Riding in Iceland


Horses and People in Iceland


Smithsonian Magazine (Dec 2004) has this caption: < It was in 874 that Vikings, fleeing taxes and other burdens, first settled in Iceland.  By the year 1000, Vikings there numbered 70,000 and, contrary to their reputation as lawless brigands, had established one of Europe's first parliaments.>  The text goes on to observe:  "Vikings spread out from Scandinavia and settled in Iceland, which Steinburg describes as "one of the world's last large inhabitable islands to be inhabited," in 874. 


They were led by local chiefs who did not like taking orders from , or paying taxes to, Harald Finehair, a Norse king then consolidating power in Norway.  As the celebrated Norwegian anthropologist Vilhemmer Stefansson wrote in 1930, the Viking expansion was perhaps "the only large scale migration in history where the nobility moved out and the peasantry stayed home."



This is all fine, but where do horses come in?


Today Iceland is a horseman's paradise.  There are horses kept all over the place in Iceland and there is enormous landscape to ride them in. Whether in town or out in the countryside, people in modern Iceland still keep horses nearby.  In Reykjavik, a town now of about 140,000 people, I am told there are 12,000 horses stabled in the winter months.  Then, driving out to the country in any direction from Reykjavik horses are also in paddocks and pasture.  They seem to be everywhere.



My Public Library has a 1924 volume, History of Iceland.   It's a 500 page book.  Horses come under livestock and rate a lesser story than their literature, government, history of religion, civil wars, the tyranny of European autocracy, trade restrictions, taxes, duties, witch burnings and such of Iceland.


However, it does recount: "Even in early times horses were numerous and were often left to range in droves in the mountains both summer and winter.  Since no vehicles could be used on the road-less lava beds, everything had to be transported on horseback, and each farmer needed a number of head.  Some of the settlers had 150 to 200 horses. 


Great attention was paid also to the breeding of trotters and fine saddle horses, and to the training of stallions for the horse fights, which was a favorite national sport.  The horse has continued to be one of the most important domestic animals in the country.  In 1700 Iceland had 27,000 horses, in 1896 43,000.  Not a few are now exported to England and Scotland, and of late years(1920's) horse-flesh has come into general use as an article of food."


"But horses, which became of increasing importance as an article of export, especially after 1850, grew in numbers even in excess of the increase of population.  In 1801 there were about 26,000 horses in Iceland.  Or about fifty-five head to each hundred persons.  In 1861 there were 40,823 or just about 61 head to each hundred people."


The Farmer's Association publishes, Icelandic Agricultural Statistics 2000, citing that while the rural population of Iceland has collapsed from year 1900,  from 77% to 33% in 1940 down  to 7% in 1999.  ( a similar trend in America where even in the 1940's 60% of the labor force was still involved in some way with agriculture BTW)  In Iceland, according to the record of registered farms, (hobby farms excepted) there were almost 47,000 horses on farms in 1954 and nearly 60,000 horses on registered farms more currently (1999).


I have seen estimates of 120,000 to 180,000 head of horses out in Iceland currently.  With a population of about 280,000 people, less than the size of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Iceland must be unique in the world of horsemanship.  You can see that even in modern times this ratio of people to horses of about two-to-one or three-to-one has stayed constant for centuries even now. 


Again from Gjerset's (1924) History of Iceland, "A similar transformation is being wrought in the means of communication and travel.  Fifty years ago (1870's) there was not a bridge across a single river, nor was there a wagon in use in all Iceland.  Now (1920's), two-fifths of the revenues of the country are used for building roads and improving the means of communication.  Fine roads are being built in all parts of the country so that the old horse-back caravans will soon be replaced by wagons and automobiles." 


In today's world, Iceland is a culture where horses still rein supreme like no other.  If there was ever a place where the "Riders of Rohan" of the 'Lord of the Rings' has ever existed, it is Iceland even today.  It is a place like no other for horses today.



Riding in Iceland today:


If you are a horseman and you have never been to Iceland, you really ought to go. A lot of the old trails between farm hamlets were still used up until the 1950's, and are still there.   Here are some places (links) to start with for some horse riding tours of Iceland: