All About Horse Riding Tours in Iceland

A close-up of an Icelandic horse

Horse riding tours are one of the most popular activities in Iceland! How can you take part, and what do you need to know and bring before climbing up on the saddle? Read on to discover all you need to know about riding during your Iceland holiday.

When most people think about riding horses, a couple of stereotypical images come to mind. One is of the rugged cowboy charging his steed across the desolate sands of the wild west. Another is that classic English image of hoighty-toighty equestrians trotting along a quaint country path. 

 

Better known for their dragonhead longships, the notion of Vikings riding horses is somewhat less common, but in Iceland, this was once very much true.

Modern day horsemanship in Iceland fits somewhere between these stereotypes. While donned in the appropriate protective gear, the landscapes of Iceland are more reminiscent of the American southwest in terms of their open and untamed nature. This means that riding horses in Iceland balances intrepid adventure with a gentle dose of saddle-bound sightseeing. 

History of horses in Iceland

Icelandic horses Berglind Jóhannsdóttir
Photo: Berglind Jóhannsdóttir. Icelandic horses

Small in size, yet loyal, personable, and intelligent, the Icelanders have no better animal ambassador than their horses. Hardly larger than your typical pony, these noble steeds remain an integral part of this island culture, having played a large part in the development of this country since they were first brought here in the 9th and 10th centuries by Norse settlers.

As such, records of Icelandic horses can be found throughout the mediaeval sagas, with the locals continuing the Germanic trend of venerating these animals. This undying devotion meant that celebrated warriors were often buried alongside their four-legged companions, for they were considered just as important for survival as their weapons and armour. 

Whereas once their company was crucial for the simple fact that Icelanders required a reliable means of traversing their wild and undeveloped land, in our modern times, they are a key part of the nation’s tourism industry. Horse riding tours are just as popular today as they were when Iceland first became of interest to the travelling public. 

 

What makes Icelandic horses so special?

Icelandic horses are considered particularly noteworthy due to their purebred nature. Having been isolated for centuries from their larger cousins overseas, this breed has developed into an animal that is known for its ability to withstand the cold – in part due to its thick double-coat – as well as resist diseases and live long lives. 

Icelandic horses come in many colours, so much so that there are over 100 words in the Icelandic language to describe their various shades. While driving throughout the country, it can be very engaging to keep a lookout for all the different colours. Horses are as common a sight as lava fields and mountains in Iceland, so you’re positive to see plenty of different types during your time here. 

On a final note, Icelandic horses are capable of five-gaits, meaning they trot, gallop, canter, as well as walk in two other ways. As such, they demonstrate surefootedness and a great ability to traverse difficult terrain. One of these unique gaits is known as the tölt, where a horse can exhibit explosive speed from a slow amble, while another called ‘the flying pace’ is a demonstration of a smooth and speedy run. 

Why take a horse riding tour in Iceland? 

Icelandic horses are a unique breed, bred in isolation in Iceland since settlement times.
Photo: Golli. Riding Icelandic horses is a brilliant winter activity in Iceland.

There are countless reasons to take a horse riding tour in Iceland. The first, and most appealing, is they present the chance to meet these magnificent animals up close. 

The second major reason is that horse riding tours allow guests to experience the Icelandic landscape from a wholly unique perspective. Just as this island’s ancient settlers once did, visitors can appreciate the diversity of the island from the saddle, offering a slower pace to enjoy it than one might find in a car, coach, or SuperJeep.

Finally, horse riding tours in Iceland are open to both experienced and beginner riders. Regardless of whether you’re looking to trot or gallop, your guide will make sure to assess the experience-level of the group and adapt the riding accordingly.

Where can you take horse riding tours in Iceland?

Horse riding at sunset
Photo: Dagmar Trodler. Horse riding into the sunset

Horse riding tours are available across the country. The most popular are found near Iceland’s capital, and one true city, Reykjavik. Single activity tours mean that you will only be riding horses, but there are also countless combo tours available to help mix up your experience. 

