Updated: Sep 7, 2019
Want to go on an adventure of a lifetime? This weekend, will be the annual Skrapatungarétt.
Each September, the local farmers in northwest Iceland gather together for a Horse Roundup. In 2010, I was able to take part in this awe-inspiring and unique horseback experience in the rugged and isolated terrain in the Laxádalur Valley region near Blönduós, Iceland. This was an exhilarating day filled with remarkable horses, friendly people, amazing views of the mountains, treks across glacial rivers and the ancient horse trails through the long, deep valleys. The area farmers unite to bring their horses down from the highlands and remote valleys in this annual horse roundup.
The Icelandic horse is an amazingly sure-footed animal. They proved their strength, agility, and stamina during our 12-hour ride on that September day. These horses are unique and special. They have the ability to move in 5 different gaits. The fetgangur (walk), the brokk (trot), the tölt (fast walk), the skeið (pace) and the stökk (gallop). My horse, Jarl, is 135 cm high and impressively strong of body and character. He loved to run – and he ran very fast over the uneven and rough landscape.
It was truly amazing and at times a little bit surprising, like when Jarl came to the first stream. The other horses in front of me were walking calmly through the stream, which was about four feet across. So, I was expecting Jarl to walk calmly through the stream, too. Instead, he slowed down just a little and then leaped across the stream! Well, that would have been fine if I had been prepared for him to vault across a four-foot glacial river! In addition, the saddles are unlike our Western saddles. They are very thin and do not have a horn to hang onto. It was certainly thrilling to leap over the streams that day – but that first time was definitely a shock! Thankfully, I did not fall off – – but I attribute that more to the wonders of Jarl than to any personal horsemanship skills!
These horses are the descendants of the original horses brought to Iceland in the 9th Century with the first Norse settlers. Over time, they have adapted to the sometimes harsh conditions in Iceland and have become smaller and stronger than their Norse Cousins. Until the 19th Century, horses were the mode of transportation around the craggy and harsh island. This horse breed has remained pure for over a thousand years. Today, there are almost 80,000 horses in Iceland. Their intelligence, agility, personality, smooth gait, and sturdiness have led to many people in other countries purchasing these horses. Riding horses in Iceland is common and many people enjoy riding for pleasure and in competitions.
Because the Icelandic horses are allowed to roam free in the highlands and the wide open pastures, they are very spirited and they enjoy a good fast run. They do not start training these horses until they are four or five years old. Their height is only about 55 inches or 13 – 14 hands tall, but they are strong and carry big men easily over the uneven terrain. If you go, make sure that you are strong, healthy, and feel very comfortable on a horse – maybe even one that leaps across the glacial streams. Jarl was brilliant at going through the crystal-clear rivers. He stayed calm and steady even though the water was very cold and sometimes quite fast-moving.
It was truly an unforgettable experience to ride that day in the deserted back country of the Laxárdalur Valley in Austur Húnavatnssýsla. On my muscular and determined steed, I was climbing mountains, galloping across wide open plains, and crossing the many bogs, streams, and rivers of the Laxárdalur Valley. The Laxá River was so beautiful as it wound through the valley. As we made our way on those ancient trails, I imagined the many other riders and people from past years that traveled on the same path through the mountains. Vigilance was needed to pay attention to my horse, the other horses and riders, and to the spectacular panoramic beauty of the surrounding area.
I felt very alive. There was strength and energy in the fresh mountain air. The beauty that surrounded us was amazing and I thanked God for creating such wonders. The unspoiled nature and the smooth gaited “tölt“ of my horse (Hestur in Icelandic), was quite an extraordinary experience. On a few of our stops through the beautiful, sunny day, we were greeted with musicians playing the guitar and accordion. There was singing and story-telling. Many bottles and cans were shared amongst the riders that day. Everyone was very cheerful and friendly to me. My only regret is that I cannot speak Icelandic – – but it was not a problem because almost all Icelanders speak perfect English. That night, all the farmers and friends celebrate the successful round-up with a feast and by singing and dancing the night away at the local community center.
My gracious hosts on this trip were Magdalena Margrét Einarsdóttir and her husband, Pétur Snær Sæmundsson. Their farm is called Brekkukot and is located near Blönduós. They have about 70 horses. The area surrounding their farm is the scenic Vatnsdalur (dalur is valley in Icelandic), which leads deep into the hinterland. This valley is where the Vatnsdæl Saga takes place and this area is referred to in other Icelandic Sagas, too.
Our ride started at the farm, Strjúgsstaðir in Langidalur and we stopped at Kirkjuskarð to rest the horses. People had packed sack lunches and there were concessions there, too. The musicians were entertaining the crowd and everyone spent time visiting and relaxing in the perfect, sun-filled day. After a long break, everyone caught their horses again and readied them for the rest of the ride. When they released the huge group of the wild horses, it was extraordinary. They were magnificent and wild in their natural habitat yet they stayed with the other horses on the way down to the big Skrapatungurétt corral. Afterwards, Magdalena, Pétur, and all the others in our posse rode to the farm, Síða. This is where Magdalena´s paternal grandparents and uncle reside.
Magdalena´s mother, Sigga Hermansdóttir, and I are 4th cousins and have been friends since 2009. However, I feel as if we have known each other our whole lives. Every minute that I spend with Sigga and her family strengthens my connections with Iceland. Knowing them is a true blessing to me.
Sigga and her husband, Einar, live at Hjallaland (Hill Land) where they raise sheep and horses. Their two grandchildren are so delightful and we had fun trying to see what words they knew in English and that I knew in Icelandic.
Their ancestral home was built in 1881 along the beautiful river and made of Iceland rock and timbers from old buildings. Spending the night at Hjallaland was truly magical and I slept perfectly at their wonderful farmstead overlooking the Vatnsdalsá River and the long lake, Flóðið, where geese, swans, and ducks abound.
The next day, Sigga brought me to the Þingeyrarkirkja (Thingeyrar Church), which is a distinctive and rare church.
It is the site of the first monastery in Iceland. This entire region is a paradise for people who like outdoor activities like fishing and horseback riding.
The Blanda River, is one of the best rivers for salmon fishing in Iceland. They also have many small lakes with a lot of trout. There is a textile museum with traditional costumes, tools, and a wool exhibition. There is a Sea Ice Exhibition Center and lots of good food at the Cafés and Restaurants.
I am so thankful that I was able to participate in the annual Skrapatungurétt. The relationships with my cousins in Iceland have been made stronger. My passion to connect with the people, the horses, the country, and the land of Iceland has become even more intense.
I would encourage everyone to make this trip to Iceland. Enjoy the beauty of the hidden valleys. Feel the powerful pull of the Sagas and the history. Meet with the people of Iceland – they love their country and their traditions.
Go experience the annual Horse Roundup – – Skrapatungurétt – believe me – – you will form a memory that will last a lifetime!