Lessons in Leadership While Horseback Riding in Iceland
Story and photos by Julia Hubbel

Riding horses in Iceland into the vast countryside can be treacherous even in the best months, so when trouble strikes, there had better be a good travel guide leader in control of the journey.

Riding horses in Iceland

One minute, our German guide Greta was astride her horse in the middle of a rushing stream.

The next, she was submerged in it, her body held underwater by the icy flow, her thick leather layers and wet down jacket now heavy as concrete.

I was in the rear of our group, behind a large herd of horses. I was too far away to do anything to help.

Iceland is a land of ice. In summer, it's a land of melting ice. An island country known for its spectacular waterfalls, that onrushing water can be deadly. Not only is it barely above freezing even in high summer, but at the altitude where we were, the incline was significant.

Add to that the incessant wind, and it's a recipe for disaster.

We were in the middle of nowhere. In the high country, four days' ride out of Reykjavik. Warmth, safety, and security don't come along for the ride up here.

Wet tundra in Iceland

Most Western travelers—especially short-vacation Americans—hang out close to Reykjavik. Party central. They might wander a bit out on the Ring Road, but most stay close to this city which houses more than a third of Iceland's inhabitants. The farther you travel, the more isolated Iceland gets. Most tourists might take a day ride.

Those of us who commit to a full week or more of riding on horses get to experience parts of the country that only intrepid travelers see. We find deep, wet marshes into which our horses sink up to their knees. Profoundly beautiful landscapes, dotted with snow even at the height of summer. Waterfalls which shimmer in the endless sun. Glaciers painted turquoise, dripping into streams like the one that was trying to drown our guide. The astounding, life-renewing silence.

Fighting a Freezing Stream

Greta battled the water, which was close to knee-high. Just high enough for the water to be too forceful and keep her from gaining purchase on the riverbed. Her right foot was caught in her stirrup. She was being dragged back underwater each time she came up for air, trying to grasp her wet leathers.

Her horse, a bay Icelandic, was a descendant of the Viking stock that had been brought to Iceland by the Nordic explorers around 835 AD. This was a very good thing. Because these horses, living in a place isolated from predators for centuries, have strong connections with their human companions. They are remarkably loyal, and their low bodies are very powerful.

Horses are by nature fight or flight, accustomed to feeling fleet-footed predators which attack from the ground or above. First, they run. If they can't run, they attack, all flailing hooves and teeth and powerful muscles.

Iceland horse close-up

Greta's horse planted his feet in the powerful stream and stood steady as Gibraltar. This was despite the fact that his rider was pulling hard on his right stirrup, dragged downstream. As people streamed past the struggling woman, she repeatedly tried to grab her half-chaps. She needed to get air. To do anything to get out of the freezing water.

Nobody helped. Greta was on her own, with her horse.

According to Wikipedia, cold shock response is probably the most common cause of death when a human is suddenly submerged in very cold water.

The immediate shock of the cold causes involuntary inhalation, which if underwater can result in drowning. The cold water can also cause heart attack due to vasoconstriction; the heart has to work harder to pump the same volume of blood throughout the body.

Additionally, the body restricts blood flow to "non-essential muscles" after an icy dunking. If you don't drown, you lose the use of much of your body as it struggles to keep you alive. After about thirty minutes, you're in serious trouble.

Greta had already been submerged for about five minutes.

iceland gearToo far in the rear behind some thirty horses and riders, I watched helplessly. By this time she was completely soaked, her heavy layers—layers we were all wearing in the icy summer winds—were like lead scuba weights.

I could barely make out her head as the oncoming waters, catching in her helmet the way the wind catches an umbrella, submerged her face repeatedly. She was dragging hard on her horse as she struggled. He held steady, head high, his squat, powerful legs planted.

He was Immobile. Precisely what Greta needed if she was to survive.

Horses as Saviors or Attackers

Three years ago I was in Cappadocia, Turkey. Seconds out of the corral on what was supposed to have been a five-day, privately guided horseback trip, my Arab gelding would have none of the trip, or of me. In three hard bucks he sent me flying. My right foot was caught in the stirrup. I struck the back of my helmeted head very hard on the stony ground. I could barely see, much less extricate myself.

My frightened Arab horse circled towards me, kicking me in the ribs, the face, the chest, stomping my right shoulder. I was helpless against that onslaught. Fifteen hundred pounds of angry horse, flying hooves and intent to do damage.

He did, too. Plenty.

The staff reached his bridle before he ended me. He put an end to my adventuring for a few months though and permanently damaged my right shoulder. I don't blame the horse. These are fight or flight creatures. You take your chances when you ride, especially overseas, where the horses can come from varied backgrounds.

Unlike my Turkish Arab, this guide's bay gelding was a stone statue. As I approached, I saw her finally grasp her wet breeches.

Slowly, steadily, she pulled herself out of the water. First the stirrup. The other hand on the horse's leg.

He nosed her.

Get up. Get up. Get up.

Finally she stood, dripping. She hung on his powerful neck for a moment, getting her bearings, her frozen hands buried in the animal's thick mane.

riding in Iceland

Icelandic horses are small, standing about 13.5-14 hands. They are enormously powerful animals, able to carry adults through muck nearly to their bellies. Their short stature belies their strength. Greta hung on him, breathing hard. Trying to force warm blood back into her extremities.

The late afternoon winds in this forever sunny-in-summer island were whipping past her, snapping her long hair against her cheeks.

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