What the Hekla? Everything you need to know about riding Icelandic horses.

By Cline Owen | November 19, 2021

Wild Women’s Hekla Volcano Riding Adventure is thoughtfully designed to delight experienced riders
who are seeking a very different experience from an everyday trail ride. We’re riding in the
wild and remote east of Iceland, near the volcano Hekla!

This is not your average walk in the park. In fact, we don’t do much walking on this trip, but
when we do, it’s because we’re traveling through the lava fields from previous Hekla eruptions,
where it’s too rocky and sharp to do anything else. Here, being an experienced rider means you
know how to keep your horse alert and balanced in terrain where it may easily stumble.

Outside the lava fields, we keep moving at a good pace. Our route takes us across steep sandy
dunes, through thick birch forest, and along lonely dirt and gravel roads. We cross several fast
flowing rivers, some deeper and wider than others, and have several long steep up and downhill
sections. We travel long distances, up to 50 km in a day, over varied terrain and speeds.

Have you ‘herd’ of this?

On this trip, we travel with about 20-30 extra loose horses: the herd. With a group of riders at
the front of the herd, and a group at the back, the trick is to ride fast enough to keep the horses
from grazing, but not so fast that they start galloping and overtaking the front riders. The guides
work as a team to keep the herd out of the riders, but it’s every rider’s responsibility to keep
herself out of the loose horses, where your mount takes on herd mentality, and you have
diminished control.

Icelandic horses are spirited and friendly, rarely spook, and have a dedicated work ethic. They
may be short, but they’re very strong and can go quite long distances. They’re also never
referred to as “ponies,” even though many would be classed as such by their size. The horses
are rested regularly, walking or trotting along with the riders, but without the burden of a
passenger. They’re rotated in and out of riding, so that each horse gets a rest for part of each

A töltally different experience from Western riding…

The style of riding is a kind of hybrid. Those who primarily ride Western, with a long loose rein
have the most difficulty getting the Icelandic horse to come into a tölt, the smooth 4-beated
running gait particular to Icelandic horses. The deep seat and longer stirrups of Western riders
translates well to this style, though the saddles are more similar to English dressage saddles,
with a higher pommel and cantle for a deeper and more secure seat, but no horn. Those riders
who are used to eventing or hunter/jumper style are often challenged to ride with longer stirrups,
which allows the upper leg to follow the vertical thigh brace for added support in the saddle.

The bits used are a regular snaffle with a two-part bridling system, having a separate noseband
over the headstall, and usually no browband. The way of holding the reins and making direct
contact with the bit are similar to English-style riding. A gentle elastic communication with the
horse is required for most horses to be balanced and smooth in the tölt.

For this trip, you need to be able to hop on and off a small horse (Icelandic horses range from
130-150 cm (13-15hh)) with minimal or no assistance from the ground (you can often find a rock
or higher ground to stand on to save both you and the horse). Be ready to ride over varied
terrain for long days. If you have a sense of adventure, love horses and are a seasoned and
confident rider, this is absolutely the trip for you.

This is not for novices, beginners, advanced beginners or even some intermediate riders who
aren’t used to riding in challenging terrain in open spaces. This kind of riding, with a herd,
requires solid intermediate and advanced riding skills, as well as a general level of physical

What about the Golden Circle Riding Adventure?

If you used to ride as a kid, have done mainly nose to tail trail riding, or have mostly ridden in
controlled environments or inside an enclosed area, the Golden Circle Riding Adventure would
be a better option for you. The shorter distances mean less riding and fewer horses, so the
extra horses are “ponied” by the guides as “hand horses”, so there are never loose horses to
keep pace with. This trip is a favourite of confident beginners and experienced riders alike, and
is a more relaxed pace than the Hekla Volcano Riding Adventure. More experienced riders also
enjoy the Golden Circle Riding Adventure, where there are opportunities to split from the group
for some faster riding at several points in the trip.

On the other hand, if you’re a fit, experienced rider and love the thought of riding with a herd of
loose horses for long days over varied terrain, the Hekla Volcano Riding Adventure is a Hekla of
a trip, and I highly recommend it!