On the evening of the day we went to the Blue Lagoon we went out after the Northern Lights. We were lucky and saw them on our first trip out ( if you don't see them the first time the companies that run the trips offer to take you out again until you do, if you're available). Tom succeeded in taking one or two photos (no mean feat without special equipement), and the guy who took us, a well known successful Lights chaser and photographer, took more including one of us in front of the aurora where we look like a couple of stuffed owls who died of hypothermia, and I think Tom will probably use them - he's doing Iceland posts over at Gwynt and we're trying to avoid too much uxorious duplication. The funny thing is, it was initially the Northern Lights which drew me to the idea of Iceland in the winter, but while I found them impressive to be sure*, and while I'm very glad I did see them, they weren't really the high point of the trip. I think perhaps that was the horses.
In Iceland, we were told, no livestock or even fodder may be imported. There is but one breed of cow, whence cometh the excellent milk, butter and skyr - the yoghurty product of which two pots were left in the apartment fridge when we arrived as part of the next day's breakfast I'd ordered; it is, it seems, almost devoid of fat (presumably that goes to make the butter) and yet has a remarkably thick, rich texture. There is one breed of sheep, which furnish the rough thick Lopi wool with which I am currently besotted, which comes in all shades of earth but also every hue of jewel and berry too, taking the colour with the depth and luminosity of silk; they also provide delicious meat, which, along with the milk and the wool is one of the few things which are plentiful and inexpensive there. And there is one breed of horse, the Icelandic horse, of course, which, though not tall, must never be called a pony.
I hadn't initially thought about the possibility of visiting much less riding any of these marvellous creatures; for some reason I thought it would involve going far into the hinterland and perhaps wouldn't be possible in winter. However, it turned out there were plenty of companies offering visits and rides, even for the likes of us, neither of whom has sat on a horse since we were kids, since when our flexibility and weight have waned and increased in pretty much inverse proportions. We booked a 'Nature Comfort' trip with Ishestar, which was the first I came across, but there are other and smaller operators too.
This was about the most basic option, and included being picked up from the apartment late morning, a twenty minute drive into the frozen hills, an hour or so to mooch about at the centre - where we had an excellent roast lamb lunch for about a tenner, some of which Tom sneakily managed to share with the resident springer spaniel - and then an instructional video and an hour on a horse in the surrounding countryside before being ferried home again. As we were the only ones taking that trip that day we had the minibus and the ride entirely to ourselves except for driver and guide. A bigger group of young people, who I think were probably on a longer riding holiday, were just coming in from their morning out. One girl was saying to another something along the lines of '... oh, it was OK, the snow was soft, no harm done', to which the other replied 'yeah, I came off yesterday, you just have to relax...'.
From where we were sitting we could see their horses just released in the paddock (Tom took these pictures).
Beautiful beasts, every colour known to horse, but somewhat rambunctious, I thought. The packed ice and lumpy volcanic rock didn't look too soft to me, and I decided not to relay the overheard conversation to Tom.
I needn't have worried. We were duly togged up with helmets and introduced to our mounts. I had Alder,
and Tom had Early,
(their names are as they sounded, not sure of the spelling).
These two were clearly used to the geriatric shift, they plodded round good-naturedly with us on board, and while I appreciate what must be the wonder of the exceptional gaits of tolt and pace special to the Icelandic horse and often described as 'explosive', 'dynamic', 'fast' and other such alarming adjectives, I am happy to say we were not called on to experience them. Early on the young woman who escorted us turned and seeing Tom allowing Early to pick his own slow way over the icy road advised 'you may have to be a bit firm with him'.
'To make him stop or to make him go?' I enquired.
'To make him go,' she replied, as though talking to an idiot and biting back the 'of course'.
Slow and easy it may have been, but it was altogether a magical experience in delightful company. Our guide (who wasn't really sarcastic) at one point turned around and said sweetly that she hoped we didn't mind that she wasn't talking much, but it was the most beautiful day she had seen in two years of working there, and she liked to just listen and enjoy the landscape, which was exactly how we felt.
It was truly listening to silence, no bird calls, scarcely any human sound except the odd distant engine of a vehicle coming and going, the occasional neigh of a horse from the stables, which made Alder prick up her ears and doubtless think about her nice warm box and sweet hay, but she clip-clopped on patiently. The sun had been up an hour or so and just skimmed along the horizon of the bowl of hills where as we made our circuit before making its way behind them again by the time we finished; it was windless and washed in glowing pink and lavender and gold. Contrary to expectations, Iceland in winter is full of colour, hard to catch in photos, in good weather anyway, and we were lucky with the weather.
A tour guide we had the following day, clearly another Icelandic horse enthusiast, told us that they are so comfortable, safe and stable that you should be able to balance and drink a full glass of beer while riding one without spilling a drop. Indeed, they were rather like big equine armchairs, even in these icy conditions. Now and then their hooves slipped, but they are built for this climate, know where to put their feet, and for good measure have special winter shoes on. Once or twice we experimented with steering a bit but mostly let them find their own way. Nevertheless, I wasn't quite confident to let go too often to take photos, and when I did getting straight horizons wasn't easy.
But I was able to take some more when we got off. Up close it's clear why they are horses not ponies: they have a bulk and substance about them which just feels big, their height notwithstanding, there's nothing about them that's on a small scale. These two were so gentle and fun and friendly, though, lovely characters.
We had saved our breakfast apples for them, Alder cheekily snuffed at them in Tom's pockets. It turns out however that this is another regard in which Icelandic horses differ from other equines, they don't much care for apples. Alder turned mine down altogether, even when I bit off small pieces to tempt her; Early finally condescended to try one, but only if Tom would hold it and turn it so he could munch on it bite by bite, rather as a human might, then wipe his foamy sticky muzzle on his sleeve.
'He's a nice old fellah' I remarked to the girl (meaning the horse). She smiled, 'He's polite' she affirmed.
We scarcely saw any cows or sheep, they being tucked up by now in their winter quarters. The horses, however, can stay out of doors all the year round, even through the savage storm that had swept the island a couple of days before we arrived, subsisting on scant winter grasses and other vegetation; no animal feed is imported into the country because of the risk of disease, just as no livestock can be brought in, and any horses that leave can never return. On the following day we had a long tour of the Golden Circle, the popular tour from Reykjavik which includes the most spectacular and accessible geysirs, waterfalls, Thingvellir etc. Photos and impressions from that are still being sorted and mulled over, but the driver pulled in at short notice where some more horses had come to a fence to be fussed and petted.
That's my hand rubbing that one's nose. I jumped out of the minibus and in my excitement with stroking and photographing forgot to put gloves on; by the time I returned ten minutes later my hands were so cold it was much longer before the pain in my thumbs subsided.
There were some crusts of bread which they were willing to eat, and some people were pulling up handfuls of dry grass to offer them,
but mostly they seemed happy just to stop for a chat and a pat.
and to pose in the afternoon sun against an impressive backdrop.
Handsome beasts, I think you'll agree.