Icelandic Horse standing in a snow looking away
Gigja Einarsdottir/Getty
Icelandic Horse standing in a snow looking away
An Icelandic horse in its element (Photo: Gigja Einarsdottir/Getty)

My Health and Wellness Plan? Icelandic Horses.

Serious illness gave our writer an urgent need for physical and spiritual rebirth. She found both by bonding with a unique riding breed that seems touched by Viking spirit.

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In Hveragerdi, Iceland, there are no cemeteries, because there is so much hydrothermal energy in the ground that the bodies would boil. They also grow a lot of cherry tomatoes here, in geothermally heated greenhouses that glow a warm amber on the hillsides in the cold, dark January mornings when we first ride out with the horses. Icelanders are very proud of their hothouse produce, grown in this valley, which sits an hour south and west of Reykjavík and gets significantly (and relatively) more sun. The lettuce and tomatoes are specially labeled on menus and in grocery stores with the Icelandic flag, and are, in fact, delicious.

This morning is the third day of gale warnings in a row, the wind a steady 45 miles per hour, occasionally gusting to 60. (In Iceland, they measure the wind by meters per second. Those numbers in translation—20.1, gusting to 26.8—don’t sound as bad.) The horses stood in this wind all night, and in the accompanying sleet, snow, and rain that churned up out of the ocean one atmospheric wave at a time. But now they are here, underneath us, giving us their all, their strength, their courage, their loyalty—and we lower our heads against the wind and sleet, riding across refrozen streets toward the mountain.

The horses are wearing metal shoes with studs, to keep them from slipping on the ice. It seems like magic that they do not slide or trip or fall and break us and themselves, especially considering how many of us got blown backwards across the parking-lot ice just trying to walk from the guesthouse to the barn.

Anna, our German guide, tall, strong, magnificently beautiful in her muck boots and men’s overalls, her thick blond hair tied in a mane-ish knot atop her head, is the horse girl we all wish we’d had the courage to be. She gathers us, says yes, that in spite of the gale and the worsening prediction (50 mph, gusting to 75), we need to saddle up and get ready to go.

My acupuncturist told me my kidney pulses were as weak as she’d ever felt on someone who was not in the hospital actively dying. She sent me home to find a reason to live and I chose Icelandic horses.

The nine other women who signed up for this week are German, six twentysomething students of competitive dressage, one lady cop from Berlin who’s closer to 40, and two old friends who might be approaching my age (61) and who ride together in a different country every year. There is no hesitation, there’s not even any eye contact; we grab our saddles and headstalls and hoof picks and curry combs and go to look for our horses in the dark.

Today I’m riding Salka, a mare who was at one time a five-gait equitation champion in the show ring. She is bossy and brave, as fierce and finely tuned a horse as I have ever had the pleasure to ride. I am at school, and she is the teacher, which suits me perfectly. My jobs are to keep my seat calm and quiet, my hands a little higher than I am used to, and ask with my legs again for the tölt, the four-beated gait for which Icelandics are famous. When I can feel her gait becoming a little pacey, I have to deliver a series of quick half halts—none long enough to start a fight, which she will win—every time she threatens to run away.

An hour into the ride, I am covered in ice that has been falling from the sky so thickly that when I bend my arms, I can hear my sleeves cracking. My helmet is completely ice-encrusted and weighs an extra couple pounds. I have to squint my eyes almost to closing, because they can’t handle the needles of sleet that keep coming. If there were going to be any sun today, it would be rising right about now.

No matter the weather, Salka doesn’t miss a stride, would gallop off into forever if I let her. At one point, on a moderately icy gravel straightaway, Anna calls over her shoulder, “It’s time for speed!” As the horses in front of me break into a gallop, there is nothing for it but to close my eyes, grip with my thighs, and trust the studded horseshoes and Salka’s true heart. After the ride, Anna looks us over, says she likes the way I am able to bring Salka back down after a long run, and the outside temperature becomes irrelevant because my whole body warms electrically with pride.

