Short, stocky and shaggy they may be – but don’t judge Icelandic horses by their looks. Thoroughbred since the Vikings brought them here 1,000 years ago, this endemic breed is known for being incredibly easy to ride. Thanks to the horses’ relaxed and reliable natures, novices and pro-riders alike can easily saddle up and trot around Iceland’s snow-spotted lava fields, wide frozen lakes and glacier-topped volcanos. Here’s everything you need to know about horse riding in Iceland.
Why go horse riding in Iceland?
From the midnight sun to the northern lights, this extreme west corner of Europe delivers riding conditions like nowhere else on earth. Where else can you head off into the Arctic Circle? The drama of this frosty and fiery volcanic island is only heightened by its solitude. Rural Iceland is so sparsely populated that all you'll hear is the sound of hooves pummelling the earth or snow, the roaring ocean waves, and the occasional chirp of a coastal bird.
What's special about Icelandic horses?
They’re smart, sweet-natured, and easy to handle. Best of all, these horses can fly. Not literally, obviously. But whereas most horses have three gaits (walk, trot, canter/gallop), the Icelandic breed uniquely has two more. Skeið ('flying pace') is a two-beat, lateral race gait of up to 50 mph. Their four-beat, single-foot gait, tölt, is so smooth it’s been likened to floating on a magic carpet.
Icelanders are passionate about their horses (never call them ponies!) and they're bred all across the country. In a land where horses outnumber people by three to one, these trusty steeds are still a big part of life. When roads are blocked by snow, horses are used instead of cars. It’s tradition for communities to hop on horseback each spring, to help farmers round up their roaming sheep.
Icelandic horses are the only breed of horse found in the country © Steve Quinlan/Shutterstock
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When should I go horse riding in Iceland?
With its warmer weather, summer is the main riding season in Iceland. However, some stables run trips year-round. Winter brings heavy snow to the north – but don't let that put you off. The thrill of hooves kicking up powder-snow, and the low winter sun tinging the scenery pink, will make for a trek you’ll never forget. By night, you may even find yourself gazing up at the Northern Lights.
You can tag short excursions onto your trip at any time of year. The shortest last for an hour, a day-ride is usually four. Book multi-day tours well in advance.
Where can I ride Icelandic horses?
Riding stables are most heavily clustered in the mild Golden Circle, the area around Reykjavik in the south-west. The second most popular area is the north, in the frozen landscapes surrounding Iceland’s ‘second city’, Akureyri. Wherever you choose, you’ll be spoilt for spectacular scenery.
Riding along Reynisfjara black sand beach © Jeafish Ping/Shutterstock
Take in the wilderness of the south-west on one of Hestaland’s famous treks. You'll travel around 30km each day alongside a loose herd of forty to fifty horses. You won't even have to forgo creature comforts: each evening the herd is left in place, while you're driven back to the homestead for a sound night's sleep.
Ishestars Horse Center, which has pick-up points across Reykjavik, offers one- to five-hour day tours. Multi-day rides further afield run spring to autumn. For a unique experience, go nocturnal on the new Midnight Sun trek, in which you ride during the night and sleep during the day.
© Anna Durinikova/Shutterstock
There's a reason why the riding stables Eldhestar translates as ‘Volcano Horses’. On horseback, you'll explore the sweeping valleys around the active Hengill volcano. Bubbling beneath are natural hot springs – perfect for soothing tired muscles after a day in the saddle.
In the north, 30 minutes from Akureyri is Polar Hestar. Here, you can hop on a horse for anything from one hour, to a multi-day tour among snowy fjords, shores, mountains, rivers and valleys.
Take a winter ride at Hestasport , also based north, against a backdrop of the Tröllaskagi mountains’ flat tops. Hestasport has named its winter excursions the 'Viking Rides'. Just as the Vikings did a millennium ago, you'll be exploring the edge of the inhabitable world, with the help of your fearless little equine companion of course.
Explore more of Iceland with The Rough Guide to Iceland