Beginners and seasoned riders alike are enraptured by the Icelandic horse, a small breed with a gentle temperament and remarkable stamina, agility, and intelligence. One of their best-known talents is tölting, a kind of running trot with one foot always touching the ground. (In a popular stunt during Icelandic horse demonstrations, the rider breaks into a tölt while holding a tray of drinks in one hand.)
In summer, many young horses are released into the wilds to adapt them to Iceland's rugged terrain. In September and October, free-roaming horses and sheep are rounded up and brought home for the winter. Visitors are often welcome to participate in these important cultural rituals.
Riding tack (bridles, saddles, and such) may not be brought into Iceland. Other riding equipment (such as boots, clothing, helmets, and saddlebags) must be sterilized prior to arrival, and a veterinarian's certificate of disinfection must be presented at customs. (The disinfection facility at Keflavík International Airport recently closed.)
We review the best tour operators, but virtually any populated area in Iceland will have riding opportunities nearby -- just ask around. Several additional tour operators are recommended throughout, specifically for Snæfellsnes peninsula and Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the west; Húnaflói, Skagafjörður, Dalvík, and Mývatn in the north; Landmannalaugar, Hella, Hvolsvöllur, and the Markarfljót valley in the south; and Breiðdalsvík and Borgarfjörður Eystri in the east.
Booking horse trips directly through Icelandic tour companies brings the price down in almost every case. Plus, no international companies lead tours themselves; the best they can do is recommend specific routes and arrange packages that save you the trouble of finding flights and lodging in Reykjavík.
Arinbjörn Jóhannsson Touring Service, Brekkulækur Farm, Hvammstangi (tel. 451-2938; www.geysir.com/brekkulaekur), based at a horse farm in the northwest, has been leading wonderful 1- to 2-week pack trips (100,625kr-236,000/$1610-$3776/£805-£1883) since the 1970s. Some tours tie in with the Landsmót Horse Festival in Hella; others join the September round-ups for horse and sheep.
Eldhestar, Vellir Farm, Hveragerði (tel. 480-4800; www.eldhestar.is), has a fabulous tour menu with tons of trips and departure dates: 6 days around Tþórsmörk is 82,500kr ($1,320/660£), while 9 days around Landmannalaugar goes for 167,500kr ($2,680/1,340£). Day tours explore neighboring lava fields and the Mt. Hengill hiking area. The farm and its eco-hotel are just 40 minutes from Reykjavík.
Hestasport, Vegamót, Varmahlíð (tel. 453-8383; www.riding.is), based in the Skagafjörður area, offers anything from 2-hour local rides (4,000kr/$64/£32) to 7-day history tours (128,438kr/$2,055/£1,028) to an epic 11-day trek through the interior (131,063kr/$2,097/£1,049). Group sizes remain small, with 4 to 12 participants.
Íshestar, Sörlaskeið 26, Hafnarfjörður (tel. 555-7000; www.ishestar.is), is based in the Reykjavík metropolitan area but offers a staggering range of trips in all corners of Iceland. The 12-day traverse of the Sprengisandur Route in Iceland's desert interior highlands 226,500kr ($3,624/£1,812) is a particularly valiant route.
Laxnes Horse Farm, Laxnes Farm, Mosfellsbær (tel. 566-6179; www.laxnes.is), located 15 minutes outside Reykjavík in Mosfellsdalur Valley, is an excellent choice for day tours from the capital. (It's also something of a rock-star haunt, judging by recent visitors Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and Metallica.) A quick 3-hour tour goes for a reasonable 4,500kr ($72/£36), including pickup and dropoff in Reykjavík.
Polar Hestar, Grýtubakki II Farm, Akureyri (tel. 463-3179; www.polarhestar.is), based in Eyjafjörður Valley near Akureyri, has crafted two memorable 8-day itineraries through Iceland's northeastern regions; prices are 96,250kr to 131,250kr ($1540-$2100/£770-£1050), with 13 departure dates.