I happily abandoned my post at my easel, for a couple more days in the saddle with Simbi and his lovely Icelandic horses. On Saturday there was an important event, the annual muster and sorting of the Icelandic ponies. All the local farmers put all their young horses out in the mountain pastures for summer- and it was time for them to come in for some training and the winter. I was desperate to succeed at herding something on horse back after my abject failure with the sheep so I jumped at the opportunity to join them! My adventure pants were ready for their next installment….
On Friday I caught the midday ferry to be met by Simbi’s son Hjörleifur (Hjölli), and true to form, before any adventure can be had it seems some time spent having cheese sandwiches in Simbi’s kitchen was required. Hjölli is 15 years old and one of Northern Iceland’s top swimmers and a natural horseman. The two of us, and a young girl that mucks outs stables in lieu of a ride were to take a few horses up the valley in preparation for the round up. It was a few hours ride, Hjölli and I ponied a horse each (rode one and led one) down to the round up yards at ‘Tungurétt’- the extra horses were then deposited with some others in a paddock next to the yards to await the group of tourists whom will be joining Simbi for a couple of hours tomorrow. The extra ponies had been quite handy -we swapped back and forth on the ride, every 40mins or so- just hopped off- chucked the saddle on the other horse and kept going. It’s the done thing in Iceland to have multiple horses… you rarely hear of someone owning just one horse, and most Icelanders are quite shocked I own just one- even when I point out it weighs 750kg- and is probably equal in weight to three of their horses… The good thing is they are all roughly the same build, and even if their backs are a little different- the amount of hair adds good padding, so they seem to be very easily interchanged. I was quite pleased with myself as after my not entirely successful attempt on the speedy mare, I had analysed Simbi and Son, and had come up with the position I call the “Ride-On-Lawn-Mower Position”, you thrust your legs a bit forward and lean back a little, and enjoy the view, and try not to do too many circles. It seemed to work, and I look forward to getting back on Thomas when I get home and having my coaches yell at me!
I rode Grár (translates to Grey…) – who surprisingly was a grey horse! I was warned he could be “powerful” I have learnt that the Icelanders like to use the word “powerful” as a code word for crazy… and never to get on a horse who is “very very powerful” – luckily we got on just fine and none of the behaviour explained to me was exhibited- he was just a nice forward little horse with a soft mouth. We rode on from the yards for another 5kms to a farm where we left the ponies in a paddock with a particularly fat pinto horse. The ride was beautiful; we rode deep into the valley to ‘Þverá’, with towering mountains swathed in snow looming over us from each side. At the end of the valley a large glacier glistened… This is where the herding starts as the horses have already been brought down from the mountains by the locals and are in a large holding paddock just below the glacier; whilst the locals stay in a little hut called the ‘Stekkjarhús.
So the next morning I got the early 7am ferry- (I am not very popular with the ferry men as I keep requesting the early service- you have to request early morning services on weekends- otherwise the ferry men can sleep in)!! I was picked up- went back for the obligatory cheese sandwich with Simbi and family, then Hjölli and I were taken to our horses. We quickly tacked up – the tack is simple and effective here- no boots, no breastplates, the bridle consists of a bit and one piece over the head, and a separate nose band. It was a crisp, cold morning, but the sky was blue and it looked like the Icelandic weather was trying to impress the Australian with a stunning day- which is lucky as today its fairly miserable outside. We rode from the farm up the valley to the Stekkjarhús, the ice was like shards of glass all over the road, all the puddles had frozen. Hjölli and I were joining the locals who had rounded the horses up from the mountain the day before, and were now busy mixing potent concoctions in soft drink bottles that looked relatively safe until you smelt or tasted it! Needless to say I joined in!! Eventually a few more locals rode up like us, we gathered all the riding horses and it was Muster time!! We had a brief briefing – which I couldn’t understand a word of… so I concentrated on swigging the stuff in the fanta bottle that made me feel nice and warm.
