Updated: Jan 20
Discovering Iceland horseback riding is one of those experiences you won’t forget in a hurry. In the saddle, you’ll see much more than you ever could on foot. A trip out on four legs is the perfect complement to the four wheels of your campervan – what’s not to love about fresh air and endless views?
Here’s what you need to know before you book a tour, together with our suggestions for the best horseback riding in Iceland.
A few facts about Icelandic horses
Icelandic horses are an ancient and pure breed. They were introduced to the country by the Norsemen over a thousand years ago and have played an important role in Icelandic society ever since. Icelandic horses are a stocky breed that typically stands 13 to 14 hands tall. Though similar to a pony, they are categorized as a horse.
Horses in Iceland have an extra gait. Most breeds walk, trot, canter, and gallop; Icelandic horses don’t canter. Instead, you may have heard of a gait known as a tölt, which is a fast pace but not at all bouncy if done correctly.
If you’re any good at it, you should be able to hold a glass of beer in your hand and not spill a drop. The fastest gait is known as ‘flying pace’. Expert riders can reach speeds of 30mph (ca. 48 km/h).
How long is it best to ride for?
One or two-hour tasters
If you’re a novice rider, you should opt for a short ride. One or two hours in the saddle will give you the chance to experience being on a horse, but also has another advantage: it requires a lower level of physical fitness.
You might also find it mentally taxing. Even the best-trained, calmest horse can be an unpredictable creature and you’ll need to concentrate on what the horse is doing as much as admiring what’s around you.
Half and full-day rides
Once you’ve given Iceland horseback riding a go, you’re likely to find that it is addictive. Since you’ve mastered the basics, it’s less of a gamble to book a longer ride. You’ll be more adept at staying in control of the horse and as a consequence, be much more receptive to the scenery you’re traveling through.
A multi-day ride will give you a greater opportunity to get out into remote parts of the countryside that you can’t reach in your rental campervan.
However, such tours are for experienced riders only, so if you’re not yet proficient enough in the saddle, you might consider taking some lessons back home to improve your skills and your stamina.
Keen riders who are proficient in the saddle might be tempted to time their visit to coincide with the annual réttir or roundup. These take place each September – stóðréttir for horses and fjárréttir for sheep – and involve moving herds from higher summer pastures down to the lower ground where they’ll spend the winter.
Visitors can sign up for special horseback tours which enable them to help local farmers with this important task.
Tips for getting the most out of your ride
Be gentle with your horse
The reins that you hold in your hands are likely to be attached to the horse’s bridle via its bit. The bit is what enables the rider to control the horse’s head, so if you yank sharply on the reins, that’s going to be pretty uncomfortable for the horse. You don’t need to put much pressure on the bit to guide the horse, so be as gentle and patient as you can.
Listen to your guide
The guide not only knows the lie of the land, but they also know their horses. Just like us, each horse has its own personality, character, and temperament. You’ll be matched with a horse that suits your build and level of experience.
An observant guide will watch you during the ride to make sure that everything is as it should be. If they give you advice on your riding style, be sure to act on it.
Pay attention to your surroundings
Of course, the reason you’ve booked a horseback tour in Iceland is to venture further into the countryside, discovering black sand beaches, mighty glaciers, and tumbling streams. Don’t get too distracted – you’ll need to be aware of overhanging branches if you’re riding near trees or shrubs, or slippery rocks if you’ve progressed to fording rivers.
What to wear in the saddle
What you wear when you take an Iceland horseback riding tour is likely to serve you in one of three ways:
While regular riders will have their own gear, strict rules governing disease control protect Iceland’s purebred horses. The import of used riding gloves is strictly prohibited and if you do intend to bring other gear from home it needs to be disinfected according to the regulations set out by MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority.
In reality, most visitors who ride horses in Iceland will wear their usual clothes. Opt for something that’s soft, doesn’t chafe your inner thigh, and ideally, has a bit of stretch in it.
Jeans are a bad idea. If they get wet, they take forever to dry and you’ll regret not opting for something more practical. Similarly, you’ll most likely need some kind of waterproof jacket – on top of multiple layers if it’s cold.
Your tour provider will supply you with a helmet-wearing it is non-negotiable, but you’ll soon get used to it. You don’t need riding boots, but most people find that it’s more comfortable to wear a boot with a heel, as this makes it easier for your foot to stay in the stirrup.
Warm gloves – though not the bulky ski kind – and a fleecy headband that fits under your helmet will be welcome in winter.
Our suggestions for Iceland horseback riding tours
There’s no single answer to where you can find the best horseback riding in Iceland. Fortunately, there are excellent providers across the country, so no matter where your campervan tour takes you, there’ll be stables nearby.
Here are some suggestions for Iceland horseback riding tours, or for a wider selection of locations, check out the Íslandshestar website.
Located a stone’s throw from Reykjavík, the guys at Íshestar offer short rides into lava fields and countryside from their base in Hafnarfjordur. Their longer trail rides, for instance, to Snæfellsnes, Thorsmörk, the Golden Circle, and the highlands, are suited to more experienced riders. They can accommodate non-riders with stable visits.
The team at Eldhestar runs a range of horseback riding tours from their base near Hveragerði. One of their popular tours takes riders out into the geothermal valley alongside rivers and hot springs. Another heads out in search of Iceland’s famous elves. Multi-day rides take in the highlights of the south and southwest regions.
Founded more than three decades ago, Pólar Hestar has grown into a sizeable stable, boasting around 150 horses. They’ll take you on a ride from their farm near Akureyri, giving you the chance to appreciate a breathtaking and diverse backdrop of mountains, fjords, rivers and unspoiled valleys from the saddle of your horse.
Skorrahestar is an established stable in East Iceland. This farm has been owned by the same family for over a century. They’re more than happy to share their passion for horses and their love of this remote part of the country with those who come to ride. Stick to a riverside trail to reach the local waterfall, or head into the hills for extraordinary views out over Norðfjörður.
No matter what your level of experience, whether you’re a complete beginner or an accomplished equestrian, Iceland horseback riding is sure to be one of the top fun activities of your trip to Iceland. Get in touch and we’ll sort you out with a campervan rental so that your equine adventure can begin.