For several years I’ve been fortunate enough to ride on treks in Iceland every summer. There is nothing more satisfying than getting through a day being so close to nature, riding amazing horses, traveling with friends, and coming back to a home-cooked Icelandic meal. I am privileged to see the most breathtaking scenery I have ever imagined. Sometimes the landscape is completely untouched by man: No telephone poles or power lines for miles. The horses surprise me with their abilities and willingness. I am in awe.
There are times, though, when things don’t go exactly as planned and I find myself asking, “Why am I doing this?”
Admittedly, a little fear is part of the rush I get from trekking. In order to have an optimum experience on a trek, I know I must relinquish all control and just enjoy the ride. It’s all about staying in the saddle and trusting my horse. It is both physically and mentally challenging, and that’s why I love it.
But it’s not for everybody. For many years I have also organized treks through my company America2Iceland. Here are some tips I’ve compiled that I hope will help you decide if going on a trek in Iceland—with mine or any other company—is really something you want to do. I’m not trying to sell you anything—maybe the reverse. Let me be clear: Trekking is not for the faint-of-heart.
BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR ABILITIES
If you have doubts about your ability to enjoy riding six or more hours a day at a fast pace, over various terrain and under all weather conditions (think snow, sleet, freezing rain), and in all gaits, then stop reading right here. You’re not ready for a trek. Being not just physically up for the challenge, but mentally prepared for it are prerequisites. Ideally all riders should be intermediate to advanced in skill-level. If you come from a different discipline and have not ridden an Icelandic horse before, it would be wise to take lessons on the breed before hitting open terrain.
Even for intermediate and advanced riders, a trek is not like taking a trail ride at home. Chances are, you won’t know your horses very well before the trek. On some treks, riders like to try as many horses as possible, switching horses at each and every break. If that’s you, let your guide know and have fun. More important, if that’s not you, your guide needs to know. You will still need two or more horses to get you through a 40-kilometer day. You need to be a good enough rider that you can “read” each horse and adjust your riding style accordingly. And if I have to explain to you why you need more than one horse per day, well, let’s just say that trekking probably isn’t for you.
CHOOSE YOUR TACK WISELY
The tack you are given before the first ride is the tack you will use and be responsible for during the entire trek. Check it carefully for wear. Most of the tack used on treks is old and well-loved. Now’s the time to get a new girth or stirrup leather—not when it breaks 20-kilometers from home. Your guides will have checked the tack too, but it’s easy to miss something.
Be sure to pick a saddle that you will be comfortable in—again, if you don’t know how to do that by just looking at the available saddles, then trekking is probably not for you. On many treks, you will also be expected to fit the bridle and noseband on your horse properly. Your guide may show you how the first time, but won’t check it every day unless you ask.
At the end of the day, you’ll want to keep your bridle, saddle, and helmet together. I always bring along a roll of colored tape so I can mark my stuff. Sometime I mark my horses as well by a special hair braid woven with colored tape or yarn, especially if the herd is predominantly one color. People have picked out the wrong horse before. Trust me, it’s happened.
There are times when you’ll be told to hurry up and wait. Some horses can be difficult to catch, and the bigger the field or enclosure, the longer it can take. Sometimes it can take 3-4 people to catch one horse, and everyone is welcome to get involved in that process. It’s a great way to work up a sweat before riding!! But before you can safely take your trusted companions out for vigorous work, you must also attend to their needs. Each horse is inspected first to see if it needs salve applied to its lips, needs shoes, or if there are any lameness issues—in which case the horse will be left behind at the night’s corral and you’ll be assigned a new one. It can be really frustrating to be all ready to go, only to find yourself eating your packed lunch before the start of the day. But at least the sun is still shining! Not always:(
CHOOSE YOUR POSITION
On most treks in Iceland, the spare horses—whether 10 or 100—run loose between the riders. You need to decide, are you a front rider or a back rider? Sometimes your horse makes the decision for you: Always ask your guide if your horse is a front or back horse before you pick your position.
Front Riders: As a front rider, you have chosen to ride in front of the loose herd. Ideally you are on a horse that prefers to be ridden in the front. Some horses that are unruly in the back tend to calm down in the front. The front riders are responsible for keeping the pace of the ride and for opening the gates. That means they have to be close to the guide and somewhat close to the herd, but they also have to be aware of terrain changes because the herd behind them will also have to go through it. An example would be going through a lava field with sharp rocks. The front riders need to slow down to a walk so that the loose horses doesn’t go too fast and possibly injure themselves. Same thing for going up and down hills or through deep water crossings. The front riders need to be constantly aware of the herd behind them, so they don’t lead them into danger. There are cattle guards and gates to be aware of too, so front riders must always be in communication with the guide. If you have eyes in the back of your head, this is the spot for you.
