Iceland Iceland Reykjavik Riding

Letting go of the reins…Icelandic horse riding

Written by Kirstie Pelling

These two seem quite at home with each other

Icelandic Horse Riding at Laxnes Horse Farm

If you want to split up a family, then take them Icelandic horse riding! Keen to get a taste of Iceland beyond Reykjavik and the Children’s Festival we headed out for the morning to Laxnes Horse Farm to try a little Icelandic horse riding. Now I knew we’d all be on horses but hadn’t quite figured out the implications of that until we were all saddled up and on our way… 

Letting go of the reins takes a lot of practice

“Now I know what ‘hold your horses’ really means!” cries Matthew as he gives up trying to hold onto his and shoots off into the distance, bumping up and down, and sliding on and off the saddle. Stuart follows them into the horizon while I am taking the road less travelled. My horse Sciona doesn’t even bother trying to give me the impression I am in charge.

If you want to split up a family, then take them Icelandic horse riding. In a group of twenty riders, many of them beginners, it’s the horses that are making all the decisions and there’s little chance of me doing any active parenting. It didn’t occur to me until after we’d set off that I wouldn’t see my three children for the rest of the morning. I think two are behind me and I can’t turn my horse, for me and Sciona have not yet developed an understanding about doing a 180 and don’t seem likely to anytime soon.

I may look comfortable up here, but really I’m out of control

It’s not easy not to worry..

As a parent I find I need nerves of steel for this activity. But it isn’t anything to do with my own riding ability. Having been thrown off a horse in New Zealand (it wasn’t going anywhere, it just didn’t fancy me on its back) and having clung onto the back of one over two days crossing steep mountains and fast flowing rivers in Chile, I’m not scared of them, although I do respect their power and determination. It’s more the fact that my kids have never had riding lessons, in fact have never actually sat on a horse, yet they are now riding solo across a land littered with geysers, shifting tectonic plates and volcanos.

What mother wouldn’t worry a little? It’s that old cotton wool parenting chestnut again. I want them to have freedom, but I want to be in control of that freedom. And at this riding centre in Laxness, I can’t even control my own horse let alone theirs. I have no choice but to trust them and their horses.

In the end I tell myself all I can do is relax, enjoy the ride and try to ignore Cameron’s cries of ‘Yee Ha’.

‘Yee Haw’ – I do wish he wouldn’t do that

I feel the grass looking forward to summer

What a ride it is as we trot across a flat sunny plain in the Mosfellsdalur valley, tracing and splish-sploshing  the river that meanders between the hills and mountains all around. The faded brown grass seems to be gasping for light and air after three months under snow-cover. It’s officially the second day of summer and despite the sun and a clear blue sky the vegetation says it’s still only early Spring. Nearby is a little museum, the former home of author Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s only Nobel prizewinner. Looking around it’s easy to see why the poetic language flowed.

Our lead guide seems to be in a hurry to get home. She speeds up, taking the better riders with her. And suddenly I am alone. I don’t know where Cameron or Hannah are and I don’t know the way, but I think the horse does. These placid horses walk this trail and others further up the mountain twice a day all year round. I tell her she’s a good horse. She takes that as a challenge.

It’s beautiful riding alongside the rivers and great fun crossing them

It feels like all my bones are rattling around in my body. Apparently Icelandic horses over the years have developed a kind of trot known as the tolt gait, which can help the horse escalate its speed with grace and efficiency. But this fells less tolt gait and more gallop. I just hope the kids aren’t doing it. But I bet they are.

The Icelandic horse is something special

Laxnes Horse Farm and Riding Centre is owned by Heida Bergsdottir and her husband Thorarinn Jonasson who have been running it together for 44 years. “And the funny part is I’ve been married to her all the time,” he giggles. When their son Haukur was ten, he joined them full time, “I’ve been custom bred for heavy labour,” he tells me with a smile. They are keeping it in the family; Haukur’s sister is a vet.

They have over 100 horses at any one time and I meet twenty or so when Haukur gives me a tour of the paddock, pointing out the distinct build of the animals. Iceland has had a ban on importing livestock since the eleventh century, and once a horse leaves the island it never returns, so they’re pure bred and quite unique looking. Haukur reckons he can pick out Icelandic horses at a glance anywhere in Europe; they are short, stocky and strong with wide front legs. He strokes one of the horses in front of us; his hand gently resting on the golden back, “Look at his colour. It’s a testament to how old this breed is; and this stripe is ancient horse stuff. In the summer, when he sheds hair here and here, he starts to look like a zebra.”

At Laxnes Horse Farm, I am introduced to some of the 100+ horses

Icelandic horses worked alongside the first settlers to arrive here, and they lived a harsh and austere life, crunching on ice when there was no other food. At Laxnes Riding Centre the life is easier; they’re mostly trotting about with tourists on their back, (although some might argue that hard labour and crunching ice are a more favourable pastime).  And they rest every other season when more horses are brought in from the fields. They’re lucky to be here; the sturdy gait and placid temperament make Icelandic horses a popular export to countries that are a little less blessed by nature, “The Danes are crazy about them. In 2008 they imported 7500 Icelandic horses,” says Haukur.

She didn’t need me, she loved the freedom

The zebra horse wanders off. Haukur answers his ringing phone and I am left stroking a horse called Suvali who is apparently a ‘huggy bear.’ I’m not sure I want to test that out. But I don’t need to as my daughter finally comes trotting in. She is the last one home; half an hour later than the rest of us, but thoroughly enjoying herself.

Hannah trots home. She didn’t miss me! She didn’t need me.

She didn’t need me. She didn’t even miss me. In fact she’s buzzing from the experience, the freedom, the sense of achievement.

“Can I have a horse Mum?” she asks as she dismounts.

I say nothing. I feel glad I gave her away this time, however unwillingly, but I know in my heart that if I’d managed to make my horse turn around, I’d be trotting in with her right now. Letting go of the reins takes a lot of practice.

Watch this for a taste of our Icelandic Horse experience


This post is part of our 2012 Iceland Season.  We visited Reykjavik in April for the Children’s Culture Festival, then spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike.  We’re grateful to Visit ReykjavikIcelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival. 

Read more from our Icelandic Spring 2012 Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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