Saving the Sheep in Iceland

By Ylva Van Buuren | September 18, 2014

I stood shoulder to shoulder with Anna, Shelley, Heather, and others, and tasted the rain as it streamed down my face. Someone handed me a plastic-wrapped sandwich and as I held Hallur on long reins, I ate it quickly so the bread wouldn’t get wet too.

There were 13 riders in the Wild Women group ranging in age (21 to over 60) and riding experience, and it was our first full day on the horses. We’d spent most of the morning riding to Maradalur or the Valley of Horses, dismounting only to lead our horses in through a narrow cleft.

In the valley, the mountains in the distance sat massive around us with their peaks lost in thick cloud. The rain and mist painted a world out of focus, and even sounds became slightly muffled.

We rode in single file, and as the lead horse approached three sheep huddled on one side of the path, two of them darted off but a large black sheep did not move. As Bjork, the head guide, announced it was time for lunch, she kept looking back at the black sheep. As we dismounted, I heard her ask Robin, one of the Wild Women and a veterinarian, if she would check to see if the sheep was hurt. I watched them walk away, their orange raincoats flapping in the wind.

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Bjork came back about 15 minutes later, and I heard her tell Cline, another guide, that the ewe had a badly broken leg. She lowered her voice and leaned closer, and Cline nodded and reached into a saddlebag on her horse. I saw the blade of a knife as it was passed from hand to hand.

What were they thinking?

You can’t leave a lame sheep in the wilds. Someone said crows would have poked out its eyes before it even died.

Thankfully, they couldn’t kill it either. That choice just felt wrong, said Robin.

After much discussion with Robin and others, Bjork decided we had to save the sheep.

Transportation would be the challenge. It was August so the sheep had been grazing freely for months and weighed at least 80 pounds. A horse would have to carry the sheep.

Bjork and others lifted the sheep and placed it sideways over the back of Bjork’s hand-horse, Crowther. They wrapped it with leather reins snapping them to a surcingle fastened to the horse’s girth. But the sheep kept slipping out of place.

Robin tried sitting on the horse behind the sheep, with her body draped forward to hold the animal. When this seemed to work, Bjork took the reins and got on her horse too and started towards the mountain pass. The Wild Women saddled up and followed with all the extra horses and packs.

We could have been on our way to Bethlehem.

As Crowther walked up the rocky path, the sheep fell off the horse. Then Robin fell off the horse. Everyone stopped again. Robin brushed herself off and a few others helped to lift the sheep back onto Crowther. Robin decided to walk beside the horse on the steep climb and wrap her arms around the sheep from one side.

It was slow-going. The pass was steep and narrow, and the sheep fell off two more times. We all followed slowly, leading our horses, teeth chattering, feet squishing in our boots.

We finally reached the other side. The terrain evened out, and Robin got back on the horse, bareback and held the sheep from behind.

The group travelled like this for a long time. The sheep never made a sound, said Robin later, not once. I heard Bjork tell Robin that she wanted to take the sheep for x-rays and adopt it if she could.

A few hours later, the soggy group arrived at the pick-up spot. Drivers lifted the sheep off Crowther’s back and placed it on the floor in one of the cabs. We all stacked our saddles, and the horses were loaded into the trailers.

I wanted to see the sheep before we left, and it was just lying quietly on a blanket.

They say animals know when it’s time to die, and there are no regrets or sadness or anything like that, there’s just acceptance that death is the next part of the journey. As I studied the sheep, I wondered if we all had this capacity for acceptance that at some point in our lives, something is going to change, something significant.

There was a lot of laughter and even some tears as we were driven in different vehicles to the Skogarholar Mountain Hut. Once we were there, we stripped down and held dripping socks, riding pants and gloves up close to electric heaters until they steamed. We also heard that the sheep’s leg was too badly broken to be saved.

After dinner, Cline got out her guitar. Hallelujah is one of the songs I remember, from that night or the next. We all sang along with the chorus, and there was such sadness and sweetness throughout the room.

And so the days went by.

We saw a lot of sheep along the way. We learned how to manage the reins. We fell in love with the horses. We took drugs for aching muscles. We toasted the mountains, the hot springs and the warm river, and the meadows, the steep cliffs and waterfalls. And, every big sky we witnessed, every sunrise, brought something new into our hearts.

I rode my favourite horse Kyndill on the last day of the tour, and as he walked up through the dunes towards the black sand beach, I faltered. I’d been playing it safe and riding with the slower group all week. But now I had the opportunity to go faster, to step outside of my comfort zone.

I admit that I started the beach ride with the slower group. But I could feel Kyndill wanted to go, and my pounding heart told him that I wanted to go too. And then, like it was the most natural thing in the world, I nudged the horse with my heels and loosened the reins. As Kyndill started to build speed and gallop, I moved with him and sailed across the black sand, my fears flying into the air behind me.

We had made it out of the valley of horses. Even the sheep had made it out. All the Wild Women who had signed up to find themselves, we each had a journey that was ours alone but that also felt a part of everyone else’s.

Me, I had entered that next place we get to go to in our lives.


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