A line of riders crosses a plain. The sun is high and white, the wind bone-chilling. All around are snow-covered volcanoes. The horses have shaggy coats, but the humans atop them are inadequately dressed and unsure in their saddles. They are tourists, in search of the wild.
In Iceland, horses are part of the culture in a way that’s died out in many other parts of the world. Riding is a way to connect to the inhospitable but stunning terrain. It’s bound up with feelings of freedom, status, and virility, and to rites of passage.
And increasingly, the horses also are handy because they’re one of the ways for a tiny economy to attract tourists to a far-flung place where it’s dark half the year.
In the early 2000s, Iceland reinvented itself as an international banking capital. Its local banks, which had before dealt mainly with workaday domestic needs, expanded rapidly to take on much more investment banking activity, and more global money. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Iceland’s financial services saw a spectacular meltdown. Since then, the country has gone through a rapid recovery, stimulated by savvy policy. It now relies on both the traditional industries like fishing, and on newer ones, like adventure tourism.
In 2014, almost 1 million people visited the island, double the number in 2008. The Icelandic tourist board estimates that the island, which has a permanent population of just 323,000 people, generated an estimated $2.5 billion (pdf) in economic activity from tourism last year—more than the staple businesses of fishing or aluminum smelting.
Affluent adventurers, who can be persuaded, for example, to visit Iceland’s luxury spas or ride its horses, are among the most profitable tourists.
And so the intensive branding of the Icelandic horse has begun.
Horses aren’t native to Iceland, but they have been here for more than a millennium. The Icelandic horse, a recognized breed with its own studbook (a record of horse lineage), was brought to the island by the first Viking settlers, many of them from Norway, back in the ninth century. The horses came from all over Europe: Scandinavia and Germany, Ireland and the Shetlands. They interbred back then, but have for hundreds of years been kept separate from other populations.
“It’s one of the purest breeds that are now in the world,” says Ida Thorborg, a Dane who trains horses and manages staff at the Eldhestar riding center, half an hour southeast of Reykjavik. The Vikings “brought just the best horses that they had, so it was the working horses, the riding horses,” she says. Thorborg quotes a former teacher in her description of the horse: “It’s small, it’s furry, and it’s like a Ferrari to ride.”
Icelandic horses are popular across the world, with large populations in Germany and the US. Export is encouraged—Iceland Air has a promotional video about how it flies horses out of the country in specially designed crates.
There are strict laws, however, preventing travel in the other direction. To protect the purity of the breed, no alien horse can ever be brought to Iceland. And a horse that leaves can never return. Those that are taken to competitions abroad must afterward be sold. Thus, the horses have achieved a cult status among both horse enthusiasts and less serious riders (this writer included) who harbor a thing for horse-riding and its promise of primal connection to nature, and of escape.
The guarding of the horses’ purity has a long history.
But now, it’s also one way in which encounters with these creatures are made precious as an experience for visitors, as tourism becomes increasingly crucial to Iceland’s economic recovery.
In 2015, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations began active promotion (pdf) of the “brand” of the Icelandic horse. The Icelandic government agreed to put an annual 25 million Icelandic krónur ($200,000) behind the effort for four years, with another 25 million krónur promised to come “from the people in the Icelandic horse community and industry.” The group declared May 1 the international “day of the Icelandic horse.” From the announcement:
Clubs, municipalities, and countries are encouraged to make great use of this day to portray the wonderful qualities on the Icelandic horse—spending quality time with friends and families—bringing you closer to nature!
Promote Iceland, a group that aims to do just that, has a video about “building the brand.”
Icelandic horses are rather small. Some might call them ponies, but Icelanders, eschewing the very concept, don’t even have a translation for that word. Icelandic horses are shaggy in winter and sleeker in summer, long-lived, and powerful. Their colors are manifold, ranging from silver to red, pure white to ink. The most startling have blue eyes, or blond manes in high contrast to dark coats.
But as most Icelandic horse obsessives (and there are many) will tell you, looks pale in comparison to the one thing that really sets these animals apart: the so-called “five gaits”.
Icelandic horses, it’s said, can walk, trot, and canter or gallop (the latter is a faster version of the former), like other horses. But they can also do two more moves: the tölt and the skeið.
The tölt is a very fast walk, during which the rider remains seated rather than rising and falling as with the trot. Thorborg calls this a “power walk for the horse.” Images of well-groomed ladies in sports clothes marching through suburbs loom. But if you really want to imagine the walk, think of a well-dressed, athletic businessman trying to make a train without breaking into a run.
It looks like this, from the 2013 film Hross í oss, or Of Horses and Men (the tölt starts at the 0:21 mark):
The skeið is a gait known as “flying pace” and only some Icelandics have it. It’s a much faster dash in which the front hooves lift particularly high (the higher the lift, the more expensive the horse, our guide told us).
For anyone not used to the pace, it seems extraordinary, sped-up, manic; even comic.
But that’s not how it looks to Icelanders. Benedikt Erlingsson, who wrote and directed the award-winning Hross í oss, told Quartz that previewing the film to audiences abroad was a revelation:
“I was screening the film and going to festivals around the world, and when the horse starts to tölt, for me it is masculine, beautiful. It gives them status: ‘Wow, it’s a great tölter.’ But people start laughing!…They thought it [was] funny. I thought, ‘Wow, I am really polluted by my own culture.’ I understand now why they laugh: It’s this small horse and he’s doing daga-daga-daga, and the man is very proud. But that is how I feel when I tölt.”
As a 13-year-old spending time on a horse farm, Erlingsson recalls the whole family dressing smartly and going out to watch the mating of a mare and a stallion. ”We went all there to witness this,” he says. “So it was like a brutal introduction for young children into this reality of life.”
Erlingsson got his first horse when he was 15 and now owns five. The horse is a status symbol, he says—not the sign of wealth it might be in other cultures, but an indication of taste and discernment: “If you have a horse that lifts high, it gives you something, it becomes part of your identity,” he says. “Like cars, they give also identity.” More than once, people liken these horses to motorbikes.
More than that, Icelanders talk about connection to the earth; about a long, shared history; about the horses’ unique character.
So what are we doing here, this motley crew of Americans, Swedes, Japanese teenagers, and one Englishwoman, shivering as we attempt to tölt up the side of a small mountain without being joggled clear of our mounts?
Wildness, freedom. Those are two of the words many people, my fellow tourists included, use when I talk to them about these horses and the country as a whole: a place of extreme weather, dark winters, volcanoes, glaciers, and tracts of empty land.
Around the riding center, horses are dashing through fields and streams. On the horizon is Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano which erupted in 2010, spewing a cloud of ash that grounded flights around Europe for weeks. Erlingsson says that in the highlands around Iceland’s center, riding is an experience of much more complete solitude than is possible here, so close to the capital.
As tourists on a guided ride, we find the inevitable disappointments. We will not be free, but walk a pre-defined route on mounts that are used to humans. We will always be outsiders.
But there are moments in that afternoon, under a sun that refuses to set, when all frustration falls away. It’s just us, and the horses, and the wild landscape of which we are, finally, a part.