“I. Am. Flying!”
I scream this while careening along the sharply sloping side of an Icelandic mountain, buoyed aloft by the forces of nature and surging with power. To my left, a sheer slope of volcanic scree tumbles into a mirrored lake. To my right, the peak climbs, dotted with white Holtasóley buds, the national flower of this Nordic country. It’s breathtaking, but hardly bucolic: That’s because I’m taking in the scene—not to mention the precipitous drop—at speed, straddling the pint-size powerhouse of an Icelandic horse that’s charging along the cliffside the way a power forward drives toward the rim.
Here, high above a landscape gouged by glaciers whose Ice Age footprints run with navy blue water, esplanades of lichen clinging to ancient lava flows pierced with shards of black basalt boulders, there is no word to describe what we’re doing, other than flying. And my wings are a roly-poly pony with a hair-metal mane named Vikingur.
“This is crazy!” I yell to Haukur Suska-Garðarsson, the dashing rancher who owns Vikingur and hordes of his relatives. He’s careening beside me along the hoof-beaten path above the lake, astride his own tiny horse. He laughs. “You think? Look behind you!”
Wobbling in my saddle, I turn to peer over my shoulder. Flung out behind us, more than three dozen Icelandic horses blast nose-to-tail on our heels. In hues from honey to copper, from gilt-tipped black to mocha-splattered white, they are like bright beads on a necklace strung across the mountain range.
The shaggy horses are naked, unsaddled, untethered, galloping along totally free, bound to us only by a herd animal’s impulse to stick together and follow a leader—who, at that moment, is Vikingur and, well, me. “How do you say ‘crazy’ in Icelandic?” I ask Haukur, but I am not sure he hears me; Vikingur and I are already in his dust.
The word is brjálaður—crazy—and it aptly describes how I feel about horses. I’m a lifelong horsewoman, who parlayed an obsession that began at age 2 into a life with horses that I’ve managed to maintain despite being the most unlikely of equestrians: a native of New York City.
In my endless quest to be near them, I’ve been a mounted auxiliary parks officer patrolling Manhattan’s Central Park on Belgian Warmbloods who lived in a four-story apartment building, a dude ranch guide on the beaches of the Hamptons on Long Island, and a cowgirl at an urban barn in the middle of the Harlem River. I’ve been called “horse crazy” for so long, it was a natural title for my book about the equestrian obsession, Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal, which was published last year by Simon & Schuster.
But in recent years, I realized my riding life had become fairly staid, confined to the competition arena as a hobbyist show jumper on my own lugubrious horses, Trendsetter and Falkor, two sedate Dutch Warmbloods. Where was the girl who stole a mustang in Montauk under cover of night and rode it through the dark into the sea? The ranger who chased truants through a Central Park fountain on a draft horse?
Horseback riding in Iceland is about as far from the fancy prancing of the show ring as you can get. The country is home to a breed of chest-high horse, more rightly a pony—though local pride insists you never call it that. In Iceland, a nation of approximately 350,000 people that’s about the size of Kentucky, there are 80,000 of this kind of horse (that’s close to one for every four people) and this kind of horse alone: To preserve their genetic purity, and protect them from foreign pathogens, no other breeds are permitted into the country by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. (And if you export one, it can never come back home.)
All the geographic isolation since Viking explorers first brought horses here in the 9th century has produced a curious quirk: The horses have unique ways of moving their legs. In one celebrated gait, called the tölt, the legs move in parallel; the ride is glass-smooth.
That’s useful, because Iceland’s riding terrain is anything but smooth: Here, where the midnight sun barely sets from late May until midsummer, locals bomb their tiny horses across the Arctic tundra, past sizzling geothermal springs, over black lava beaches, and through ever-changing volcanic swells (the Fagradalsfjall volcano, near the capital of Reykjavík, oozed orange lava for the first time in 6,000 years during my visit).
Forget the sweet, sedate Shetlands you may have once ridden at the fair. Icelandic horses are as cuddly, but they are by nature powerful and fiery. And I’ve always wanted to ride one. So, in need of an equine adventure, I text a group of six friends, all fellow riders at Ithilien Stables in Whitehouse, New Jersey, where I board Trendy and Falkor. We’re all urbanites, from New York City. The barn has become a refuge over the course of the grinding pandemic, an alfresco safe space where we can spend time together—horses are about 12 feet long, we joke, so they’re naturals at social distancing. Iceland has just begun allowing fully vaccinated travelers, I note. After a tough couple of years, wouldn’t an adventure with legendary little horses be just the thing?
The responses are unanimous: “In.” (They’re brjálaður for horses, too.)