For example, you can start your day by riding a horse through the scenic hillsides close to Reykjavik, and then in the afternoon, take a sightseeing tour on the famed Golden Circle. Alternatively, you can spend the morning enjoying picturesque trails around local farmsteads, only to board a vessel in the evening for an oceanbound Northern Lights tour

Horse riding tours in Iceland
Photo: Viking tour

These are only a couple of examples. It is also possible to combine your horse riding with a spot of whale watching, seeing Icelandic puffins, a rapid river adventure with whitewater rafting, or bathing in a relaxing hot spring. In short, the combinations one can book are seemingly endless in Iceland, such is the popularity of equestrianism, and the abundance of horses around the country. 

On the South Coast, many visitors opt to go horseback riding on the black sand beach, Reynisfjara, found closeby to the remote Vík í Mýrdal village. In the east, riders will journey towards an abandoned farmstead known as Kleif, soaking in the exquisite landscapes of this amazing, and rarely-visited region. 

In the north, there are other great horse riding excursions available. For instance, it is possible to go horse riding at the beautiful Skjálfandi bay, or explore the dramatic mountainous fjord, Skagafjörður.

What should I bring on my horse riding tours? 

Horse in Iceland
Photo: Golli. An Icelandic horse in Skagafjörður

So, you’ve booked your horse riding adventure in Iceland. Now, it’s simply a matter of packing the necessary kit. Thankfully, there is not much you will need to bring… but that which you should depends largely on the season. 

When it comes to clothing items, summer riders should opt for a lightweight jacket, comfortable trousers, and good boots, so long as the weather permits. While Iceland is rather temperate in the summer – and, believe it not, even quite warm on certain days – spending considerable time outdoors always has the potential to bring an air of chilliness with it, so use your discretion. 

In the winter, guests will want to dress more appropriately, protecting themselves in many thermal layers, a waterproof coat, and necessary cold weather accessories, including gloves, hats, and scarves. You will also be provided with a full-body thermal suit for that added layer of warmth. 

Enjoying a horse riding tour in Iceland
Photo: 04F – Horses and Puffins

Your tour will be led by an experienced horse-riding guide who will provide you with anything else you might need. This will most certainly entail a riding helmet and a bandana to wear beneath. A few operators may also offer riding gloves so as to keep your hands comfortable when holding onto the reins. 

Regardless of the season, make sure to bring along your camera too. With their gorgeous coats, swishing manes and expressionate eyes, Icelandic horses are incredibly photogenic animals who are accustomed to having their photograph taken. Besides that, there will be plenty of opportunities during your ride to stop and capture scenes of the countryside. 

Aside from the right clothing items, all you need to bring along is your enthusiasm, passion for animals, and a readiness to learn.

In Summary

icelandic horse blood farm
Photo: Dagmar Trodler. Icelandic horses come in many colours.

Wherever you choose to take a horse-riding tour in Iceland, you are certain to find adventure, companionship, and beautiful landscapes in which to immerse yourself.

Before you gallop away, make sure to check out the great variety of available horse riding tours in the country.    

What is Iceland doing about blood farms?

icelandic horse blood farm

Since the 1980s, Icelandic horse farmers have been extracting the hormone Equine Chorionic Gonadotropin (eCG) from their pregnant mares to gain extra income. The hormone can be removed from the mare’s blood and sold for large sums. Although the practice has mostly been ignored in Iceland, the release of a documentary by the German animal rights organization, The Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF), in 2021 raised questions on animal welfare and blood harvesting surveillance. The documentary showcased animal cruelty at Icelandic horse farms where the hormone was being extracted. It also revealed that the hormone is mainly used to boost fertility in other farm animals, and Iceland is one of only a handful of countries that operate blood farms. The documentary stated that about 5,000 Icelandic horses overall are subjected to the procedure.

