In the saddle: experiencing Iceland by horseback

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Horses occupy a special place in Icelandic culture and they come into their own during the country's dramatic annual sheep round-up. Experience Iceland's wild climate and terrain on horseback with Marcel Theroux in this excerpt from Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Photography by Lottie Davies.

Farmers, horses and helpers herd 3000 sheep across the Lambafitjarhraun valley. Photo by Lottie Davies

The scene is like something from a Biblical epic: 2000 sheep are being driven across a desert of black lava. The sky overhead is bright blue and filled with the sound of bleating. Every now and again, a sheep breaks loose and heads up the rocky hillside, from where it has to be coaxed back down. Herders, some on foot and some on stocky Icelandic horses, surround the flock, yelling and gesturing to keep the animals in a bunch.

A support group of four-wheel drive vehicles is rumbling slowly behind us, but the main actors in this drama haven’t changed in over a thousand years: Icelanders, sheep, horses. I’m on foot, patrolling one corner of the herd, trying to deter a particularly stubborn ewe from running off. But the key members of the group are on horseback. A middle-aged man whose shabby riding gear belies his importance here manoeuvres his horse expertly around the rocks. With a few gestures, he dispatches a group of riders to round up sheep from the other side of the valley.

Mountain king Kristinn Gunnarsson directs proceedings. Photo by Lottie Davies

His name is Kristinn Gunnarsson and he’s the fjallkonungur, the mountain king. For more than 30 years he has led this annual sheep drive across the rugged uplands of southern Iceland. Every September, all over the country, groups of farmers under the generalship of a mountain king herd their sheep down from the summer pastures to be sorted and taken to their home farms for the winter.

‘We’ve made a few changes but basically we’re doing it the same way that our ancestors did,’ Kristinn says. ‘You couldn’t do it without the horse.’

Sheep drives are not without their problems. Marteinn Hjaltested, who runs a riding school and farm with his wife Lea, tells me of a number of incidents when horses behaved strangely. In the worst of them, a young horse bolted as Marteinn was dismounting and smashed him into the bars of a metal fence. ‘You can’t be certain that it’s not elves,’ he says. His solution was to bring down a woman from Reyjkavík who was gifted with second
sight. She managed to intercede and make peace with the troublesome sprites. There has been, touch wood, no recurrence.

 Icelandic horses crossing the Svalaskard River in southern Iceland. Photo by Lottie Davies

Icelanders are crazy about their horses. Smaller, stockier, shaggier, more agile and more even-tempered than their cousins elsewhere, Icelandic horses are perfectly adapted for the harsh climate and the challenging volcanic terrain. Early settlers relied on horses as their sole form of transport and as food. To this day, there is love but not sentimentality for the horse. If you ask an Icelander if they like horses, be prepared for the answer: ‘Yes, they’re delicious.’

The round-ups that Kristinn leads last five days. Over that time, sheep are gathered in from a 350-square-mile area and driven 45 miles to the sorting pens. The group spends each night in huts in the mountains, eating together and sharing rooms. Knitted socks hang over the edge of a bunk. A group of children play cards. Hungry farmers and riders eat plates of smoked lamb, potatoes, beetroot and canned peas. Towards 10 o’clock, people start freshening their fruit juice with shots of Jim Beam. Outside, the sky is radiant with stars, the sound of Icelandic songs rises into the freezing air.

Landmannalaugar is known for its multi-coloured rhyolite mountains and moss-covered lava fields. Photo by Lottie Davies

In the morning, we ride in a loose formation, forcing the sheep into a single bunch as we move towards the neck of a valley. We head uphill, across crumbly volcanic rock through a narrowing defile that rises to the top of a ridge. Nothing has prepared me for the view: a vast valley of black gravel sweeps into the distance under a sapphire sky. To our left, the snowy summit of Mount Hekla soars above the valley.

The herd of sheep – now swollen to about 5000 – pours downhill like a river of white water. Bleats and shouts rise above the flock. The herd and riders leave a dusty imprint across the valley floor. On its far side we begin climbing again. The final section is so steep that most of us dismount. From the top, we look down into the valley of Afangagil.

 A farmhouse at the foot of the Hekla volcano, known as ‘the gateway to hell’ in Icelandic folklore. Photo by Lottie Davies

Half a mile down, there’s a fenced off section of pasture. The ewes seem to recognise it and stream towards it. These are the sorting pens, from where the sheep will be taken back to their home farms for winter. After five hours in the saddle, and with huge regret, I dismount.

I climb the hill for a last look at Hekla. The sun hasn’t yet reached the slope and the earth is still frozen. My foot brushes against something sticking out of the scree. I dig around it – it’s a rusty horseshoe! It’s cold and gratifyingly weighty. Smugly, I clean it off and put it in the back of the car. Three hours later, back in Reyjkavík, the horseshoe is nowhere to be found. I search for it with frustration, but to no avail. I have no idea what happened to it – but I seem to hear Marteinn Hjaltested saying: ‘You can’t be certain that it’s not elves.’