Friday, July 6, 2012

Iceland – Day 9: Reykjavik

Our last full day in Iceland had arrived.  As we reached this day there was a bittersweet feeling in our hearts as we have so loved this vacation and would love to have the opportunity to stay for a much longer period of time, but reality dawns at the end of every vacation and the time to go home is now approaching.  More importantly there are people in Colorado who are important to us that we want to get home to see.  Regardless of these feelings we still had one adventure yet to complete.  Besides sheep and birds the most common animal we have seen in Iceland has been the Icelandic horse.  Up to this point we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to get up close and personal with these wonderful creatures.

The Icelandic horse is different than the typical horse that we are used to in the United States in several ways.  Not being a detailed horse person, I thought I would quote the following two paragraphs from Wikipedia about the Icelandic horse.

“The Icelandic horse is a breed of horse developed in Iceland. Although the horses are small, at times pony-sized, most registries for the Icelandic refer to it as a horse. Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy. In their native country they have few diseases; Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return. The Icelandic displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly displayed by other breeds. The only breed of horse in Iceland, they are also popular internationally, and sizable populations exist in Europe and North America. The breed is still used for traditional farm work in its native country, as well as for leisure, showing, and racing.

Developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, the breed is mentioned in literature and historical records throughout Icelandic history; the first reference to a named horse appears in the 12th century. Horses were venerated in Norse mythology, a custom brought to Iceland by the country's earliest settlers. Selective breeding over the centuries has developed the breed into its current form. Natural selection has also played a role, as the harsh Icelandic climate eliminated many horses through cold and starvation. In the 1780s, much of the breed was wiped out in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. The first breed society for the Icelandic horse was created in Iceland in 1904, and today the breed is represented by organizations in 19 different nations, organized under a parent association, the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations.”

The Icelandic horse’s blood line has been pure for over 1000 years!  In 982 AD, the Icelandic Parliament outlawed the importation of any horses into Iceland.  The population of horses in Iceland is totally derived from those horses that were in Iceland in 982AD.  Any Icelandic horse that leaves the country may never come back.  This keeps the entire breed healthy and free of diseases.  With these kinds of rules you can tell how highly the Icelandic people think of their special breed of horses.

Our horse riding adventure with the Icelandic horse was taking place at Ishestar Riding Center outside of Reykjavik.  One of their buses came to our hotel and picked us up around 8:30AM.  After us, the bus made several other stops throughout the city before heading out of town.  By the time we left Reykjavik there were about 10 of us on board the bus.

Arriving at the riding center after 30 minutes of travel we had to do all the necessary paperwork to release them from liability if we got hurt.  We watched a short video about all the things you should and shouldn’t do around horses and then it was on to get our riding equipment.  Thankfully the day was nice so the only riding equipment we required was riding helmets.

After that it was on to the corral to select our horses.  The riding instructors gave us a few choices concerning the types of horses we wanted to ride.  People who were more advanced riders were able to have the more lively horses.  I was impressed by Zack because he stepped up and acknowledged his riding experience and was given one of the more lively horses.  For me on the other hand, though I am comfortable around horses it has been 20 years since I was last on a horse, so I definitely went with one of the more low-key, reliable horses.

The horses were already saddled so all we had to do was make sure the stirrups were the proper length and run the reins over the horses’ heads.  Once that was done, it was saddle up and giddy up time!  Given the smaller size of these horses it was a pretty easy feat to get on them and get a good feel for what was a comfortable sitting position.

 (I am sure you can't tell Zack is so very happy in all of these pictures.  He just loves anything to do with animals!)
 (My horse!)

When everyone was saddled up we formed our horses up into a line and started the ride.  Given the nature of my horse I ended up at the very end of the line.  Zack was about 6 horses in front of me which he didn’t necessarily like.  

Our ride proceeded through an area that had been covered in lava flows only several hundred years ago.  The land was broken and fragmented but the country was beautiful as we were riding to the north and east and got some great views of the mountains.  This part of the ride was uneventful and rather slow as the riding instructors wanted to make sure we were all comfortable with our mounts.

