All growth comes from outside your comfort zone…

I checked another item off my bucket list, and Amy got reacquainted with an old passion. We rode Icelandic horses today on a delightful tour. And only one potential disaster, narrowly avoided.

To be honest, I’ve been hesitant about horseback riding. Never having been around horses as a kid, and knowing nothing about it, getting on the back of a large animal and hoping it doesn’t throw you to the ground is pretty intimidating.

Our host was an engaging, funny woman who has been running her  company, Islenski Hesturinn (easy for me to say!) for about 7 years. She caters to first-timers, and the Icelandic horse is probably an ideal first-timers ride. They are remarkably mellow, and short, squat beasts. As our tour guide for the Games of Thrones put it, mostly tongue in cheek, “Don’t call them ponies, they’re not fuckin’ ponies”! Icelanders take their horses very seriously.

We had a quite-detailed training presentation where she went through the ways of controlling our horses: How to turn, where to hold the bridal, how to get on and off, plan B if something goes wrong, etc. It all made sense at the time, and mostly worked other than one episode which I’ll get to later.

We went out and met our horses. Mine was named Gauwk II. Amy’s was Gymir. See the photos above. By the way, more are coming. Taking photos while riding is not a good idea, so our host took them for us. It takes awhile for her to upload them though, so we’ll have to wait.

She was very careful about assigning horses to riders. Since Amy was an experienced rider she got a former show horse that was highly receptive to her commands. Mine was pretty mellow, acting basically how a horse would act after drinking a glass of wine. Which suited me just fine. When she asked about my riding experience I said I was going to tell her something that she’d probably never heard before. I’ve ridden an Elephant and a Camel, but I’ve never been on a horse . I’m so special. Not so much as it turns out. She’s heard that before, including a guy who had also ridden a pig but hadn’t been on a horse. I guess I’m not so special.

I was helped up onto the saddle and immediately thought “oh shit, what have I done!” I’m on the back of a large animal and basically have no idea what I’m doing. Fortunately Gauwk was used to moronic newbies and pretty much just followed along after his friends.

Our instructor told us that there are 5 possible gaits a horse can take, and one called the Tolt that is unique to this breed of horse. If we lean back in the saddle and spread our feet wide in the stirrups the horse trots in a way that has almost no bounce.  Only one leg at a time touches the ground. I could definitely tell the difference between a Tolt and a Trot since the Trot involves lots of bouncing and related spinal-cord and testicle injuries.

After a few minutes in the saddle I started getting comfortable. Gauwk mostly just followed the horse in front. Making him turn right and left seemed to work fine. Accelerating and stopping were a bit more of a challenge, but he only occasionally bumped into another horse or banged my leg on a fence or rock.

The course we followed was geologically stunning, carved out by boiling pits of water after a volcanic eruption. Large red oxidized lava formations, moss-covered rocks, winding trails, geothermal vents, and expansive views made for a scenic wonderland.

We stopped so our guide could take individual photos of each of us. When my turn came I easily maneuvered Gauwk up to the photo spot, and afterwards returned him to the group. “I got this” I thought. Well, maybe, or maybe not so much…

Shortly thereafter we all regrouped again and our guide asked us to ride single-file and stay to the left side of the trail as there was a narrow section up ahead. I was bunched up with some other riders, and on the far right side of the trail. I tried to pull Gauwk to the left, but something went wrong. I don’t exactly know what. My right foot slipped out of the stirrup, the horse jerked his head from side to side, we went straight right, and stopped on the edge of a steep drop-off that would have resulted in a 30 foot tumbling descent on lava rock. Not fun.

There were several audible gasps as everyone immediately stopped. One of the guides turned around, and I could tell from the look on her face that we “had a situation”. I completely froze. I tried to get my foot back in the stirrup but couldn’t find it, and each attempt only seemed to make things dicier. After a couple of anxious moments I said “I’m about to get off this horse”. Fortunately Gauwk had no interest in tumbling off a cliff either. We stood there on the edge of the drop-off until one of the assistants told me to pull the reins to the left. Once away from the abyss we were able to get situated again and the ride continued. My heart came down out of my throat, but any excess confidence I might have had was now tempered by the reality that I don’t actually know what the heck I’m doing.

We continued on and finished the rest of the ride without incident. Even with my scary episode it was really enjoyable. Amy absolutely loved her horse, and was able to gallop ahead a few times. Once we got the horses back to the pen, and the saddles and bits were removed, the horses put on a final show for us. It was play time for them, rolling around in  the mud and grooming each other.  Really fun stuff. We’re a little sore after using muscles that aren’t used to this kind of activity, but all-in-all I think I’d try it again.