A Piece of Her Heart

Jill Sture | October 1, 2017

Iceland.  As she waited at the boarding gate to return home to Canada, she knew.  She would re-enter this land of wonder and beauty; this land with all her rage and tranquility, complexity and contradictions; settled in an unsettled sort of way.  A little like herself if she were to be perfectly honest.  A piece of her heart belonged in Iceland; with the horses, the fire, the piercing blue skies, the uncontrollable climate, the harsh and majestic land.  The laughter and song of the people forever resonated on her soul.

And now she had returned.  August 8, 2017, she was back, as it was meant to be; to feel the now familiar ground and to explore anew; to revel in a fresh understanding of life in this land; to make new friends and return to old.  And, of course, to walk amongst the main reason she was here, the horses.  To gallop free across the grasslands and black sand; to tread mindfully through the jagged lava fields and splash through glacial waters.

How to describe these beautiful beasts; untainted, honest, trusting, sweet; yet mighty as the sword, deceptively strong.  Small in stature and sturdy of foot, these masters of the land easily travel long distances with a uniquely smooth and fast paced tölting gait.  Iceland:  Their home for over a thousand years, venerated in Norse mythology, developed since the 9th century Viking era to endure the harsh and unforgiving environment.  Long lived and hardy, pure and resilient like the surrounding landscape, the enchanted horse remains an integral fragment of life in this beautiful country.

She ran a brush quickly through her hair and re-applied pink lipstick, probably for the last time over the next couple of weeks.  She retrieved her back pack and sleeping bag at the bustling Keflavik airport in the Southwest region of Iceland outside the pretty City of Reykjavik.   Not much would be required:  Riding boots and denim breeches (with a little sparkle on the pockets of course), cleansing wipes (her bath for the next few days), camera, and various layers of clothing in preparation for the endless weather changes.   Her heart was light, already at peace.  The feeling wrapped her in warmth, as though her whole body was submerged in one of the many natural hot rivers, made so by the fire and sulfur sitting below the lands’ surface.  With a spring in her stride and a deep breath, she began her second journey here in the Country that she adored.

That night was peaceful as she anticipated the adventure that lay ahead, the herding of majestic horses across country, around Hekla Volcano, through mountain passes, small forests, over rivers and barren land; a uniquely diverse artform at every turn.  The late evening sun dropped behind the mountainous volcanic landscape, changing the sky from a cloudless blue to a brilliant combination of red, orange and purple.   The window was open as she lay her head on the small pillow of her sleeping bag, allowing the cool night air and the silent noise of grazing horses lull her to sleep.  Her slumber was aroused perhaps too soon, as the land of the midnight sun allowed for only a few short hours of darkness during the summer months.  Three in the morning, and she felt satisfied.

Bright with sunshine, the land was already alive with the song of early rising birds serenading the new day.  The tiny chirping of the delicate Meadow Pipit could be heard between the lazy cackling of the migrating Greylag Goose.  The shy Common Snipe with his short legs and long beak, was distinctly drumming his wings as he scurried amongst the livestock, searching for that juicy worm.  In the background, she could just make out the slow slurred whistle of the speckled, short necked Golden Plover, the sweet favourite amongst Icelanders.  Elusive during winter, the Plover had sung away the snow long ago and populated the land.  The sound of nature gently drifted her back into a deep sleep.

So much was familiar as she settled into the saddle of one of ten steeds she would ride over the next nine days.  Together, they would navigate across the uneven terrain.  She felt the buzzing exciting in the air as this small group of perhaps slightly reckless Wild Women attempted to prepare themselves for the unknown.  She quietly acquainted herself with the distinct personality and gait of her first horse.

“You are in the front today” the Guide told her.  “Your job is to set the pace”.   Without hesitation, the front crew tölted ahead, separating themselves from the herd and back riders to follow.  The horses, some pawing the ground, others whinnying as they watched the squad ahead, were anxious to move.   Seven hours of ground to cover before the welcoming view of the first remote hut, no electricity, no hot water, but always hot coffee and cake waiting.

The speed was fast; so fast.  She could feel the adrenalin rush through her veins and a nervous energy entered her very being.  She called this her “Yee Haw” moment, something she loved to do if ever given the chance; a time to allow the horse free rein.   Her horse’s gait changed smoothly from a tölt to a gallop to beat the herd to the first stop, allowing a short reprieve for riders and beasts alike; to unsaddle, catch their breaths, and readjust to a new mount.  The herders navigated the horses, still wild from their first leg, into a crowded mass, while a human fence and a piece of string held between the fingers acted as a makeshift fence around them.  The horses relaxed and began foraging for grass.   She gazed at the wide-eyed faces of her group.

Had anyone been truly prepared for the ferocious pace across unfamiliar topography with 40 horses in tow that lead them to this brief resting place?  One by one, the horses rolled in the dry mud, covering themselves in the comforting cool earth beneath the warm sun.  The once white beauty was now a contented mass of brown as he lay on his side to sleep a while.  The front runners watched as the back riders rounded the bend of the narrow mountain path below.  Piercing blue sky above, scattered with sparse puffy snow-white clouds; foreboding mountainside to the right, a mass of grey and black lava stone interspersed with pillows of soft green moss and patches of purple heather, yellow primrose and Red Clover.  The ground to the left that fell into the wide rushing river, was awash with tall green lupin foliage adorned with lilac flowers nearing the end of their blooming cycle.  Could anything be more perfect, more powerful, more exhilarating?  She closed her eyes and breathed deeply to plant the vista before her deep into her mind.