My horse seemed to distrust me to some degree as we really didn’t seem to connect very well.  He had his own mind about what we were doing and didn’t want to follow my commands.  I suppose it could be I was just really bad at giving the commands!  The riding technique felt weird to me as there was no horn to the saddle and the manner in which your butt would move up and down seemed different.

We rode onward for 50 minutes or so until we reached a place in the lava field where the ground was soft and there was plenty of grass around.  We stopped there and dismounted and left the horses graze for a while.  Zack and I got our horses together and spent the time together.

It was here that I did connect a lot better with my horse.  I spent a lot of time rubbing him and putting my face up to his.  From that point forward he seemed to feel a lot more comfortable with me and me with him.  He was very interested in grazing and from what I can tell just wasn’t into the whole slow walking thing.

Forming up for the return ride back to the center, the instructors asked us how comfortable we were and split us into three groups.  The first group was a fast group that would gallop, the second was a medium speed group that would trot and the last was a slow group that would walk.  Zack chose to go with the slow group and I chose to go with the medium group.  The instructors wanted us to arrive back at different times so we left at different points.  My group left last.

Trotting the whole way back to the riding center was a joy.  My horse did much better responding to what I wanted him to do and we worked well together.  We only had one miscue in which we were trotting along and he was startled by a large rock in the path.  One of the instructors saw what the horse did and said that he was “startled by a scary rock”.  Apparently these horses do these rides enough that they get into a rhythm of just following the horse in front of them and not exactly paying attention to the ground.  If they are presented with a large rock on the trail it can startle them can cause them to abruptly halt.  I was no worse for the wear – I was just as startled as the horse!

Getting back to the riding center we tied the horses up and got to take their saddles off.  We were the second group back to the corral, so I had to wait for Zack to come back.  He did a good job unsaddling and tying up his horse.

Leaving the horse center they had a huge tub full of old horse shoes that you could take home with you.  Zack picked one out for us to take home with us and put in some special place as a memory of our trip.  Taking their tour bus back into town we were lucky as we got dropped off second.  

We quickly showered after our return to the hotel and then headed out for some lunch as we were starving.  Given it was so close to the hotel we decided to eat at a restaurant called The American Roadhouse.  We were surprised to find the place decked out with red, white and blue balloons and it was only then that we realized it was July the Fourth.  Celebrating July the Fourth in another country is weird as there weren’t going to be any fireworks for us!

The rest of the day was pretty unremarkable as we spent it exploring the parts of Reykjavik that we hadn’t yet seen.  I finished my souvenir shopping for everyone and got a few things for Zack and me.

The only other notable point to the day was that we ate dinner at a Reykjavik institution called the Sea Baron restaurant.  This restaurant is a must experience in Iceland.  They make a famous lobster soup and serve just about any kind of seafood that is caught in the waters of Iceland.  They even serve Minke Whale meat.  Once again I struggled with the idea of getting a whale steak kabob but in the end run my sense of adventure was overwhelm by a sense of morality.  Minke whales are only believed to number about 650,000 – 700,000 in the entire world.  They are actively hunted by Iceland, Norway and Japan.  South Korea just introduced a plan before the International Whaling Commission to start hunting whales again.  I can’t condemn those people in aboriginal areas of the world like Greenland who hunt these whales, but I really wonder why developed countries need to do this when it has been proven that whales are intelligent, social creatures.  Certainly the amount of meat gathered from whales in countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland could be made up through beef, pork or sheep that are specifically raised for slaughter.  Oh well…  I shouldn’t get politically at this point.  In the end I had the lobster soup and Zack had a vegetable kabob.  The food was great - but Zack's wasn't happy with the selection as they had no "American" food at all.  My response was - "Zack you just need to expand the selection of what you eat!"

And so that ended our last full day in Iceland.  It was another great day that we enjoyed very much.

Thanks and peace to all! ~J.

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