Halfway through our ring road trip, we decided to spend a night in a small village near Skagafjörður called Varmahlið. We wanted to shorten the driving distance from Akureyri to Hellnar (about 430 km) so this seemed like the perfect place to cut the trip. Thankfully, we are right!
Our short stay in the town turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire Iceland experience. The region is like the whole Iceland in a nutshell and has an authentic vibe of the countryside. The lovely part? We got to enjoy its full glory without the huge pack of a crowd.
We stayed in one of the gorgeous cabin’s offered by Hestasport Cottages. It’s located uphill, surrounded by the Skagafjörður valleys, and there’s a natural hot tub outside. The place is literally a dream. You can read more about our experience here.
Aside from accommodation, Hestasport is also offering activities around the area. In particular, they organize riding tours catered for individuals, families, and groups of all age. The company is the oldest riding tour operator in Iceland where business has been running for over 40 years. That’s quite an achievement!
I love adding one or two activities in our itinerary whenever we travel, in favor of just seeing sights and ticking off places. I feel like the experience is further amplified and remembered if I mix something that hubby and I can try for the first time, or both of us can enjoy together. It’s also an opportunity to meet locals and hear more stories from an insider’s perspective.
That said, horseback riding was already on my list, along with chasing the Northern Lights and jumping off a waterfall. (You know I’m kidding on that last bit, right?) :)
When I came across Hestasport, it was perfect timing as I was already researching for riding tours in South of Iceland. But looking like we’ll have more extra time to fit the activity at this point in our trip, I booked an afternoon riding tour with them instead.
In case you’re wondering what the fuss is all about Icelandic horses, meeting them is a must when in Iceland. These fellows are one of the most amazing creatures on this planet with a rather interesting backstory.
Icelandic horses were first brought to the country by Norse Settlers or Vikings. To develop this unique breed, other European horses were introduced to the pack. However, a large number of the Icelandic horses died due to exposure to uncommon diseases that were brought by the others. This resulted to a ban on the importation of horses. Consequently, once an Icelandic horse leaves the country for whatever reason (like a competition), it can never return home. Quite melodramatic isn’t it? The Icelandic horse remained a pure breed since then, and the only type present in Iceland.
While most of the other horse breeds can only do the three traditional gaits (horse pace) – walk, trot, and gallop; Icelandic horses can do two more which are tölt and skeið. The latter is also known as “the flying pace” which is fast, smooth and commonly used during races where speed can reach up to 30 miles per hour.
And despite being mistaken as a pony because of their height which averages only at 4.5 feet, their sturdy built and strength are very well equipped to withstand Iceland’s harsh climate. They are long-lived and resilient than they look. So don’t call them ponies okay? They are quite sensitive about it. :)
The weather is gloomy on the afternoon of our riding tour. It was raining heavy few hours prior and there’s still a bit of shower when we reached the stable. Nobody seems to be bothered about it, though. Not even Esther, our guide, who is already prepping our adorable horses even when we arrived early.
The weather in Iceland can be unpredictable so wear waterproof clothing if possible. More importantly, wear something comfortable and flexible so it’s easier to move around. In any case, Hestasport will provide raincoats and helmets.
After a quick introduction, Esther asked about our comfort level in horse riding. Ha! I can’t even consider myself a beginner because I have no experience to begin with. But Esther assured us that we’ll be fine and further gave us an orientation on how to mount, come down, and navigate the horse to make it move, turn or stop. It sounds easy (and it actually is) but I’m a bit freaked out and worried that I might accidentally do something that would scare Olli and make him run away. I’m happy that he’s been very kind and really patient to me.
We trod along meadows, open fields, and tiny hills. It was incredibly scenic and the horses were following the trail like they know it so well. My Olli frequently stops to feed himself (he really has a big appetite) whenever he can but still able to keep up with the rest when I pull him up. He’s such a darling.
We passed by a bridge and went near the river to give the horses a drink. But soon after, the horses traversed the waters. We crossed the stream! The current is strong and deep given that it just rained but the horses braved it so effortlessly. It was so much fun! I tell you they are really a lot stronger than they seem.
My favorite part is when we followed a side of a hill. It wasn’t that high but the trail is tiny, muddy and uneven. One wrong step and we’ll literally be rolling down the hills. But aside from a small hiccup when Olli stepped on a soft mud, we finished the trail perfectly unharmed.
These horses grew up in that place. They know the track, every stone, and every hump. They know the sound of the birds and the depth of the stream. They know every step of the way, and they have been doing the tour for most of their life. So even if I’m worried for no reason at first, you can trust that the horses are great guides and they will bring you safe home.
At the end of the tour, I felt like I can already do horse riding on my own. Olli was really a great and smart pal; I could totally rely on him.
Esther shared that the horses are brought out from the stable into the open every end of the day. So we watch her lead the horses to the meadows as they gleefully run like school time is over! It really made me happy to see them being able to roam freely in the fields, not stuck in a cage.
The next day, the skies have cleared and the sun’s out! We drove back to the stable to say our final goodbye to Olli, Pyatur and the rest of the gang.
The Icelandic horses are even more radiant in the sun. They look even happier this time as we watch them roll their bodies on the dirt (seriously, like a dog), gallop, and answer each other like they were in a conversation. It was quite entertaining.
The horses I know back home did not grow in a wild, open environment. Their eyes are covered; they are overworked, and they are scared of humans. So that’s probably why I grew up a bit scared of them too. This is the first time I’ve learned and seen this side of the horses. And there is no denying that they are living a good life.
This is how you do responsible animal tourism.
Hestasport tends to hundreds of horses and is especially booked on summer season. They host group tours, field trips, and even week-long excursions. For more details, visit http://www.riding.is/.
Have you tried horseback riding on your travels?