Horse riding in North Iceland has a special charm that’s a bit different from nearer to the Reykjavík area. The village of Varmahlíð in the Skagafjörður region of Iceland has a rich agricultural history, and the region is even known for its tradition of horse breeding. Out here in the beautiful valleys, you really feel away from it all, and when you mount your horse and look over the valley, you feel like you could be an Icelandic settler from 1,000 years ago!
Varmahlíð is a small village conveniently located right on Route 1. It’s about a 4 hour drive from the capital area, and it’s the perfect place to visit if you’re staying in Akureyri for a couple days, located only about an hour or so away from there. The drive from Akureyri to Varmahlíð is also very scenic, traversing beautiful mountain passes and pristine nature.
If you’re heading out to this scenic area of Iceland, you might also want to check out Glaumbær, a heritage museum that shows how Icelanders used to live. The main attraction is a traditional turf house farmstead.
Luckily for us, there are all levels of adventure available! Experienced riders could select long rides up into surroundings with lunch breaks and sights, but having limited equestrian experience, we opted for a “Viking Ride,” which lasted for about 2 hours and was a great way to meet these amazing animals!
Our helpful guides fitted us with equipment, gave us some riding tips, and helped us mount up. Although riding is a sport and people should of course approach it with caution, it’s quite easy to get into. Your horse, after all, has a mind of its own, and if in doubt, it will likely just do what the other horses are doing!
One useful tip that we learned was that horses respond best to commands just given once! Pulling back the reign, for example, means “stop,” but if you keep doing it, this can make your horse back up. Not the best idea in all situations!
From the barn, we set off on our ride. You’ll have some time to get used to your horse, but after 10 or 15 minutes, you’ll get to experience something uniquely Icelandic – the tölt!
Most horses across the world were historically bred for the military. While this breeding resulted in large, disciplined horses that can do things like dressage, they also had some of their natural gaits (the way a horse walks) bred out of them. The Icelandic horse, however, retains its natural gait, called tölt in Icelandic. The gait is notable because it combines acceleration, speed, and also comfort for the rider. This is because the horse is able to keep its back straight as it trots, giving you the rider a stable platform to sit on.
So with a signal from our guide, we were off! Although it’s a comfortable gait compared to other horses, you should still be prepared for some bumping up and down. The best way to fight this is by sitting straight up in your saddle (our guides told us to look like we’re proud of riding our horse, which we very much liked) and to push your feet down into the stirrups so that your legs straighten out a little.
After some tölting we continued on our way through the beautiful countryside. We were near a river and given the time of year, there was lots of active bird life. One word of warning however – water sources in the North can have lots of midges and black flies in the summer! Your riding helmet will have a brim, which helps, but we definitely had to swat away some clouds of flies while we were riding!
With our journey near an end, we stopped by Reykjafoss, a very beautiful waterfall. You may notice other visitors to the area eyeing you and your horse with some jealousy, arriving at this beautiful place in style! There is also a geothermal pool nearby (named Fosslaug), so it might not be the worst idea to wear your trunks or bikini underneath your riding clothes if you want a relaxing soak afterwards! Our guides also very kindly offered to take group photos, but be warned – your horses may not be totally cooperative, making for some candid family photos!
From Reykjafoss, it’s a 10-minute ride back to the barn. Which was for the best, because the waterfall had some in the group thinking of answering the call of nature!
After dismounting at the barn, you’ll also have the opportunity to reward your trusty steed for a job well done with some horse treats! It might be everyday for those who have grown up on a farm, but patting down and feeding your horse makes you feel like you really formed a bond with one of these magnificent animals.
But even after it’s all over, you can still pop by reception for coffee or a cocoa. With the weather in North Iceland not always playing along, it’s a much-welcomed chance to warm up your bones after a day on horseback!
- Related: Top Horse Riding Tours in Iceland