Read more: Iceland Tightens Regulations on Blood Mare Farms

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reported that they were aware of all of the farms and conducted on-site inspections but admitted that they visit less than half of the farms each year. After the documentary was released, Iceland’s government took an interest in the footage. Members of parliament sought answers, and Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Svandís Svavarsdóttir organized a working group to investigate blood farming. The company that produces pharmaceuticals from Icelandic mares’ blood serum, Ísteka, announced that it had terminated cooperation with the farms that have been accused of animal mistreatment.

In early January of 2022, MAST completed its investigation and found that the abuse captured in the documentary constituted a breach of animal welfare laws in Iceland. Those convicted of animal cruelty in Iceland can face hefty fines and up to two years of jail time, according to Icelandic law. However, in many cases, those convicted only face a minor fine and no jail time. Animal welfare specialists in Iceland have stated that an outright ban on extracting eCG from mares is unrealistic, and they suggest that it needs to be monitored to ensure that animal welfare is not violated, and such parties are punished.

Regulations were further strengthened in June of last year, including the introduction of licensing requirements.

Avalanche in Skagafjörður Leaves 15 Horses Dead

An avalanche in Skagafjörður, near the town of Hofsós in North Iceland, has left 15 horses dead.

The avalanche occurred around 1pm on December 26. The Search and Rescue team “Grettir” was called to the scene, but all horses were found dead upon their arrival.

Residents and farms of nearby Unadalur are reported as being safe from the avalanche, with no further reported damage to property or livestock.

Rescue teams in Iceland have been very busy over the holiday season, with many roads left impassable in the winter weather, leaving many travelers stranded as well.

Iceland Tightens Regulations on Blood Mare Farms

Icelandic horse

Blood mare farming, the practice of extracting blood from pregnant mares for sale, will soon be subject to a licence in Iceland. This is one of several measures the Icelandic government is taking to tighten and clarify regulations on the controversial practice. The new regulations will be valid for three years, during which authorities will “assess its future,” according to a government notice.

Iceland’s blood mare farm industry made international headlines last winter after the Germany-based Animal Welfare Foundation posted a documentary on YouTube under the heading “Iceland – Land of the 5,000 Blood Mares.” The documentary contained footage showcasing ill treatment of horses on blood farms, including horses being shouted at and hit.

Read More: Blood Farms Documentary Shocks the Nation

Following the publication of the video, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir appointed a working group to review the practice and whether it ensured the welfare of the animals involved. The working group’s report, published yesterday, concluded that existing regulations on the practice were “very vague and not acceptable, as they concern a fairly extensive and controversial activity.”

More detailed provisions

In addition to implementing a licencing system for the practice, the group proposed tightening regulations on blood mare farming “with regard to the views of stakeholders and others with whom the working group spoke.” These include more detailed provisions on conditions and facilities at the farms, monitoring of horse health, grooming, and temperament assessment, as well as the working methods of blood collection and internal and external monitoring. The report’s authors proposed banning production systems based on mass production of mares’ blood, as they could endanger the welfare of the animals.

The working group consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), and the University of Iceland’s Centre for Ethics. The Animal Welfare Foundation and many other interest groups were consulted in the writing of the report.

Only six countries operate blood farms

Since the 1980s, horse farmers in Iceland have been able to gain extra income by extracting the hormone Equine Chorionic Gonadotropin (eCG) from their pregnant mares. This hormone exists in pregnant mares’ blood and can be removed and sold for hefty sums. To begin with, blood farming was a secondary practice on horse farms, but later, some farmers turned their focus to the practice, with data from 2019 indicating that 95 farmers supplied pregnant mare’s blood. Just one company, Ísteka, buys and processes blood harvested from mares in Iceland.

The hormone extracted from pregnant mares is mainly used to boost fertility in other farm animals. Only a handful of countries operate blood farms besides Iceland: Russia, Mongolia, China, Uruguay, and Argentina.

