Iceland’s landscapes can look post-apocalyptic: endless black volcanic sand, and nothing else visible for miles but tall power lines. There are spots with lunar-like craters—then, suddenly, a wild covering of bright-green moss. Moss and more moss, until you come to another new terrain: golden vegetation. Next, a boiling geyser, followed by waterfalls, frigid glaciers, lagoons filled with crackling ice. It’s this often-surreal mix of scenery, of hot and cold and lush and open, than can make Iceland seem otherworldly, and make those who’ve been there sound perhaps a little loopy when describing it. But it’s just that magical a place—and riding one of the country’s horses unlocks even more of it.
María Tinna Árnadóttir is a stable supervisor at the Icelandic horse tour company Íshestar, based in Hafnarfjörður in the country’s southeast. “In the highlands,” she notes, “there are so many places you can’t walk, but you can go by horse.” The highlands are part of Iceland’s interior, and were once almost inaccessible due to rough terrain and huge glaciers. (Outlaws would occasional brave the cold, harsh environment to hide there.) But as roads were built starting in the 1970s, the highlands—with its deserts, volcanoes and ice caps, which are part of what makes Iceland known as “the land of fire and ice”—began to open up. While it's possible to traverse many parts of the highlands by walking or by 4x4 vehicle, the most breathtaking, remote parts are inaccessible without an equine transport, since the land is too rocky.
The country’s equines are a distinct breed with a unique history. As Árnadóttir explained, all of the horses in Iceland are bred from stock the Vikings are said to have brought over 900 years ago from Ireland and northern Europe, and legend has it that because their ships had limited space, they took only the best animals.
All horses have what are called natural gaits—inherent patterns of walking they don’t have to be taught. But whereas other breeds share a few natural gaits—including the walk, the trot and the gallop—Icelandic horses use a gait, known as the tölt, that no other breed on the planet does. While their hooves hit the ground in the same sequence as the walk, the movement is faster, yet still smooth. And unlike some gaits, one of the horse’s hooves always touches the ground. As the United States Icelandic Horse Congress writes, although horses using the tölt can reach speeds similar to fast trotting, the experience is much less jolting to the rider. Since it’s so fluid, newbie riders can take an Icelandic horse through the country’s wilds without worrying about a bumpy ride. “You are never bouncing in the saddle—it’s more just like gliding,” Árnadóttir says.
Here are five stunning locations in Iceland that are best experienced on horseback:
The Kjölur trail that connects the south of Iceland to the country’s north is an ancient one, established in the tenth century to help Icelanders make their way to parliament, which was first held in 930. Several tour companies offer rides on this historic route, which sits between two of the biggest glaciers in Iceland, Hofsjökull and Langjökull. According to Íshestar, which offers a Kjölur tour, riders can get closer to the glaciers and green fields than they would if they were driving. Other companies, including Riding Iceland and Eldhester, offer similar trips, which last about seven days. Most stop at a favorite geothermal area in the highlands called Hveravellir.
South Iceland Sheep Roundup
By some estimates, Iceland boasts twice as many sheep as humans. On a horse tour into the mountains where the sheep roam each summer, riders can help local farmers round up their animals before bringing them back down to the lowlands. Several of these trips take visitors to South Iceland, including Eldestar’s sheep tour, where tourgoers in the community of Gnúpverjahreppur bring sheep from an area called Hólaskógur down to a valley called Þjórsársdalur.
Meanwhile, Íshestar’s version of the trip, also to South Iceland, goes through Landmannalaugar and Jökulgil and near Volcano Hekla. The tours include traditional singing and celebrating in the farmer community, and, of course, plenty of soft, soft sheep.
This beach is popular among visitors, partly because it's one of the few in Iceland with yellowish white sand rather than black volcanic sand. Several tour groups come through, offering visitors the chance to ride along the edge of the sea. One offering comes from the company In the Saddle, who note that this area is one of the few in Iceland where one can ride unobstructed for hours. The Eldhestar company, Íshestar and other companies offer trips through the area as well.
For more extensive water action—or to feel like a character fording the river in the old Oregon Trail game—take a horse tour that goes through Lake Hóp, the fifth-largest lake in Iceland (though some classify it as a lagoon). Whereas a car trip or hike would go around the body of water, a horse ride can take travelers right through it. The water is shallow enough for the horses to ride, and crossing it is something visitors will never forget, Íshestar says. Their tour through the water is called the Trail of Hope, and includes a stop at Thingeyrar Farm, on the former site of a monastery founded in the 12th century. Other Icelandic horse tours cross rivers, for that same rugged, splash-filled experience.
A ride up the mountains in Reykjadalur Valley offers a special view. Because the horse trails are separate from the roads for cars, riders on horse tours can see different scenery as they climb, including panoramic views of the areas below. Vistas include the town of Hveragerði, pictured here. And because Reykjadalur is relatively close to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, travelers who want a quick tour can see the sights without planning for a multiple-day excursion. Sólhestar’s Hot Spring tour, for instance, which climbs the mountains, requires only four or five hours of riding and is a day trip rather than an overnight. The views, says Linnéa Stierna with the tour company Sólhestar, are “definitely more beautiful by horse than by foot or car.” And despite the short length of the trip, riders still get to soak in hot springs, the classic Icelandic pastime.