We land in Reykjavík on a warm July morning and do a day of sightseeing, stopping at places such as the spaceship-shaped Hallgrímskirkja church. But aside from a blanket of prized Icelandic sheep’s wool hand-woven with prancing ponies, which I nab at a thrift shop on the main drag, Laugavegur, the gray city is horseless. I’m eager to be in the saddle.
The horses are three hours north, in the Vatnsdalur valley, which we reach via a bus sent by Íslandshestar, a collective of three horse-farming families with stables across Iceland. Together, they offer a range of tours, from single-day excursions to weeklong hut-to-hut trips where riders bunk in rustic shepherds’ booths called kofi.
Our driver, Bjarni Karlsson, brings along a copilot, his plump dog, Doppa. She waddles the aisle the entire trip, requesting compensation for her efforts in the form of hardfiskur, a human snack of air-dried fish jerky; as we drive, Karls- son points out racks strung with cod and wolffish catching the North Atlantic breeze—the traditional treat in process.
Finally, our bus pulls into Hvammur Farm, our home base for the next five days. Against a backdrop of volcanic cliffs, herds of horses graze across the crags and dales of the landscape. “How many horses do you have?!” I ask Haukur Suska-Garðarsson, Hvammur’s owner and our guide, a lanky man with an impish grin and—I’ll find out later, while galloping across a moonscape of wilderness—a tendency to burst into song. “Who knows?” he says with a laugh.
The next morning, however, I learn that Haukur knows his horses with a level of intimacy usually reserved for a lover. That familiarity with his herd’s personalities, quirks, and foibles is essential, because along with feeding, shoeing, rearing, and training, Haukur must play equine matchmaker between his horses and his guests. This week, we number around a dozen— all women except my rather pleased pal James—of varying dispositions, ages, and skill levels. We range from ardent horse hobbyists, like my septet of New Yorkers, to one young woman from Germany who had ridden for the first time ever something like a week before the trip.
“They are just great personalities, with their own social structure,” Haukur says of his animals as he hands me a weather-beaten saddle inside Hvammur’s barn. It’s dawn, and all around us his ranch hands, some of his four children, and his mother mill among the horses and guests, teaching them how to saddle and bridle the diminutive animals.
Haukur orders up each animal from his ranch hands—“Orator!” a hunk of dun-colored shag; “Glaesir!” a fluffy white cloud—then holds his chin and ponders which rider is right. “Just like with the humans, you have these at-the- front types, these little held-back types; you have those who are followers a little, and you have those who are a little feisty,” he says. “Matching them right is of quite great importance.”
He looks hard at James. Born in Texas, with an outlaw beard to match, James is the executive director of GallopNYC, New York City’s therapeutic riding stables, a nonprofit that uses horses to heal and empower disabled children and adults. He’s equal parts cowboy bravado and total softy—a lot like Orator, it turns out. Haukur hands James the reins.
Mounted up, Haukur opens the gate. A string of riders and ranch hands fans out beneath the cliffs, and on our heels are at least 50 of his “who knows” how big herd. They are to be our replacement mounts— we’ll switch and saddle them twice each day, swapping out spent horses for fresh ones.
I’ve ridden plenty of horses on vacation—placid trail rides on a beach or through the woods, my horse’s snout practically up the leader’s tail, my mount reaching peak velocity at a jangly jog. So when I swing a leg over Borkur, the first of the eight horses that I’ll ride over my journey (their names are immortalized on a cute “diploma” each guest gets as a parting gift), I’m prepared for an idyllic plod across Iceland’s martian landscape.
Icelandic horses Do. Not. Plod.
I swiftly realize I’m on a dirt bike with hooves. Speed is an Icelandic horse’s happy place, and my tug at the reins requesting moderation from Borkur is met with a comedic shake of his tasseled head: No! Around me, my friends shriek with joy at the equine adrenaline pulsing beneath us, as the horses set a blazing pace that will not ebb for the four days and approximately 65 miles of our journey.
We’re flying, but the gravelly landscape is smoothed to butter by the unique rocking-horse sway of the tölting gait. I cast about wildly for the German girl, sure she’ll be in the dirt, but the smooth pace and Haukur’s expert matchmaking ensure she’s swinging along on a gentle old babysitter of a horse, giggling like mad.
I also spot Bjarni, the bus driver. Horses are not just for tourists in Iceland, he told me on the drive up. They form an important part of the social fabric, bringing together residents—who are often geographically isolated in the sparsely populated country—via frequent communal group rides. Bjarni, who normally works as a taxi driver in Reykjavík, bartered his chauffeur skills for a slot on Haukur’s excursion, and he planned to spend the rest of the summer on back-to- back outings.
