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Iceland on the Cheap

Horseback Trekking in Iceland

Experiencing Europe’s Westernmost Country Viking Style

Iceland. It sounds freezing, barren, and far. But in fact, this island country that looks like a Dr. Seuss drawing come alive, is temperate, lush, and just five and a half hours from New York City. Countless volcanoes and geysers, smoking craters, and bubbling mud pools sculpt a breathtaking otherworld that has scarcely changed since the Vikings settled there. The descendants of their horses still dapple the countryside 1,200 years later, and are still the best way to trek the terrain.

To experience this phantasmagoric land and its people, spend a week at a horse farm. By day you’ll explore the landscape on horseback; by night commune with your Icelandic hosts and fellow riders from any number of countries.

Naturally, summer is the "best" time to book; the weather is mild and the daylight is continuous, lending to endless opportunities for fun. On the other hand, in the summer prices are steep and the crowds are serious. So if you can handle a little chill and drizzle, book your trip in May or September for a lower-cost, crowd-free equine adventure and cultural immersion.

Among the riding tour operators, southern Iceland’s 250-acre Hestheimar (pronounced hest-hi-mar) farm stands out for its affordability, homey accommodations, ample herd of horses, and ability to customize a tour based on what you want to spend and see. Another advantage is that spectacular sights are within easy driving distance—for those late afternoons when you’d happily trade your hard leather saddle for a cushy bucket seat.

Of course the bulk of your time will be spent on and around the farm itself. A short walk from the guesthouse is the host family’s home. Most meals are served in the family’s large kitchen, a bright space with terra-cotta floor tiles and a windowed wall that overlooks the dozens of horses grazing in wait for the day’s ride.

The Nordic horses the Vikings brought over—now known as native Icelandic horses—have remained purebred and isolated on the island through the ages, thanks to a ban on importing farm animals. So touring the tundra on horseback is the closest you can get to reliving ancient history.

The horses are smaller than you’d expect; a grown man on an Icelandic horse looks as absurd as if he were riding a St. Bernard. But true to their Viking roots, these cartoon creatures are Army tank tough. You could be riding in the rain and through rivers deep enough to soak your socks. And you’ll be mounted for about six hours each day.

Yet far from feeling like torture, there’s a raw, poetic thrill in braving the elements Viking-style. More importantly, it’s downright fun. Still, you’ll be glad to find a geothermally heated hot tub next to the guesthouse. It’ll loosen strained muscles until the Advil kicks in.

You don’t need a weeklong riding tour to experience Iceland on horseback. Most hotels and guesthouses can arrange horseback riding day tours. These shorter tours, however, won’t provide much time for you to find your rhythm in the saddle, to explore the hidden wonders of a trail-free countryside, or to end your ride with just-brewed coffee and homemade cakes in an Icelander’s kitchen. For all that, you’ll have to stay a while.

For More Info

Ishestar (ees-hes-tar), a popular riding tour operator offers trips that take you to the Hestheimar farm or to the highlands using Hestheimar’s horses and guides. Ishestar often plays middle-man for Hestheimar and sweetens the pot with pickup/dropoff from hotels and the airport, along with a brief tour of some local natural wonders. www.ishestar.is.

Icelandair. A package riding tour with Icelandair includes airfare, airport transfers, an Ishestar riding tour, and two nights in Reykjavik at an Icelandair hotel. All you do is show up to the airport on time, and you’re taken care of start to finish. It’s the easiest, though potentially the most expensive, way to go. www.icelandair.com.

Additional riding tour operators, with descriptions and links: www.randburg.com/is/tourism/horserent.html.

HOPE CRISTOL is a D.C.-based freelance writer whose travel articles have appeared in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. By day she is assistant editor at the Futurist magazine.