There were 134 young Icelandic horses in the holding pen awaiting the run down the valley. I was assigned to the vanguard- our aim was to lead the stampede. We set out quite fast down the road before the others let the herd out who would follow… the aim was to not let the herd overtake us. My trusty little grey horse was super- keen to go and easy to sit on with his smooth type-writer gates. About 10 of us were in this front group. They seemed to use farms as marker points, and had people stationed in cars along the way blocking roads or exits up to the mountains. We had two breaks on the way where we hopped off the horses to let them get their breath back, and herded the loose horses into a partly fenced area (one fence line and the rest of us standing around holding a piece of rope as a fence). This was to give them and us a break before then next stretch. Towards the last stretch I am not sure whether all the horses knew we were approaching the sorting yards, but there was a last-ditch effort by the horses at the front to get past us, some fun riding entailed trying to cut off the racing loose horses and keep them in the herd. There were a few hundred people milling about at the yards on our arrival, so we galloped in the yards and all the horses followed, we quickly dismounted and moved to the side to let the steady stream of horses follow. Our horses flanks were heaving. Saddles were thrown to the side and all the ridden horses were released into the paddock to have a good roll and relax before stage 3 of the operation! Stage 2 being sorting of the young horses, and stage 3 was delivering them to where ever they were meant to go!
I was pretty chuffed to have:
a) not fallen off
b) not scattered the herd
c) finished most of my fanta bottle at a fairly swift pace without spilling it!
The sorting yards- a bit less civilised than the sorting hat used in Harry Potter but you get my drift, 134 horses in a large central pen with about 20 smaller pens leading of the central ones. The aim is to work out which are your horses and get them into the smaller pens, most are microchipped and some branded. Remarkably these young horses were all very good and no one was kicked or trampled- the good thing about their size is they are not intimidating. While the sorting takes place, a fantastic spread of cakes and savoury delights can be found for a small fee inside- once more the hard liquor is brought out – to flavour the coffee… and after eating more than required, its is time for the final stage of the muster.
So we had about 30 in the herd we were taking back to our stables. Simbi had sensibly taken the tourist group of beginner riders a little earlier and was winding his was back slowly away from the route we were taking with the young horses… again I was lucky enough to be let loose with the locals. We were taking them down a track that runs along the side of the road that runs through the valley. Once more, my hardy little grey pony (oops horse) and I were in the van guard, this time I was between the riders and the horses, which was fun, meaning I had to keep cutting off any sneaky horses trying to bolt past- a couple did, but on the whole I was pretty chuffed with not stuffing up too badly!! Once we got them down the 5kms of road and tracks, we headed to the big barn, there is a central corridor of the large stable block, so we hurtled down this with the young horses following, into the indoor riding area at the other end, mission accomplished!!! I was given a good pat on the back and told I did well, a huge sigh of relief that this was a much more civilised activity than attempting to coax/chase/mow down those pesky sheep.
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Keep movin’, movin’, movin’
Though they’re disapprovin’
Keep them ponies movin’
A bit Of Info About these Fine Furry Icelandic Equines…
Icelandic Horses are one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and along with only a couple of other rare breeds, represent the closest link we have to the first domesticated horses. The horses were first brought to Iceland by the Vikings who settled the country in the years 874~930. Crossing the Atlantic in their small open boats was an adventure, even without having to bring livestock, so people stopped bringing horses to Iceland when a sufficient number had been imported. For 9 centuries, no other horses have been brought to Iceland, and now there is only one breed of horse in Iceland: the Icelandic horse, one of the purest in the world. Many diseases, from which horses on the European continent or in the United States suffer, are unknown in Iceland.
In addition to walk, trot, and canter, Icelandic Horses have two other paces – the tölt, a natural 4 beat gait that is extremely smooth to ride, but very powerful – the footfall is the same as at the walk, but much faster. A good tolt is almost as fast as a gallop. The tölt, is the most comfortable gait, it is free flowing and effortless- a good tölt should allow the rider to sip from a glass of wine without wearing the contents.. it also allows the horse to cover rough terrain swiftly (especially after errant sheep) although they say it uses 40% more energy than trotting. The fifth gait is called the flying pace and is a two beat lateral gait where the horse moves the front and hind foot on the same side at the same time. Speeds of up to 45 km/hr have been recorded in the flying pace.