When we stop at a Stóra-Borg, a local sheep farm, for a lunch of piping hot kleinur, Icelandic beignets dusted with powdered sugar and served with tart crowberry jam, Bjarni tells me that horses are more than a pastime for him; they’re a lifeline. “Without horses,” he says. “I wouldn’t exist.”
It turns out Bjarni has been sober for 36 years. As a recovering alcoholic, he realized he’d lost the ability to make connections of the sort not steeped in Brennivín, the caraway seed–infused local schnapps that’s also known as Black Death. Riding, and meeting a new, healthier human herd, saved him. “The horses,” he says, tussling Doppa’s ears. “It’s like being reborn from that old life.”
I also get to know Dorothy Connors, a retired nursing home administrator from Towamencin, Pennsylvania, who is visiting Hvammur for her 15th summer, even though she’s recovering from spinal fusion surgery. At points during the trip, while we’re off charging around the landscape, she escapes to spend time with Frejya, a filly she purchased the year before and left in Haukur’s care, to work with the untamed animal.
The first night, over forgettable but filling food, Haukur whips out a guitar and passes around a songbook at the long farmhouse dinner table. He croons a mix of Icelandic folk tunes and karaoke hits, to which we stumble along. Between songs, Dorothy regales us with her progress with Freyja: how she felt able and strong again as she taught the young creature to be gentle and brave. “The smell of a horse is my aromatherapy,” she says. “I just chill and feel welcome to their world.”
That feeling resonates with Lindsey, one of my crew, who tells her harrowing story one night, as we soak away our saddle-soreness in the farm’s hot tub while sipping cocktails of local Reyka Vodka and Appelsín, an Icelandic orange soda. (The farm doesn’t serve alcohol, but the New Yorkers stocked up at Duty Free.) Thirty-five years old, she had been diagnosed with cancer that year and had an entire lung removed. On a horse, Lindsey says, as we relax under a midnight sky that looks like 4 p.m., she feels like she can truly breathe.
On the third afternoon of our trip, the horses throw their legs out akimbo like mountain goats and clamber up the undulating stone of the Nesbjörg ridge. From nearly 300 feet above sea level, we look out over a placid lagoon and remove their saddles. The horses pair off to groom themselves, reaching the itchy spots on one another’s backs with their teeth. It’s a rare moment of placidity for the fiery herd.
We humans, meanwhile, relax with packed sandwiches, sitting cross-legged among spears of purple lupin. When it’s time to saddle up again, Haukur singles out Vikingur from the pack for me. He’s a chocolate tornado of a horse, with a café latte mane, and astride him I descend into Lake Hóp. And I mean into.
The second their hooves hit the water, the horses are aflame again, casting up spray with every crashing stride. I lock eyes with my friend Jessie as our horses charge side by side across the tidal lagoon, foam in their manes, snorting, reveling, rejoicing. Underneath me, Vikingur is soaring.
“Is this real life?” Jessie yelps.
I shake my head. It can’t be; in real life, you cannot fly.
That night, back at the farmhouse, guitar across his lap, Haukur and I talk about being horse crazy. I share a Winston Churchill quote I adore: “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” Just outside the farmhouse window, petite, fluffy horses crop grass under a sun that refuses to set.
“In this modern world, people always have to be doing something,” Haukur says, strumming a little. “They need to slow down a little, to get used to doing nothing, to just enjoy a horse chewing, just be there. When they get this feeling of enjoying just being with the horse, in nature, then they start to sense things differently—they sense this joy that it can bring. That’s when they get addicted, and they come again and again.”
I wish the farmer good night and head back to my shared room, where my six friends lounge across the bunks playing cards. James, setting out his boots for tomorrow’s ride, turns to me. “So, when are we all coming back?”
On our final day, I’m paired with spicy Vikingur again. His legs are no longer than mine, but as we make the final bend toward the farm, somehow we leave the rest of the herd in our dust. I strain to keep him from sprinting in front of our guide. “I know all these guys are fast, Haukur, but is this little horse really fast?” I ask as we barrel down on him. “Oh yeah, I didn’t mention?” he replies. “Vikingur is the fastest horse I’ve ever owned.”
Suddenly, the farmer dodges his horse to the side, clearing the path before me. He flashes me his trademark mischievous grin as my steed seizes the opportunity to blitz past our leader before I can hold him back. My tiny little whirlwind—his nostrils gulping air, his hooves clattering on the path—and I are now leading the entire herd. If I thought I was flying before, this is supersonic.
And yet, even as I strike out alone, I know without looking that the herd is with me, matching my speed, glued to my trail, following my lead without a whip or goad or tether. And that they carry on their backs people who love them, who learn from them, who are horse crazy just like me. Another herd—mine.