Iceland autumn 2012: Horse riding

Despite the late night, I didn’t sleep as well as I’d have liked and I was awake by about 6.30am, ready to get up and pack for the day and then have breakfast (warm bread and butter, apple juice). I got a wifi password from the man on reception and then took to the internet for half an hour before it was time to go and wait for my bus.

We did a quick trip around town, picking people up, getting diverted on Laugavegur because of roadworks and then down the other end. Esja was almost hidden in the mist but there was a little bit of snow-capped mountain visible and looking beautiful. We turned up Kringlumýrabraut and at the western end of Laugavegur, there was the petrol station from Næturvaktin, which is an Icelandic comedy series I shouldn’t even know about, let alone have watched, let alone be excited to see in real life. As far as I understand, it’s the most popular and successful TV show ever made in Iceland and the main character is playing by Jón Gnarr who is now Reykjavík’s mayor. On Saturday I’ll walk up there and get my photo of it.

Today’s trip was horseriding, on the special Icelandic horses. They were brought over with the Viking settles from 874 onwards and a ban on further import of horses was brought in during the tenth century, which means no foreign disease and no dilution of the breed. There are actually more Icelandic horses exported around the world than there are in Iceland itself but once a horse has left the country, it can never come back. They’re smallish, more furry than most horses I’ve seen, quiet and good-natured and they have five gaits, including the tölt which is unique to this breed.

We drove out to Hafnarfjorður to Íshestar’s stables, where we were put in wellies and orange rain stuff if we wanted and then taken out to be paired with a horse. I was given Socrates, a gingery-brown horse with a blonde mane, who is very wise and very good with children and therefore good for a beginner. I can’t remember the last time I was on a horse but once I got my balance it was ok. I was a little bit disappointed that he didn’t have an Icelandic name but on the other hand, I can pronounce, remember and spell Socrates, even if I did immediately rename him Soc (partly because it was easier and partly because Socrates is actually pronounced slightly differently in English and Icelandic) and then keep forgetting and calling him Cos by accident. Other horses were introduced by their Icelandic names and then seemed to be known by their English translations – among our group were Flame, Thunder and Socks.

We set out onto the lava field, the horses walking quietly one behind the other, most of them so close that they had their noses in each other’s tails. The horse in front of me was going slowly and refused to be hurried, while Soc clearly wanted to overtake, so eventually we did, although Soc decided to go up the front side, onto the lava field rather than along the path (which may or may not have made me shriek in panic “I’m going off-road!”)

The experienced riders who wanted to go faster and try out the tölt split off from the rest of us after a little while. We mostly walked, did a very little gentle trotting. It was misty and slightly drizzly. I’d failed to get hold of any gloves so my fingers were freezing, my glasses were so speckled I was completely dependent on Soc, my feet were going numb (because while my wellies were of course waterproof, they weren’t insulated and I was wearing normal socks). It was a seemingly-endless slow walk, one behind the other, across a landscape I couldn’t see.

We stopped eventually beside what I concluded must be a school, somewhere among the Blue Mountains, in a little nest of walls that might have once been buildings. We jumped down and kept hold of the horses (so they didn’t 1) wander back to the stable on their own and 2) didn’t step on the reins and break their legs). Soc was hungry so he stepped into one of the ex-houses, found a patch of grass and soon flattened that. I decided to try out actually pulling him around, so I gave him a tug and managed to get him over to a newer patch and chattered away to him. The sun was coming out, the view began to become visible and Soc began to dry and turn really fluffy.

I don’t know how long we stayed there. Eventually the faster riders began to prepare to go. The slower ones were going to wait, so our horses didn’t follow the others and decide they wanted to gallop too but it seemed to be time to go so I dragged Soc out of the walls and back onto the field. That was ok for a moment but Soc very quickly decided that as we weren’t going immediately, he’d like some more grass. By now I’d mastered not getting trapped between him and a brick wall and I’d mastered getting him to lift his head so I could get the reins under his nose but I hadn’t really mastered making him stay where I wanted him to. We made a very awkward climb over the wall again and there was a very loud metallic clank. By the time it came to actually getting back on him (which meant getting him back onto the field again) I discovered that the loud metallic clank was the sound of Soc losing a stirrup – a very odd occurrence, according to our guides.

