2000s Archive

Riding Through Time

Originally Published May 2003
In Iceland, distances are still measured out in horse days, and every cave and waterfall recalls an episode from an Old Norse story cycle.

The sea is filled with fish, the air with bird cries, the sky with soft light, and the land with horses. Dinner is just over, and outside the town of Saudarkrokur—never mind the hour—a lone horseman rides by at a gait called the tölt: a gliding, high-stepping walk unique to Icelandic horses. He is leading two horses in training side by side with him along one of the broad horse paths that parallel roads in Iceland.

This rider has reached the end of town where, in America, the bowling alley would be. Instead, there is a new public winter riding hall and public stables adjoining it. Yet Saudarkrokur is a place of only 2,700 persons, edged by the wet smack of the sea, glazed with pale midnight light, mirrored by tidal waters flowing over black sand where the Heradhsvotn River fingers its way into Skaga Fjord. Beyond the docks and the racks hung with staring cod heads, past the eiders coasting on the inshore waves, Drangey Island swims in mid-fjord like a dark iceberg crowned with puffins.

Iceland has two inseparable souls. One is water, the other grass. Freshwater spills down the glaciers. It rises out of the ground in geysers and seeps. On mountain hillsides so steep the scree barely clings to them, you come across places where a traveler on foot would bog down in wet earth and where even Icelandic horses hesitate. In some spots, water turns the mountainsides chartreuse with vivid moss. But sooner or later, in its short run to the sea, freshwater levels out in river valleys and estuaries, and there the grass grows.

To move the water along, farmers trench the fields deeply—deep as a tall man—and at the edge of those trenches great mats of grass hang like the foam on a breaking wave. Everywhere you look, the soil in the field cuts is a different color, and for every color there is a color of Icelandic horse to match, their manes and forelocks as thick as the grass itself.

The world is full of horses, but Iceland is the only place I know where an entire people has given itself over to them. When the Vikings reached the island in the ninth century, they brought a language, Old Norse, that Icelanders still speak, and they brought the small horses that Icelanders still ride. Those horses have mingled with no other outside blood in all these hundreds of years.

Residents of the broad river valley south of Saudarkrokur point visitors to Flugumyri, a nearby breeding farm. The first horse mentioned in Icelandic history lies buried there, a swift mare named Fluga, or “Fly,” who stepped ashore from a Viking ship just a few kilometers north of Flugumyri more than 1,000 years ago. She disappeared in a swamp on that farm after bearing a legendary colt, Eidfaxi, who is said to have killed seven men in a single day. For those sturdy, deter­mined, patient animals, Icelanders found any use that horses could have— packing, riding, farming, or eating. Along the way they became icons of national as well as personal pride. In 1703, Iceland had about 50,000 residents and nearly 27,000 horses. Today, there are still just slightly more than three Icelanders for every horse.

A ride across the Icelandic countryside is inevitably a ride in and out of the past. Afternoon comes, and we have ridden deep into a mountain valley called Kolbeinsdalur, populated only by swans and Icelandic sheep. The valley lies at the foot of an ancient pass leading from Skaga Fjord into the district to the east, the next day’s ride. We stop for the night at a Farmers Association cabin, where Unnur Sveinbjorns­dottir, the wife of Ingolfur Helgason—one of the farmers riding with us—is already grilling lamb as we unsaddle. The farmers turn the horses loose in a river meadow.

On both sides of the valley, the land climbs steeper and steeper, shedding its vegetation until only moss and lichen cling to the rocks. Just below that line graze ewes and twin lambs, untended till the roundup in midautumn. The last farming couple to live permanently in Kolbeinsdalur moved away only a generation ago. The terrain seems newly abandoned and yet wild, though horses and sheep and farmers have been moving up and down this same track (as they still do) for centuries. The only sign of the past is a thin, deep groove in the soil where the hooves of sheep and horses have worn it away. The only signs of the present are the cabin and the scent of grilled lamb and the fatigue of a day’s riding.

The next morning, we stop farther up the valley at a rett, a loose stone corral, to change horses. It looks like the rubble foundation of a giant’s keep, and while we wait for the herd to come up, we repair walls that the weather has taken down. The most immeasurable luxury of Icelandic riding is what happens next. As we look down the valley at the river we crossed an hour ago, the Kolbeinsdalsa, a thread of movement breaks the mist in the distance. The motion slowly resolves into some 40 horses taking the high line up the valley.

When they ford the river, they fan out across the stony plain, driven by three men on horseback—Ingoll, as everyone calls him, and two of his friends. They make directly toward those of us waiting at the rett, six riders and Jon Petur Olafsson, a farmer, horse trainer, and guide. The horses spill into the breast-high stoneworks and immediately graze. In another few hours, on these fresh horses, we will be at the top of the pass, surrounded by snowfields that obscure the volcanic track, looking far down the green sliver of the next valley, Svarfadardalur, where the long afternoon will take us.

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