‘I take it as a threat’: Nithing Pole Erected at Local Commune

A nithing pole topped with the severed head of a horse was erected on the land of a spiritual community known as Sólsetrið in Kjalarnes in the capital area this weekend, RÚV reports. Nithing poles derive from ancient pagan tradition and are erected to curse the receiver. The residents of Sólsetrið have been involved in disputes in recent months, and believe the pole is related to these feuds—or media coverage of them.

Linda Möll runs Sólsetrið as a spiritual community whose practices include cacao ceremonies, singing, dancing, and drumming. The community also holds what have been called “tantric festivals,” and it’s these events that have recently drawn criticism and ire. “That’s the basis for all of this and I respect that,” said Linda Möll in a recent interview. “At the same time, I also respect that I’m an individual who is different, who is approaching life in a different way, is choosing a way of life that perhaps poses another worldview and maybe I can build a bridge to a better world.”

Residents avid equestrians

The underlying threat of the nithing pole did not escape the residents of Sólsetrið, who as avid equestrians, were doubly distressed by the event. “I take this as a threat,” said resident Kristjana Þórarinsdóttir. “That’s just the way it is—there’s no other way to take it. My husband Guðni is the chairman of the national chapter of equestrian associations—how else are we supposed to understand this? We’re horse people and I think if anyone knows Guðni or knows anything about him, the first thing that they’d think of is that he’s a horseman. That’s what characterizes him best and you can’t read this as anything other than a threat,” she concluded. Even so, it’s difficult to say who specifically the threat is directed at: Kristjana and her husband, or Linda Möll and the people she lives with.

After discovering the nithing pole, Kristjana said she rushed up to their stables to make sure that the horse wasn’t one of their own. Luckily, all of her animals are safe, but Kristjana says she’s afraid to return home for now. “I feel ill,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”

Well-publicized feuds

Kristjana also stated that she didn’t think that Linda Möll herself was behind the atrocity; the community’s feuds have been much-discussed of late in the media and she believes anyone could be behind it.

The residents of Sólsetrið are still trying to make sense of the event. “This can’t be because of some neighbor dispute,” Linda Möll concluded. “We could have had this conversation over a cup of cocoa. And who deserves to receive a message like this? I don’t think anyone deserves this.”

Police and the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority removed the horse head around noon on Friday and the incident is under investigation.

The nithing pole in the sagas

One of the most famous uses of a nithing pole appears in Egill’s saga (ch. 60, here translated by W. C. Green in 1983):

And when all was ready for sailing, Egil went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse’s head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse, he thus spake: ‘Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eric and queen Gunnhilda. (Here he turned the horse’s head landwards.) This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eric and Gunnhilda.’

This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.

 

Out of National Horse-Riding Team Due to Sexual Assault Conviction

jóhann rúnar skúlason jockey

Veteran jockey Jóhann Rúnar Skúlason has been removed from Iceland’s national equestrian team due to a sexual assault conviction. Mannlíf reports that in 1994, Jóhann Rúnar was convicted for raping a 13-year-old girl the previous year, when he was 24 years old. The jockey was also recently convicted for domestic violence in Denmark, his country of residence.

Guðni Halldórsson, chairman of the Icelandic Horse Association (Landssamband hestamannafélaga, or LH) told Vísir it was a difficult decision to remove Iceland’s “biggest competitor and biggest name” in the sport from the national team, but added that “sexual offences, especially involving children, cannot and will not be tolerated on our watch.” Guðni stated that he first heard of the conviction when Mannlíf reported on it late last month and that he is not aware of any other sexual assault cases coming up within the association previously.

Sexual violence within sport has been a big topic in Icelandic media lately after several cases of sexual violence emerged connected to the national men’s football team. The Football Association was accused of silencing victims of violence and sexual assault in cases involving team members. “It’s a different discussion and a different way of dealing with issues today than it was five years ago,” Guðni stated in reference to the cases involving football players. “This decision was made based on the environment and the situation today and we stand by it.”

In 2019, Jóhann Rúnar was a triple world champion in horse riding and was also nominated for Iceland’s Athlete of the Year award.