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.    

Deep North Episode 63: In Pursuit of Ptarmigan

ptarmigan hunting iceland

It’s 6:00 AM and the obsidian darkness lingers outside my windshield. I arrive in the Kársnes neighbourhood of Kópavogur, park my car, and hop into Kristján Andri Einarsson’s black Jimny. The hunter greets me with a boyish smirk, ready for today’s adventure. He is wearing a camouflage cap on his greying auburn hair. Until this day, I have never gone hunting, nor seen a real gun in my life. All that is about to change.

Read the full story here.

Expert Proposes Ban on Hunting Puffins

puffins iceland

The South Iceland Nature Research Centre proposes a full ban on puffing hunting in Iceland in a new report. Iceland’s puffin population has been below sustainable limits for a long time and its outlook is poor. The Centre’s Director and a Doctor of Biology Erpur Snær Hansen told RÚV that changing hunting regulations would take political will.

Around 20% of the global population of puffins nest in Iceland’s Westman Islands, with other, smaller colonies across the country. The average puffin population in Iceland has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The change is attributed to a scarcity of food for the birds caused by rising sea temperatures. Hunting, of course, causes the birds’ numbers to decline even further.

Population set to keep decreasing, even if hunting is banned

Erpur says The total puffin population in Iceland numbers around 3 million nesting pairs. If puffing hunting is banned, that population is expected to decrease by over 10% over the next decade. If hunting continues to be permitted, however, the population is expected to decrease by 30% or even as much as 50% within that same period.

“This is not sustainable hunting, and the Wildlife Act clearly states that it should be,” Erpur explains. He adds that the current regulations around puffing hunting mean that not all puffins hunted are reported, so the impact on the population could be greater than projected.

Political will needed to ban puffing hunting

Erpur goes on to explain that, unlike ptarmigan or reindeer hunting, for which quotas can be set and changed yearly by inserting a provision into the regulation, puffing hunting is subject to a different set of laws. In order to ban puffing hunting, the Minister of the Environment would need to change that law. “Maybe it can just be said that the political will to do something about it was not strong enough, or that the pressure from interested parties was therefore greater,” Erpur mused.

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir received criticism for imposing a temporary ban on whale hunting this year, a decision that also caused tension within the governing coalition.

Rare Bird Flu Detected in Eagle and Eider Duck

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

A white-tailed eagle and an eider duck found dead in Iceland in September both tested positive for a severe strain of bird flu that has never been detected in Iceland before. The risk of infection for poultry and other other birds in captivity is low, according to the Food and Veterinary Authority.

Samples taken from a white-tailed eagle found dead on a skerry near Barðaströnd in the Westfjords in mid-September tested positive for a severe bird flu virus of the strain HPAI H4N5. An eider duck that was found dead in Ólafsfjörður, West Iceland recently was infected with the same strain of bird flu virus. The strain has not been detected in Iceland before and is not common.

Spread of bird flu low

The samples were studied at the University of Iceland’s Keldur Institute for Experimental Pathology. The results underline the importance of ensuring good infection prevention when dealing with poultry and other birds in captivity. Based on the data available at this point in time, however, it can be assumed that the spread of avian influenza viruses is low in Iceland and the risk of infection for poultry and other birds in captivity is therefore low.

Sequencing may determine origin

Few reports of sick or dead wild birds have been received by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) since spring, after reports of widespread bird deaths among kittiwakes, puffins, and other seabirds subsided. Sample tested by MAST ruled out bird flu as the cause of those deaths.

As of July, only five samples have been taken from wild birds. Three of them tested negative for bird flu, while the two mentioned above tested positive. Researchers are hoping to sequence the samples of the viruses in order to determine whether the new strain arrived from Europe or from migratory birds arriving in late summer from nesting sites in the western Atlantic. HPAI H5N5 has been detected in only four samples in Europe recently, all from wild birds in Norway and Sweden, and in a few samples from wild birds, red foxes, and skunks in eastern Canada.

 

The Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reminds the public that reporting sick and dead wild birds is a key element in monitoring the presence and spread of bird flu.

To Catch an Oystercatcher

oystercatcher reykjanes

Under the regular ascent and descent of Keflavík jet traffic, out past the old American radar stations, at the northwestern tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, sits the Suðurnes Science and Learning Centre. Much like the airport terminal a few kilometres from here, this spit of low-flung land is a place where many visitors to this […]

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Proposal to Ban Sale of Greylag Geese

greylag goose iceland

The Ministry for the Environment, Energy, and Climate has published a draft amendment regarding bird hunting and the utilization of products from wild birds. It is available for comment on the government portal.

The proposed amendment aims to prohibit the unauthorized selling of grey geese and their products. It will also be prohibited to export them. However, the domestic sale of prepared geese will still be allowed.

In recent years, the population of grey geese has been declining, and the ministry’s proposal for a sales ban is intended to aid the recovery of the Icelandic population.

According to the draft amendment, the situation will be reassessed after a year, and if the decline in the population continues during that time, the duration of the hunting season for grey geese will be reconsidered. If there is an increase in the population, the need for an ongoing sales ban will be evaluated.

The Ministry for the Environment, Energy, and Climate emphasizes that violations of the regulation may result in fines or imprisonment of up to 2 years, as well as the revocation of hunting and firearms licenses.

The deadline for submitting comments is August 8th.

Poor Breeding Season After Cold Spring

bird nesting iceland

With the breeding season for many migratory birds in Iceland coming to a close, experts say that conditions have been less than optimal due to a cold, wet spring.

Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson, head of the Research Centre at the University of Iceland in the South, stated to RÚV:

“This is an average year in a way; we take two trips each summer where we monitor the young birds. In the first trip, we assess the breeding success of species that lay their eggs early, such as oystercatchers and godwits, and in the second trip, we focus on those that breed later, like plover, for example. In both cases, the results were well below average.”

The breeding success of seabirds has been evaluated annually by the centre since 2011.

According to Tómas, this is primarily due to the challenging seasonal conditions in the spring and early summer in South Iceland. However, it is expected that the breeding rates will be better in the northern and eastern regions.

“It’s a combination of various factors that influence this,” Tómas stated further.  “Weather conditions, food availability, and hatching times – everything is interconnected to some extent.”

Concerns about the puffin population have also been reported by ecologists due to their poor breeding in recent years.

Protest Job Loss Due to Whaling Ban

Páll Stefánsson. Whaling in Iceland, 2010

Local councils in West Iceland are urging the Minister of Fisheries to lift the ban on whaling implemented just one day before the season was set to begin. The last-minute decision has left some 200 employees of whaling company Hvalur hf. unexpectedly unemployed and will have a significant financial impact on the western region.

On June 20, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir temporarily halted the hunting of fin whales until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report that found whaling breached Iceland’s animal welfare legislation. The ban was implemented to enable an investigation on whether it is possible to ensure that hunting conforms to the legislation.

Only one company, Hvalur hf., was set to hunt whales this season. The company is based in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and typically employs around 200 people, most from the region, at the height of the hunting season. Both the municipal council of Akranes and the local council of Hvalfjörður have encouraged the Fisheries Minister to lift the whaling ban.

Tax and income losses

The Municipal Council of Akranes (pop. 7,986) published a resolution criticising the timing of the decision. “The ban was unexpected and a curveball to many Akranes residents who were counting on employment and income during the summer whaling season,” the resolution reads. The council estimates that it will lose tens of millions of ISK (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in local tax income due to the decision, affecting its ability to finance services to residents. The council stated that the ministry should carry out investigations before making such an impactful decision, not the other way around.

The local council of Hvalfjörður has also published a short statement on the temporary whaling ban, stating that its financial impact is significant, both directly and indirectly. “Hvalfjörður’s local council is not taking a stance on whaling with this statement but urges the Minister of Food to reconsider her decision,” the statement concludes.

Walrus Follows Man to Work in Iceland

Jón Sólmundsson rostungur

An employee of Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute had an unusual commute to work this morning. Jón Sólmundsson was biking to his office in the town of Hafnarfjörður when he spotted a walrus in the harbour. The walrus then accompanied Jón on his journey for a few blocks before swimming away from the coast. It has since come ashore on the coast of Álftanes in the Reykjavík capital area, Vísir reports.

Jón Sólmundsson.

“I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street,” Jón told reporters. “There he turned around and swam out into the fjord.” Walruses are not native to Iceland but have been spotted on its coast from time to time in recent years. A walrus dubbed Þór (Thor) delighted locals in Iceland earlier this year, stopping by Þórshöfn and Breiðdalsvík in East Iceland after being spotted in England. There are no indications that the one currently in the capital area is the same animal.

 

 

“He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too,” Jón added. While Jón works at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, he told reporters his area of specialty is fish, not walruses.

jón sólmundsson walrus rostungur

A live feed of the walrus is available on visir.is.

Widespread Bird Deaths in West and South Iceland

Puffin Iceland

Locals have reported dead puffins and kittiwakes in the dozens and even hundreds in recent weeks, RÚV reports. Such deaths are unusual at this time of year in Iceland and their cause is unknown. While bird flu is unlikely to be the cause, extreme weather may be a possible explanation.

Borgarnes resident Pavle Estrajher spotted five dead puffins on the shore in the town last month. When he made a post about them on Facebook, he received many comments from others who had found dead puffins in the region. Snæfellsnes peninsula resident Jón Helgason reported seeing hundreds of dead puffins and kittiwakes at Löngufjörur beach on the peninsula’s south coast, for example.

Bird flu not the cause

The widespread deaths of Kittiwakes cannot be attributed to bird flu, according to Brigitte Brugger of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). Samples from the birds analysed by MAST ruled out the illness. “In any case, no bird flu viruses were found in these samples that have been taken,” Brigitte stated.

Some have suggested that extreme weather may have caused the deaths, including meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson. The wave height in West Iceland’s Faxaflói bay was forecast at 8-9 metres during last month, unseasonably extreme weather for late May. Previous reports of widespread bird deaths in Iceland have usually occurred in wintertime and been attributed to extreme weather or scarcity of food.

Iceland’s puffin population has declined by 70% over the last 30 years, according to the latest figures. Residents of Grímsey island in North Iceland report, anecdotally at least, that the island’s puffin population is strong.