Icelandic horses in a wintry view in South of Iceland.
A herd in southern Iceland (Jaana-Marja Rotinen/Getty)

I have come to Iceland because two years ago I was so sick with long COVID that I could not go for a walk or read a book or stay up late enough to cook a proper dinner. My acupuncturist told me my kidney pulses were as weak as she’d ever felt on someone who was not in the hospital actively dying.

She sent me home to find a reason to live, and I chose Icelandic horses. I signed up for a seven-day ride into the Icelandic highlands to a place called Landmannalaugar, with a departure date exactly one year in the future, figuring that by that time I would either be mostly recovered or dead. This current trip to Iceland is the third on my reason-to-live plan, and what I want, more than anything in my life, is to be strong enough and sensitive enough to ride these horses well.

The Vikings first brought these compact, stocky animals to Iceland in the tenth century, and Icelanders have been protecting the integrity and health of this horse ever since. In A.D. 982, the ancient Althing parliament passed laws—still in place—preventing the importation of any other horse to Iceland, so determined were they not to dilute the qualities of the breed they loved. To mitigate the transmission of disease, no used saddles or bridles, nor dirty gloves or riding boots may enter the country, and if a horse from Iceland goes to Europe to compete, as many do every year, they are never allowed to come home.

In addition to their two extra gaits, the tölt and the flying pace, each quite smooth, Icelandics are more comfortable than the average horse at all gaits due to their short wheelbase, their tendency to collect themselves and move with their head high, and their almost uncanny surefootedness. They live wild for portions of the year, in herds of up to several hundred. They are horses that have not had their wildness broken out of them. Icelanders have learned to work in tandem with those natural gifts, and for a thousand years they’ve been culling the untrainable and dangerous horses from the herds, which if anything has skewed the breed even more toward their friendly, cooperative, let’s-get-down-to-business nature.

Lots of barns in Iceland will take visitors out for gallops all over the countryside in summertime, but winter is for training, for getting better, both horse and rider, so I came for a week of indoor lessons, followed by this week of riding out into whatever the weather serves up.

I can’t ask a mare like Salka to love me or even to trust me, not completely. I want her to trust me just enough so we can go fast together, but never so much that her dauntless spirit is true to anything but itself.

Ten days ago, when I arrived at the lesson barn, the first thing a mare named Elding did was kick me, a swift blast to my thigh just above the knee, which left a perfect replication of her studded shoe on the canvas of my flesh. In the moments immediately following impact, I thought she might have fractured my femur.

I stumble-tripped backwards to land on a bench near the tack-room door, not dwelling on the fact that it was the same femur my fed-up father shattered when I was four, throwing me across the room into a piece of furniture. How much force must it take to break a four-year-old femur? How much to break one of a woman who’s made it to 61? I stood and walked it off like a batter hit by a pitch, knowing that the very next thing I had to do was ask Elding to lift all four of her feet so I could clean them with a pick.

Elding and I spent a week on trust and gaits and yielding. We were paired because she needed some work and I needed even more. I considered it progress when, on the third morning, she was not actively displeased to see me. I got better at asking for the tölt and the trot, and at bending her into corners, especially on her left side.

A lot of my friends back home say, “I’m on Team Gelding,” meaning they prefer the more reliable good nature of a colt who was gelded at an early age and raised to be an agreeable pleasure horse, compared to a mare who has gone through life with all of her hormones and their accompanying moods intact. I have never said, “I’m on Team Gelding,” because I am not the sort of person who says I am on team anything. But ever since age 22, when I’d been given a recalcitrant Morgan mare named Savannah who, had I been anything other than young and lucky, might have killed me one of the times she tossed me into the lumber of a jump standard or a barbed wire fence, I have gravitated toward geldings in the horses I keep and the horses I ride.

In Iceland I have been handed mare after mare, and I’ve learned several things. First, if you put two strong mares at the front of a string, they will egg each other on a little more and a little more until the entire string is sprinting. Also, while geldings exhibit their sometimes chickenshit nature, shying at a whooper swan rising off the river or a plastic bag that blew in on a gale and stuck itself newly to a fence, there is always a mare, somewhere in the string, rolling her eyes.

