It seems that everyone I talk to wants to visit Iceland, whether or not they’ve already been or not. Definitely a hot tourist spot at the moment, there are many reasons to love this small Nordic country from the capital Reykjavik to those famous natural landscapes we seem to see everyday in social media and elsewhere. It has an odd allure to it unlike any other place and while there are many reasons to visit this endlessly fascinating country, the cutest has to be the Icelandic Horse.
What’s so special about a horse, you may ask? Well, driving around Iceland you’ll quickly discover why they’re such an important part of the travel experience there. All around the country, nearly every field seems to be filled with them, slowly grazing or play fighting with each other, in their own undeniably cute way. They’re cute because these aren’t your normal horses. More pony sized, their diminutive stature and fuzzy winter coats make them seem more like stuffed animals come to life instead of the work and show horses they really are.
The horses arrived into Iceland with the Vikings, the original settlers of Iceland and were quickly mixed with other breeds from Scotland and other areas of the North Atlantic. Through crossbreeding what we know today as the Icelandic Horse developed, a protected breed in the country for more than 1,000 years. They’re short, fuzzy and come in a variety of colors, from stark white to palomino to roan and more. They’ve played an extremely important role in Icelandic life since the beginning, as workhorses, steeds and companions. Mentioned in mythology and the ancient sagas, the Iceland we know and love today wouldn’t exist were it not for these beautiful creatures.
Since they don’t have any natural predators they’re also very easy to approach and are generally docile by nature. So docile, that stopping as you see them on the side of the road is a common and fun travel experience. Always mindful of private property, soon after leaving the city limits of Reykjavik we saw a herd of the horses near the fence abutting the road, so of course we decided to stop. As soon as the car pulled over, the horses walked towards us – obviously we weren’t the first tourists to try this. I immediately felt bad that I didn’t have any food for them, but they didn’t seem to mind, letting me gently pet their heads and wishing I could give them all big hugs.
No matter where we went in Iceland, those quirky, personality-drenched horses were a constant companion, just as they have been to travelers in the country for generations. Generally healthy, no other horses are allowed into Iceland for fear of spreading disease amongst this venerated animal. The commitment in Iceland to protecting and preserving such an important part of daily life even today is very real. I learned this and much more on an afternoon stop at the Fakasel Horse Park, about an hour outside of Reykjavik.
While it’s certainly easy to get your fill of horsey love out in the country, the Horse Park is a great way to meet them in a controlled environment and learn a lot more about their history and how they’re cared for today. There are a few options at the Horse Park, including stable visits offered throughout the day. We signed up and joined one of the trainers as he let us meet some of the dozens of horses who call the park home, showing us how they’re fed and cared for and sharing his love for them with us. While I had seen them in rural farms, it was great to be able to be with them in the warm and calming setting of the stables, petting them and letting them smell me, trying to determine if I had any food.
The main attraction at the Horse Park though is their nightly show that uses special effects to weave together history, Old Norse mythology and exhibition riding to demonstrate the Icelandic horse’s beauty and uniqueness. It sounded a little hokey to me at first, sort of like an Icelandic version of Medieval Times. But it’s not, the show is actually a beautiful way of showcasing the many unique talents of this tiny horse, from its athleticism to its 5-gaits, an oddity in the horse world. More than anything else, throughout both the stable tour and the show, the love for the horses is easily seen on the faces of the riders and trainers. This isn’t just a job for them; it’s really their life’s passion.
So when you visit Iceland, be sure to include a few special horsey moments of your own as you drive around the country searching for thermal pools and stunning waterfalls. While the Icelandic Horse may not get as much attention as the glaciers or dramatic vistas of the country, they’re just as important a part of the travel experience in Iceland as anything else.