Lonely Planet Writer

You can now take a horseback tour of the annual Icelandic highland sheep round-up

If a written job description were to be written down for this task, it would probably read something like this: looking for someone to travel at the speed of sheep and holler the occasional “hooh!” and “hey!” towards the herd. Horse riding experience a must. Compensations include sipping whiskey from a plastic bottle.

A sheep herd, Bovids, at geothermal area on Lake Myvatn (lake of midges), Hverir, Iceland. Image by DeAgostini/Getty Images

The task, rounding up sheep from the Icelandic highlands, was – until very recently – exclusive to farmers and their kin. Tour guide and owner of Riding Iceland, Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, said farmers were sceptical at first to include a group of eight tourists. “They thought I was just bringing spectators,” he said. A fair point, perhaps, because what does a German dentist or a Belgian chocolatier know about collecting sheep anyway?  A lot, as it turns out.

Sheep smalamennska in Iceland.    Image by Frederic REGLAIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“Fundamental to smalamennska is being a seasoned horseback rider,” Vilhjálmsson explained, “and guests on this trip have all travelled on a horse before.” The famously small and nimble Icelandic horse, a unique breed in the rugged land, carries the group most of the way. The job entails some action on foot, too, since the sheep have a habit of wandering wherever the grass grows and this includes some terrain not accessible on horseback.

The seasonal movement traditionally takes place in September. Image by Frederic REGLAIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The working pace builds up comfortably over the course of four days, Vilhjálmsson said, speaking on the last morning when thousands of sheep are gathered into one location, known as the réttir. At the réttir farmers are joined by friends and family from near and far to sort out the regional herd — each sheep marked with an ear tag.

The event marks the arrival of autumn and usually takes place on Saturday or Sunday. More than 150 réttir take place across the country, although some are quite small. By the end of the third weekend in September, the roughly 800,000 sheep farmed in Iceland have been gathered for slaughter and shelter.

Traditionally the event concludes with réttasöngur, a communal singing, but those who arrived from the mountains have probably already lost their voice communicating with confused sheep.

By Egill Bjarnason