Back Riders: The back riders have the best view, unless it’s dry and dusty. Again, find out in advance if your horse can be ridden in the back. The back riders must make sure not to push the herd too hard, or else the herd can bunch up and split off in different directions. If and when that happens (and it probably will), you might find yourself blessed with a horse who thinks it’s his job to keep the rest of the herd in line. If you end up with a work horse like this on your hands, it can be loads of fun—just make sure you are ready for it. It’s also possible to ride in the back and just go along with the herd. Back riders have to close the gates, but usually your guide will have helpers to do that. If you can summon your inner cowgirl or cowboy, it can be a fun job to close the gates just to have the opportunity to ride fast to catch up with the group.
THE STARTING GATE
The beginning of the ride is always the most adrenaline pumping, heart-in-the-throat part of the entire day. Do try and remind yourself of this. The horses have been waiting as patiently as they possibly can. Once the herd starts moving, your horse will go whether you are on it or not. So, unless you are good at a flying mount, be sure you are on your horse before the guides are on theirs and/or the gates are opened. Ask one of the guides to hold your horse’s head if you have any doubt you can mount safely—do not put your fellow travelers at risk by asking a friend to do this for you.
The main thing is to make sure you’ve got the right horse, your tack is on correctly, your stirrups are in their proper positions, you have both hands on the reins, and you follow the guide’s instructions. There is no turning back at this point. Most of the horses won’t be able to stand still, so the key is to let them move a little if they are getting anxious. Just sit and breathe, relax into your seat bones, and wait for the fun to begin.
ENJOY THE SCENERY
Once the horses understand they are actually on a long-distance trek, they go into “energy conservation” mode. They pick their positions within the herd, settle down, and choose their favorite gait—which you hope is also your favorite gait. This is when it’s maybe possible to take photos and enjoy the scenery.
If you are a back rider, then you are fortunate enough to observe the herd dynamics while traveling. The loose herd is constantly establishing a hierarchy, and sometimes this can wreak havoc. A lone horse may feel more comfortable tagging along with a friend who is being ridden in the back, or you might see the herd trying to split up and go in different directions.
RELINQUISH ALL CONTROL
More often than not, the herd will stick close together, and it’s highly unlikely that your horse will turn around and take off in the opposite direction. Your job as a rider is to pick a position, either front or back, and stay there. Getting caught in the middle of the herd is not a desirable place to be.
But other than keeping your place in the herd, there’s not much “riding” you can do. If you are a control freak, then a trek might not be for you. When traveling with a herd, it’s not possible to micromanage the horse’s every step. Your horse is better able than you are to pick the best footing, so just trust your horse. As long as your horse isn’t pushing the herd too hard (if you’re a back rider), or leading the group too slowly or too fast (as a front rider), then you just need to go with the flow.
ALL GAITS REQUIRED
Admit it, we all love this breed because of the tolt. A good trekking horse can tolt for a decent amount of time. However, it’s not physically possible to expect your horse to tolt up hills, through mud, and on sketchy terrain. Please give your horse a break! Unless you’ve been blessed with a natural tolting machine, trying to force it into tolt the entire ride is not kind, nor is it good horsemanship. Let the horse trot when it needs to. You will most likely experience all of the gaits on a trek. There’s no avoiding trot, and sometimes there’s no avoiding piggy pace, so if that’s an issue for you, don’t go trekking.
There are times when the trek will have to travel along Route 1 or another busy road to get to a trail. It can add an element of danger, but it is also an amazing sight for tourists, who will stop their cars to take photos. This is your fifteen seconds of fame, so enjoy it! You might also experience some very inept drivers—both tourists and Icelanders—who are completely unaware of how to operate a vehicle around a herd of loose horses. Always be aware!
RESPECT ALL RIDERS
Everyone has their own reasons for going on a trek. It might be one of their own personal riding goals, it could be on their bucket list, they might want to experience the beauty of Iceland, enjoy time with friends, or satisfy that inner cowgirl/boy. Whatever the reason, we are all traveling with the horses as a collective group. Therefore, the safety of all riders and horses is of the utmost importance.
Trekking is not a competition, but at times it can bring out a competitive nature in riders. The most successful treks are when all riders respect each other and work together. It requires a team effort, and if we can remind ourselves that these horses are living, breathing animals, not machines, then we can have a truly wonderful experience.
WHEN IN ICELAND, THINK LIKE AN ICELANDER
Þetta reddast is an Icelandic phrase or philosophy that means, “Don’t worry, it will all work out.” It truly captures Icelandic optimism, but it can also be an issue with those who like a clearly planned itinerary. Remember this when trekking, because chances are most of your Icelandic guides will have this philosophy. Don’t be surprised if one of them runs into an old friend on the road and stops to talk, or is doing business deals on his or her cellphone while you are trying to ask a very important question. Just breathe and know it will all work out. You will be a better person after a trek, I promise. But make sure you’re ready before you go.
If you have realized after reading this that you are not suited for a trek, check out our most popular Educate & Rejuvenate trips. However, if you are interested in signing up for a Icelandic horse trek, check out our Trekking Adventures.