That evening was one of song, laughter, shared experiences, aching muscles, and a feast of delicately moist freshly caught Atlantic salmon and cod.  Three curious sheep, one a dirty white, two brown, all with large curved horns, gathered outside the hut.  The farmer’s black and white Border Collie greeted the group with wagging tail and toothy smile.  One woolly ewe accepted a chin scratch, and with the other hand, she knelt on the gravelled ground to pet the dog and accept his wet kisses.  After the intensity of the day, the cramped one room wood slat and aluminum lodging filled with the wafting aroma of strong, thick java, was a welcoming sight.  Sleep was uninterrupted that night.  Everyone, exhausted and sated, was tucked comfortably in individual sleeping bags, snug in an imagined private space, awakening refreshed and ready for the day ahead.

The herd was hot to move.  The women gathered at the corral that stood amidst miles of mossy grass hills, a rushing river and ever-present Hekla.  Sól (Icelandic for Sun) stood patiently; a gorgeous pinto of chestnut and white with a mass of fiery red mane that shone brilliant in the sun.  She found herself gravitate toward the beauty before her.  “This one is yours for today” she heard behind her.  “And you are herding in the back.”  She loved every one of them, these horses in all their splendour, with eyes wild and trusting.  What was it about this mare that made her heart skip a beat?  She knew before she put her foot in the stirrup to pull herself up onto her back that this one was special.  The dry earth was brushed from Sól’s saddle and girth area using a lava stone she found lying on the ground by her feet.  The breeze briefly parted the burnt amber mane and the mare looked directly into her eyes, studying her as she gently fitted the halter.  It was a look that emanated from mutual trust:  And it was extraordinarily powerful.

Sól held her head high and proud.  She snorted as her nostrils flared slightly.  Her small ears fluttered, willing and enthusiastic.  A slight squeeze of the leg, a click of the tongue, and Sól’s muscles twitched as she transitioned effortlessly into a smooth tölt.  The front riders had departed quickly to allow space for the wildness of the free herd to run and follow.  At first the many horses were tolerant, easing into a steady pace as they made their way stealthily through the treacherously uneven landscape of lava rock and deep crevices hidden in the long green grass.  Their hooves sank into the black sand as they furtively progressed through the changing landscape.  The skilled Guides whistled to keep the herd in line as the confidence of each rider grew, settling into the unique gait of a new steed.

Hekla, looking innocent with a cover of snow, loomed ahead.  The horses analyzed and respected the unstable surface as they edged forward.  She imagined the countless stories, the folklore of a distant era, as she followed the pace of the herd, seriously aware of any unexpected activity.  She heard her trainer’s voice from home enter her head, feeding her growing confidence.  “Be prepared and always think ahead.”

Hekla was once branded “The Gateway to Hell.”  She imagined the lost souls that lived in the birds flying overhead, and the witches that gathered at Hekla’s base to meet the Devil.  She could picture the cave dwellers, trickster elves and hidden trolls, tyrants of the land.   Hekla, in all her majesty, one of the most powerful volcanoes in the land, reigned over all; a constant reminder of the control this mysterious land possesses.  Alive, waiting, a forever active presence with the ability to change the landscape at whim.

And then it began.  The herd before her picked up speed as the ground became smoother, barren, open.  The wind grew purposefully stronger, influencing the horses to run faster, some breaking into a gallop and dispersing from the group.  Most found their way back, but others needed urging.  She was ready.  Sól was ready.  She and horse broke from their fellow back riders to first tölt sideways to the left then gallop toward the straying herd.  She flew in the wind, over the rocky surface that surrounded the naturally worn path, the result of thousands of charging horses instinctively travelling the same route for so many years.  She allowed the strays a wide berth so as not to push them further away toward a deep gully that suddenly appeared before them.

“Hup” she heard herself yell with authority.  “Hup”, as she weaved left and right until she could corral the drifters back to the mob.  For a moment, everyone else disappeared.  All she felt was the swiftness of the movements beneath her and around her, and above her, the unquestioned knowledge that she and horse were one, moving in unison, each paying attention to the needs of the other.

The air so clean and clear, the sun a brilliant yellow, the thunderous hooves of sixty horses, the volcanic dust swept up by the twists and turns of her own horse’s actions; this was her moment to be free and the moment that solidified the fact that she had indeed fallen in love.  Not just with the magnificence that was Iceland, but with Sól:  Graceful, strong, with flame red tresses ridiculously thick and flowing in all directions.  Yes, she respected and treasured her intensity and  beauty.  As she calmed the wandering horses with a commanding softness in her tone, almost alien to her, she guided them back, edging them into the middle of the herd who were now forming a straight line of their own.  The herd of forty slowed, a quiet tölt, then an easy walk, lowering their heads as their breathing became noticeably measured; closing in, nose to tail.

Heart racing, she tölted toward her Guide to ride side by side for a while in silence, allowing a period to gather thoughts and calm her pounding heart.   “Your eyes are so bright” her Guide turned to her and commented with a smile.  “You and Sól look so nice together.”

“I wish she was mine” she heard herself respond.

“I think she is for sale.  We can ask the farmer.”

And it was at that precise moment she recognized her future path was to be transformed.  Never would she consider separating an Icelandic horse from its homeland.  This is where they belong, wild amongst the wild; free and pure; as much a part of this place as a fish in the ocean.  Sól would always remain here amongst her herd; a piece of sunshine in the land of fire and ice.  But she knew that now, as much as this fiery beauty would allow, she would be hers.  And without question, she knew she would forever return to the country that captured her soul, and now to the horse that stole her heart.


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