Continued from Part IFor my two days, I was assigned to ride Ambátt, or little maid’s servant. Meike and I chuckled over the name, convinced that some male was responsible for this demeaning moniker. Ambátt, like all the horses, was well behaved and eager to go. I can’t believe I’m saying this: she was too eager to go. Unfortunately she was so hard-mouthed that to keep her in line and out of the poop-end of the horse in front of her, I had to haul on the reins with a force that I consider brutal. I felt awful to be constantly yanking at her mouth.Other than this problem, which most of the other riders seemed to be dealing with also, Ambátt was completely civilized. I came to the conclusion, after the second day, that at the very end of the tourist season, these horses are as stale as American tourist mounts. It’s just that their expression of boredom and discontent is quite the opposite of the dead-slow pace of American trail horses. And who could blame their impatience? For four months they’ve carried their lump-assed burdens—large and small, balanced and tottering—over Iceland’s punishing terrain. In another week they’ll be on their own, free to roam the Highlands till next spring’s roundup when they’ll be brought in, culled according to their brand, reminded by skilled wranglers of their purpose in life, and will spend the balance of the summer as working stiffs yet again.Once I gave in to tugging Ambátt back, she showed me her tölt. It was, indeed, a giggling experience. I could have balanced a raw egg in a teaspoon as we whizzed over rocks and frozen bogs. With her feet pounding like tiny pistons, I skimmed across the rough terrain like a hockey puck gliding over ice. It is difficult for an untrained eye to distinguish between a tölt and a trot. Eventually, I noticed that while the horses and riders in front of me glided across the terrain in a smooth plane, the telltale sign of a tölt is the horse’s tail circling like a spinning top. The sight can’t help but illicit more giggles.
Of the 150 or more horses owned by this farm, all must have good manners and get along with each other as well as with the motley horde of riders assigned to them throughout the summer season. There’s an Icelandic saying to the effect that, “If you bite me, I’ll eat you!” Icelandic horses, having never feared predators, are gentle and curious by nature. The rare horse with a disagreeable attitude is culled from the herd without mercy. And yes, horse meat is a source of protein on the island. I did see it on one or two menus, but I never got around to sampling it. (Whale meat is another staple protein for Icelanders. I did not try this, because I heard grim reports about how whales are harvested and the poor sustainability of the species.)Did I bond with Ambátt? I don’t think two days is long enough to develop a relationship. While I thoroughly respected her, she displayed an air of impatience. She was working the end of her shift and no longer had the energy to feel curious about one more stranger crawling aboard.
I was blown away by the unabashed energy, stamina, sure-footedness, and spirit of these hardly little animals. I appreciate the no-nonsense approach to horsemanship that is practiced at Kjóastaðir; brushing and fussing are minimal, the idea being to knock off the high spots, examine the animal for sores or injuries, throw the saddle and bridle on and be off. Despite the flat saddle, the ambiance was extremely familiar to someone who grew up in the heart of Wyoming cowboy culture. If I am ever blessed with the opportunity to redo this trip, I will spend more time on a horse. I would even consider the six-day trip across the Highlands, which involves sleeping bags and mountain cabins. As always, there’s so much to do, so little time to do it all!