The biggest eye-opener of my time here, perhaps, is that while geldings mostly want to please, mares want to school. And I have come to Iceland, have come into my sixties, ready, more than anything, to be schooled. I’m beginning to suspect that, in addition to being horses, Icelandic mares are witches—the very best and most intrepid kind of witches—and if I can learn to ride them in that space between support and surrender, they can hook me up, can let me touch the wildness that still lives at the center of existence, or if not touch it, stand proximate enough to it, to feel it work on me, to remind me what we once were and still maybe are.

Back home in Colorado, I have a 20-year-old gelding who loves me, one who’ll rest his big head on my shoulder, who’ll let me noodle around the pasture on him bareback, who’ll nicker hello in the snowy mornings when I bring him carrots and apples. It’s not like that with a mare. I can’t ask a mare like Salka to love me or even to trust me, not completely, because to trust me completely she’d have to give away something she cannot afford to lose. I want her to trust me just enough so we can go fast together, but never so much that her dauntless spirit is true to anything but itself.

Warm-weather grazing
Warm-weather grazing (Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty)

It’s the last ride on the last day of my two weeks in Iceland, and for once the sky is not pelting sleet, snow, or hail. The sun has even made an appearance, low in the southern sky out over the Atlantic, burning through the marine layer, lighting up the stubble of still frozen fields.

Anna is in front, as always, on one of those people-pleasing geldings. She turns and says, “It’s your last day. For a change, the weather is cooperating, so we have an opportunity for speed!” In second position is Gàra, another powerful mare ridden by the cop from Berlin. Salka and I have been riding at her shoulder ever since we left the barn. Right behind us are the six German dressage queens, who all have better seats than the cop or I do, but who don’t get to ride Salka today, or even Gàra, because dressage is all about control, and riding these mares is all about cooperation. We’ve just turned onto a long straightaway, gravel, frozen but not exactly solid, some of the best footing we’ve seen during this week of the worst footing I’ve ever experienced in my life.

“I don’t know how fast this guy is,” Anna says, indicating the horse she’s riding. “You might have to go around.” The cop and I exchange a quick glance: the first rule of every barn in Iceland is that under no circumstances whatsoever do you pass the guide. We start off at a canter, which takes two strides to turn into a gallop. Gàra begins to crowd Anna’s horse and Salka begins to crowd Gàra.

Anna turns around in her saddle, eyes sparkling. “Let her go,” she says, to one or both of us, but it doesn’t matter because both mares hear her. Gàra shoots ahead so enthusiastically, it takes the cop by surprise. She tightens her reins slightly, and I see Gàra glance back. Really, human? But Gàra yields and downshifts, just slightly. That’s when Salka sees the gap and takes it. Do I consider tightening the reins a fraction? If I do, I reject the idea out of hand. All of a sudden, there is nothing but two ears and a forelock between me and the whole of the Icelandic sky.

The author with Salka, a former show-ring champion
The author with Salka, a former show-ring champion (Photo: Anna Grimm)

I’ve gone fast a lot of times in my life. On horses, on skis, down whitewater rivers, in wooden sleds pulled by a team of happy dogs. It is possible I have gone as fast in some motorless conveyance as I did this day on Salka. But not at 61. Not after more than a year of identity-shattering exhaustion, not in some kind of imperfect communion with a very good witch of the equine variety.

We fly. I lose track of the ground—that icy surface I have spent all week worrying about suddenly feels like it is no longer below us. If there were words for this, here is where I would hurl a few at the page: communion, rapture, weightlessness, joy. But one defining goal of my writer’s life has been to seek out moments so ecstatic that language has to fail them. Here I am again, against all odds. Here we are together. Me and Salka, two beings become one, rising. In two kilometers there will be a hard-right turn, and I will have to collect Salka in advance of it. In two hoofbeats, or two years, or 20, I will die, as we all will one day. But not right now. Right now we have temporarily entered the sky, all the blues and silvers and golds of it. There is the sun over the North Atlantic, smoldering, shimmering. Dare us to see how close we can get.

From July/August 2023 Lead Photo: Gigja Einarsdottir/Getty