been used since AD 930 by Icelanders commuting to the summer parliament. On the long drive, Edda introduces a new car game – trying to pronounce the ash-spewing Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

SATURDAY 1330

Over lunch, Edda briefs us. “So it’s going to be a long day; we’ll ride 45km.”

There’s a collective intake of breath; it’s a hell of a long way. After a short demo in saddling up and riding technique, the herders fetch horses from a corral and we’re handed the reins to our steeds. Mine is called Skuggi, which means “shadow”. Like all the others, he’s no taller than 14 hands, but referring to him as a pony doesn’t go down well. Gert, one of the guides, fixes me with a flinty stare. “There are no ponies in Iceland. They’re all horses.”

Over the next couple of hours we climb steadily on wide stone trails up a valley between two mountains, stopping briefly at a river to water the horses. It’s the coldest summer since 1956; the temperature is just above 5º but with the wind, it feels well below freezing. As we ascend we hit unseasonal patches of snow. Skuggi takes it in his stride but I have to hold my breath; slipping doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s a long slide to the rocks below.

SATURDAY 1730

We gain a mountain pass onto a plateau, and a vista of Iceland’s vast interior unfolds before us – it’s a bleak and barren place. We’re exposed, and the wind hits us with new fury; I pull my fleece up tight to cover my mouth and nose like an anti-capitalist protester.

We dismount to change horses. I lead Skuggi into a corral and take shelter behind a knoll with the others while we wait for the herd to catch us up. It’s a magnificent sight as 50 horses come charging through. The herders funnel them into an adjacent corral and the process of selecting fresh horses begins.

SATURDAY 1900

We’re tired, but it’s a relief to get going; it means we drop out of the wind. My new horse is Jarl; the Earl. He has a large bald patch above his left eye. “How did he get that?” I ask. “Oh, fighting,” Edda replies.

Seeing the horses in their natural environment is to be reminded that there’s a strict hierarchy in the herd. It’s fascinating to observe their little groupings and manoeuvrings. The herd sets off behind us but catches up after an hour and stampedes directly past. It’s quite a commotion; suddenly our horses start neighing for their buddies, jumping about and pulling on bits, desperate to rejoin the herd. I have to struggle to keep the Earl under control. When we set off after them it’s as though our mounts have got rockets underneath them. We tölt – this strangely smooth, super-fast trot – over rocky, twisting narrow trails and take steeply inclined hills at a full canter. I fantasise fleetingly about medieval troops of Norse horsemen. Besides adding a nice element of drama to the adrenaline ride, it takes my mind a bit off my increasingly sore butt.

SATURDAY 2200

Finally, we reach our destination. Alas, it’s more tin shed than rustic log cabin – Iceland’s forests have all been felled. But there are hot showers and a supper of cod fishcakes, as well as our bags waiting. After eight hours in the saddle, this is indisputable luxury. Ron, a cardiologist from New York, says he has something that will help my bodily pains; out of his bag comes a bottle of whisky.

“Good man!”

“Help yourself.”

Sleep, in little dormitory bunks, comes easily, despite the daylight streaking through – and enough snoring to signal a north Atlantic submarine.

SUNDAY 0830

“You want some bum butter?” asks Jerry, one of the riders.

“Excuse me?”

“Anti-chafing cream.”

“Oh. Uh, thanks.”

Breakfast consists of salted porridge and a range of meats and cheese. I opt for a nice-looking salami and am slightly disconcerted to discover later that it’s horse sausage. With 100,000 horses in the country – equivalent to a third of its human population – clearly, Icelanders are unsentimental about these things. We don’t saddle up until 1pm. It’s for the horses’ benefit, apparently, but no one’s complaining about the downtime.

SUNDAY 1300

Today is a shorter day, but there’s still a fairly brutal 25km to cover. The Kjölur trail translates as “the ship’s keel”; this becomes apparent as the great glaciers of the Langjökull and Hofsjökull loom into view either side of the vast valley floor. It’s painful getting back in the saddle, made worse by a horse that refuses to tölt but bounces along in a trot that jars every vertebra in my spine. We follow the large historic stone cairns that mark the way. The monotony of the bleak landscape is finally broken by one of several river crossings on the trail.

“Sometimes the water can be high, and then the horses have to swim across,” Edda warns me.

But due to the cold weather, there isn’t as much melt running off the glaciers this year, and I get to keep my feet dry. Still, my horse struggles not to be pushed downstream by the current, and I’m thankful it’s not any deeper.

SUNDAY 1530

At a changeover, Edda asks if I’d like to ride with the wranglers. It requires a step-up in horsemanship skills but it’s an honour not to be refused. Up front it’s faster, more furious and intimidating.

We gallop ahead to keep in front of the herd, allow them to catch us up, then gallop forwards again, flying over a rock-strewn terrain that would surely trip up any other horse. All the while, the hooves of hundreds of horses stampede closely behind; you don’t want to end up under them.

One moment I panic as, leaving it too late, I am overtaken and become hemmed in by the herd and enveloped in a cloud of dust. I have to fight my way out, fearing one stumble and I’ll be like the jockey at the bottom of Becher’s Brook. We cover the last 13km to the hut at breakneck speed. On arrival, I’m totally out of breath. The others are right behind, their smiles all the more marked from faces caked in dust.

SUNDAY 1700

Sadly, my tour ends here. Reykjavik is a mere hour by chopper and easy to arrange; but for me, the return is by car.

SUNDAY 1030

101 Hotel could not be more of a culture shock to Iceland’s rough interior. Its own interior boasts pieces by Philippe Starck and Eero Saarinen and is replete with contemporary Icelandic art. But what most interests me is the large, free-standing bath in my room, ready to be filled with Reykjavik’s restorative geothermal waters. Gingerly, I slip in, letting the minerals work their magic on my aching body before heading to the restaurant for a delicious sautéed Arctic char among the city’s beautiful people.

MONDAY 0445

“Good morning Mr Cooper. This is your wake-up call.” It’s a bit more humane than my iPhone’s alarm, but not much.

The 7.40am to Heathrow lands at 11.45am, leaving just enough time to make an afternoon appearance at the office. The Icelandic tölt has left its mark on my own gait; I stagger in, bow-legged, like a cross between John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin. Sitting down is, for now, out of the question.