Horses and More

The sun came up bright and it was going to be a beautiful day. We drove for a few miles back west along the ring road till we came up on a turn that took us to the Galsi farm and a sign that said “horse rentals”. It was indeed a good day to rent a horse. So we parked by the barn and walked up to the corral that had several horses. Three dogs, two cats, and an ewe with two kids came up to greet us.

Presently two young women rode into the corral. They and their horses were breathing hard and the girls had big grins on their faces like they had just finished having fun. The horse trainer (the other one worked mostly with the sheep) told us to sign up and pay online which Jo did on her phone. Then they got Vivian and Jo their horses (Naria and Doogar), and a bucket full of brushes and showed them how to brush their horses.

Everything in Iceland on a beautiful summer day moves slowly. Vivian and Jo brushed away for a while. The horses were like big dogs and loved being brushed. Jo’s horse, Doogar, nuzzled into her. Presently the horses were saddled and the four girls went off riding over the meadows towards a river.

The horse trainer girl was German and she was taking a gap year to work in Iceland and have fun. She was an experienced rider and had just returned from a horse show where they had put the horses through their paces. While the girls were out riding I spent some time reading about Icelandic horses, or simply Icelandics while sitting on a great wooden chair outside, with a dog asleep at my feet and a cat on my lap.

Icelandics are considered their own breed. Horses were brought to Iceland by the Norse. In 982 AD the AlÞingi, the Icelandic parliament, passed a law banning the import of any more horses. For the last 1000 years the Icelandics have developed on their own. There are few natural equine diseases in Iceland, and the breed is long lived. But the population is susceptible to foreign pathogens because they have lost their natural immunity. To protect the herd, once a horse leaves Iceland, it can never be readmitted. The Icelandic is small at 13 to 14 hands but it is considered a horse, not a pony. It has two additional natural gaits that other horses don’t have. These gaits apparently allow the horse to be ridden fast but still very comfortably. Icelandics are mostly used for recreation these days, but they are still often used during the roundup of sheep in the highlands. While we’ve been seeing Icelandics all along our journey, the density of horse farms in this region is definitely higher. On our way in yesterday, we saw mares and feeding foals and large herds frolicking around spiritedly in the meadows and river banks.

Jo and Vivian had a great time and returned happy riders. Jo said their horses were gentle and fast, though she did turn down an invitation from the trainer to go even faster.

After riding, we turned east once more and continued along the ring road till we took a diversion to see the turf house at Glaumbær. This is a large home that is built out of 13 interconnected turf buildings. The walls of these buildings are made of cut and stacked blocks of sod, and there is grass growing on the roofs. Imagine taking the “tiles” of sod that you use to lay a lawn, and stacking them on top of each other to make walls. The walls are two meters (six feet) thick and have stood for over 200 years. The work and storage rooms and kitchens have bare walls and you can see the layers of turf. In the main living areas the rooms are fully paneled in wood and you can’t tell that there is anything different about the construction. In addition to the names of places we’ve been seeing, these houses made me think that Toklien must have visited Iceland. I can imagine this home in the Shire.

Unrelated to the type of construction, the area around Glaumbær is historically important. Many well known Icelanders including Lief Erikson (Lief the Lucky) had familial ties to Glaumbær. The church behind the sod home is located where one of the earliest churches in Iceland once stood, and is related to the christianization of Iceland.

Some say it is myth, others believe this is actually how it happened. By the late 900’s, Christianity was poking its head up in Iceland. There were foreign monks. An occasional chieftain had converted. But King Olaf of Norway had still not convinced Iceland to convert. So Olaf took Icelandic people in Norway hostage, hoping this would help convince the islanders to let the Lord in to their hearts. Two chieftains returned to Iceland and the AlÞingi was called to order in 999 AD to discuss the business of Christianity. After much discussion, it looked like there would be civil war, Christians versus pagans. But cooler heads prevailed, and the chiefs agreed that they would all abide by the decision of the lawspeaker. The wise man retired for a day and when he returned, his verdict was a compromise: the entire island would convert to Christianity but secret worship of Odin (Marvel had a firm grip on people even back then) could continue. He himself was a pagan, and he was respected and besides, there was the business of King Olaf. So everyone converted and either hid or threw away their pagan idols. In 1016 AD they got rid of the compromise bit about secret pagan worship and everyone lived in harmony ever after.

After Glaumbær we drove on to Akureyri, the most populous city outside of the region around Reykjavik. It is a lovely city located at the end of a fjord and at the base of a large mountain. Akureyri’s natural harbor doesn’t freeze in winter. There was a giant cruise ship at port and the sidewalks near the harbor were bustling with people. After we went through the town we passed by Iceland’s newest lux geothermal spa – the Forest Lagoon – owned by the same people that run the famous Blue Lagoon spa. Further up above town the ring road passes though a relatively new tunnel. It is the only place where you pay toll in Iceland, using a QR code and your phone. When they were building the tunnel they ran into a big geothermal flow that flooded the tunnel. Work had to stop. Delays and expenses mounted. They eventually diverted the hot water to a stream below and finished the tunnel. Meanwhile, a new spa, the Forest Lagoon, was built to use the hot water down below. Parts of the tunnel were about 10 degrees C (almost 20 degrees F!) warmer than the surroundings.

We continued east and north on the ring road after Akureyri till we finally got to Svartaborg, our home for the next three nights. The cabin is one of six lovely modern buildings well spaced out on the side of a grassy hill. Vivian read, Evan and I played chess, Jo got the outdoor hot tub ready, and we enjoyed the rest of the lovely day. Another day in paradise.

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