An experience report

Stefanie Luther

I have been frequently asked why I spend as much time as possible on horseback in the Icelandic mountains. Admittedly, I had to give it some thorough thinking before I could come up with a suitable answer that would explain my urge to deliver myself up to unpredictable weather conditions, physical hardship, basic accommodation etc. during my well deserved and dearly needed summer holidays. The answer that I finally came upon is closely connected to who I am and what I do in my everyday private and work life. It has got to do with beauty, a rather double-edged entity and one of my favorite topics to contemplate.

What constitutes beauty, no one could ever explain to me in a satisfactory manner even though it is a question that has, to this day, inspired countless intelligent, eloquent and creative analyses. At some moments in life, however, the analytical mind falls silent to give way to a different mode of insight. These are moments of experiencing and assimilating beauty through all senses, and these are the very moments I seek and find in the remoteness of the Icelandic mountains. This little report here is supposed to give a humble account for this year’s experiences on the “Elves and Outlaws” tour, organized, realized and guided by Sigurður Björnsson and the Riding Iceland team: 

Our eleven-day journey right into the heart of Iceland taught us – a small group of ten riders – a great deal about a beauty that was all about edges, friction and natural asymmetry. Taking a look around me, being completely dependent on our guide’s competences, I could see sceneries changing within a heartbeat many times a day. Our trail to Askja e.g. lead us down some ashy mountain slopes, over a smooth adamant lava field and it took just a few more hoof steps to hit the soft and sandy ground of a basin that showed dried up traces of running glacier water. The utterly black volcanic mountain rims that flanked it revealed themselves later on rather unwillingly and only at a second glimpse as the glacial ice of Vatnajökull, which had crept closer and closer almost without us noticing. Some occasional crystal spots in the blackness had unveiled the change artist eventually. Nature, however, did not leave us much time to admire the phenomenon. The glacier water that had melted under the relentless light of the sun soon ushered us out of the basin - gently but resolutely.

To write this report, I am confronted with the problem of capturing an experience and translate it into bare words. At this very moment, I share famous Lord Chandos’ feelings who said “Those abstract words fell apart in my mouth like mouldy mushrooms”. Despite all shortcomings due to the limited referential qualities of words, I shall make another attempt to catch some more impressions: Leaving Askja, the following day started with a torturous, soul-wrenching 50km stint over dry gravel rocks, sand and lava. A mercilessly flickering heat fooled horses and humans a couple of times into believing they had spotted small watercourses in the distance where in fact we found nothing else than more dryness. The sinuous lines of our tracks must have astonished every traveler that was headed our way after us. We finally stumbled over a glistening stream that seemed to appear out of nowhere and horses as well as humans took the opportunity to rest and gather new forces to take on the last kilometers of this 85km-day that made everyone of us feel the limits of our physical strengths. But what can I say; the reward for keeping up wasn’t long in coming. We rode until late into the night and hence witnessed the setting sun bathing the distant mountains in a bright pink. The stillness of the air carried a pristine tranquility and brought remedy to the worst exhaustion and fatigue. Soon we reached a hut, standing on a little plain, completely encircled by rocky, obstinate lava. Tired as we were, we hardly had enough time to take a closer look around, before a thick fog came creeping over the razor sharp lava edges swallowing us, our horses, the hut and stayed hovering over a shallow lake close by that we barely got the chance to notice being there. The only audible sound was the happy chewing of the horses who seemed very much unimpressed by the rather mystical atmosphere. Hungry and tired after having spent over 14 hours in the saddle, we decided to consign the night to the elves and fairies. The prospect of freshly prepared hot Spaghetti Bolognese (it was by then 1.30am), nestling deep into a warm sleeping bag and sinking into a sound sleep was just too blissful. 

I now must dedicate a few words to our horses who shared every moment of joy and challenges with us. Since Riding Iceland is a young company, our little herd was confronted with somewhat of the same obstacles as we humans. Most of them still had to get to know each other and find their places in a newly united herd. Almost none of them had participated in a long and tough journey like the Elves and Outlaws Tour crossing the Highlands yet. I still can’t help but feeling a little bit touched by young Funi – a red and handsome six-year old who was obviously on the first outdoor adventure of his life. He left a deep hoof print on my soul for carrying me safely over Skálfandafljót, and later this summer over Þjórsá – two major obstacles, the latter being the biggest river in Iceland. When he got out of the water again, it was pretty obvious how immensely proud he was of himself and since I was situated on his back, I had not much of a choice but to celebrate with him and to share his jumpy and flying enthusiasm. Horses and humans were absorbing impressions and experiences every day. I am deeply grateful to have witnessed this in my human friends and the horses that I grew much attached to.

We all shared so much. On the other hand I am pretty sure that everybody also had a very personal reason to travel through the remoteness of the Icelandic highlands. What these reasons are I can’t possibly tell. However, the painful parting at the end of the journey both from horses and friends was eased a little bit by seeing in their eyes that they certainly had found something in the mountains. And so had I. It might have been partly what we had been looking for or simply something unconsciously sought. I can hardly wait for next year to accompany Siggi and his horses again, they have taken such good care of me, provided the framework for all my experiences and shown me an edgy yet powerful beauty that I have not known before.