I scrambled back up, both stirrups in place, feeling restored to fingers and toes, glasses cleaned, sun shining, Soc fluffy and fed and obedient again. The ride back was more fun. Partly because we were now at the front of the group instead of the back, partly because I was more comfortable, partly because I’d got used to Soc. We moved a little bit faster, trotting fairly regularly instead of a tiny bit every now and then. I’d learned to control Soc’s speed and eventually he got used to the speed I was comfortable with. I could keep my balance ok by now, I could hang on when he picked up the speed a bit, I was quite enjoying the ride. The only thing was that occasionally Soc would throw his head down, which pulled the reins – and therefore me – forwards which was a bit disconcerting. He was good as gold. I hear horses are like cars, some have more buttons than others but if you ride a horse with more buttons, you have to know how to push them. I don’t think hungry little Soc has a huge number of buttons but what he has are the best buttons in the business, if the business is teaching a beginner to stay on a horse while it moves a little faster than a walk across a lava field.

We brought them back into the paddock, to find that just about every horse Íshestar was out there too. Soc wanted to stop just inside the gate but by now, I could get him moving and steer him a little so I triumphantly got him out of the way, jumped down and took him to a railing to be tied up. There was another horse on the other side who was very interested to meet me and who I used as an improvised handwarmer by putting my hands in front of his nose and letting him breathe on them. A guide came over to show me how to take the saddle off and I grabbed her to take a photo of me with my horse. The other horse was far more interested in the camera than Soc and eventually the guide had to shoo him away and I had to give Soc’s reins a tug and show him the camera before saying goodbye to him and taking the saddle inside.

Everyone else in my group appeared to be going whalewatching afterwards, so once we’d been given diplomas for successfully not dying on a gentle two hour trip over the fields, got back into our own clothes and collected our stuff, they were all given a packed lunch and we got back into the minibus.

I sort of intended to go into town but I thought first I’d come back to my room, warm up, have something to eat and leave half my stuff behind. Three hours later… well, I was cold and tired because I didn’t sleep much, I sat on the radiator until I’d thawed out and then eventually decided I had no choice, I had to go and get some money and some food. Yes, I came out with a grand total of about 140 krona, which translates as 71p. Icelandic money is hard to get hold of – the only places you can order tend to demand a minimum that’s quite a way above the amount I want.

I got back into lots of warm clothes and ventured out. Obviously, I started down Laugavegur because that’s the main shopping street and it also is the way into the town centre. I stopped in just about every tourist shop along the way, got some cash out at Austerstræti, which is the far end of the pedestrianised area. Quick stop in my two favourite tourist shops, down to the seafront only to find not only is Esja invisible in the fog but so is the sea itself and I headed back up Laugavegur, via Hallgrimskirkja because I hadn’t been up to say hello yet.

I stopped off at the 1011 just round the corner to stock up on food, both for tonight and for a picnic tomorrow on the south shore somewhere. There are plenty of 1011s in Reykjavik – I have at least four on my mental map, plus the Bonus. And they’re not open 10am – 11pm. They’re open 9am – midnight. And now there’s a Subway open on Laugavegur. Iceland hasn’t been short of Subways but none of them have been accessible to me. I can’t get out to the one at Hafnarfjorður on my own or the one where you come off the ring road. But I’ve resisted the temptation to actually go in the handy one. I just like the idea that it’s there if I want it.

I’d left the heating on while I was out and I returned to a veritable greenhouse. Even before I’d got my boots off, I was turning off the radiators and flinging open the balcony door. Warmth is nice. Heat beyond my ability to cope is not.

Tomorrow I’m off to the south shore, to play on some lava beaches (should have brought my sandals but I didn’t, for the obvious reason that it’s October in Iceland), see at least two waterfalls – Seljalandsfoss, which I already know and Skogarfoss which I don’t and finish up at Vik which looked like a very pretty little town when I passed through it over the summer.

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