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John Wayne Rides Through Iceland

Riders in Iceland. Photo Hestasport.

By Jules Older

I was 13 when Billy Jack threw me for the third and final time.

It might not have been final if he hadn’t been such a big sucker… and if I didn’t have a fishing reel in my back pocket.

But Billy Jack stood 16 hands, and I landed right on the reel. When I finally dried my tears, I took a solemn vow never again to set seat on a horse.

Forty years later, two things conspired to make me break my vow.

One was the promise of unbelievable scenery in the northern reaches of Iceland. The other was the Icelandic horse.

From all I’d read, the Icelandic horse had three things going for it: a sweet temper, a low-slung chassis and the tolt. The tolt is an extra gait, supposedly as smooth as a Rolls Royce. When you’re tolting (or so I’d read), you don’t post, you don’t bounce, you just sit back and enjoy the ride.

So I flew to Reykjavik. I didn’t bring a fishing reel. I brought padded bicycle pants.

I decided to spend my first day sightseeing. If you do the same, I recommend you limit yourself to one each of the four basic tourist experiences:

* One Tour. Take the Reykjavik City Bus Tour. It’s informative and lasts less than two hours.

* One “Natural” Attraction. Have a swim in the Blue Lagoon. It’s warm and soothing waters are a perfect antidote to jetlag. But while it looks like a natural hot spring, the Blue Lagoon is actually an industrial bi-product of the big geothermal station that forms its backdrop.

* One Restaurant. If you’re carrying a surfeit of cash, dine at Vid Tjornina in the center of Reykjavik. It ain’t cheap (little in Iceland is), but it’s one of Europe’s outstanding seafood restaurants.

* One Museum. Visit the Einar Jonsson Museum— the home and studio of one of Iceland’s best-known artists. Jonsson’s images are sometimes tortured, often disquieting, always powerful.

Well. I’d taken the tour, had my dip, dined on starry ray and gazed upon Jonsson’s tormented souls. Now I was ready to Meet My Horse.

And I would have, had I not run into Cynthia. She was flying to the Westman Islands the next morning and suggested I join her.

“I’d like to, Cynthia, but I’ve waited 40 years to ride this horse.”

She was unimpressed. “You’ve waited 40 years, and the Icelandic horse has been around for 1,100 years. You’ll both survive one more day.”

In the end, I agreed to go to the islands with Cynthia, and she agreed to spend the following day riding with me. Neither of us was hard to convince. Cynthia’s a horse fanatic; I’m a fool for volcanoes.

And volcanoes are what make the Westman Islands more than just another scenic fishing port and seabird hotel. At 1:00 A.M. on the 23rd of January, 1973, the islanders were wrenched from sleep by the sound of a volcanic eruption right outside their windows. Boiling lava, black smoke and tons of hot cinders blew skyward as a wall of flame shot 300 feet into the night. While the townspeople watched in horror, a river of molten lava flowed toward their homes, and a torrent of volcanic debris rained down on them.

Because the fishing fleet was in port, all but a few of the 5,000 inhabitants were evacuated from the island before dawn. Despite a massive loss of property– a third of the town was buried in lava forever– no one died.

From our bus and boat tour, we were able to trace the path of the lava flow, view the final remains of the last house that went under and gaze upon a lifetime’s worth of puffins and gulls. We flew back to Reykjavik that evening, and I fell asleep thinking of horses.

Coverphoto Rideandraft
Riding Icelandic horses. Photo Hestasport.

The next morning Cynthia and I flew north to Akureyri, then drove west to Skagafjordur, home of the Hestasport horse farm. We passed misty mountains and roaring waterfalls in a landscape that was desolate, beautiful and almost uninhabited.

When we reached Hestasport, I quickly explained that I was a bit, uh, timid. The guide assured me in perfect English that he had just the steed for me. “Meet Haraldur,” he said. I looked down into the mane-shaded eyes of an aging gelding who stood 13 hands short. After a moment of silent prayer, I mounted and slid my feet into the stirrups. They almost touched the ground. I like that in a horse.

I soon found that Haraldur responded instantaneously to even the gentlest rein or leg command, and it wasn’t long before I discovered I was actually enjoying myself. Though I did have a nagging (ahem) anxiety. At a rest stop in front of an old Icelandic church, I spoke my fear. “This is great, but I’m afraid of what it’s gonna’ be like when we stop walking and start tolting.”

Cynthia shook her head and said, “We’ve been tolting for the last half-hour.”

My face broke into an unstoppable smile. “Giddayup, Haraldur!”

Basking in the warmth of relief, I felt a sudden love of Haraldur, love of Icelandic horses, love of Iceland. I wanted to keep on riding, to sign up for one of Hestasport’s cross-Iceland treks, to take Haraldur home with me as my faithful companion.

I suppose that’s not surprising. After all, he was the finest piece of horseflesh I’d ridden in 40 years.



Dressing for Iceland. The climate is unpredictable but not bitterly cold, so dress for wind and water, not for warmth. Bring sturdy, waterproofed walking shoes, hat, gloves– and sunglasses.

Hair Care. When you go to the Blue Lagoon, bring plenty of shampoo to get all those healthy minerals out of your hair.

Local Sensibilities. At the Blue Lagoon or any swimming pool, always shower nude before entering the water. Showering in a bathing suit is considered unsanitary and faintly primitive.

Art and Tea. One of the best tearooms in Reykjavik is at the National Gallery of Art.

Money. The Icelandic unit of currency is the krona. A good word to know is “Tilbod” which means special offer or sale. A Tilbod can be a rare chance to save money in Iceland.

The official site: https://www.visiticeland.com.

Icelandair (800 223-5500) is the way to get from the U.S. to Iceland.


Jules Older
Jules Older

Jules Older is an old writer and new rider, now living in New Zealand.


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