A Horseback Trip Through Iceland Taught Me About Being Present

Five days across Iceland via horseback forced me to slow down and focus on what was in front of me all along.
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Horses in Iceland

Horses in Iceland

I was a burnt end, a frayed electrical cord, a tea kettle whistling on the stove just about boiled dry. I’d been working two jobs for a decade, and I found myself in the paradoxical position of having a little extra money and zero joy. Snippets of free time that occasionally landed at my feet only provoked my anxiety. I was too bound up in every little thing.

How could I heal myself? I’d always chafed at the idea that travel alone can mend a person. It seems at once too literal and too extravagant—that a physical escape is the only fix, and, ironically, that such a cure requires so much money (stress), time (stress!), and planning (ditto!). But that spring, I began to worry about the damage this anxiety might be doing to my body. I Googled two things I love: “horses and Iceland.” Then, in mid-July, I found myself in a van with a dozen other women watching Iceland’s lunar-like landscape pass us by through a blur of arctic rain. We were heading to the horses.

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Vague memories of a trip to Iceland decades ago had guided me here. Little did I know that the meditative power of a five-day camping trip in the saddle was beyond powerful.

As soon as I hit the trail, the incessant rhythm of the swift and unrelenting tolt—a four-beat trot unique to Icelandic horses—dominated everything, focusing my mind and body into a kind of magical clock whose hands only counted seconds instead of minutes or hours. In the saddle, riding in the tolt, I found myself gently rocked into the moment. There was no future and no past. Only now.

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This deep moving meditation was also shaped by the barren land itself. Without the scale of trees, distances were impossible to judge. We traveled over an endless expanse of rock and grass. In July at that latitude, the sun never sets. Instead, the sky became an ever-changing study of the vicissitudes of clouds sweeping across in an eternal afternoon. Lacking the cues of day and night, my world became intensely focused on the hypnotic rhythm of hooves hitting the velvety volcanic earth.

Which is why, on the second day of rolling with the tolt, I became more attuned to my equine partners—the dozen or so horses I’d bestride over the course of this trip. Riding an animal requires forming a partnership with a silent, ambivalent teammate. Though your destinies are bound together, as in any job, there are different ways of going about it. You could both slog through—the horse burdened by his cargo, and you, accordingly, feeling a little too much like an oversized duffle bag. Or you could, however briefly, connect. 

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The horses I was working with came with their own complexities. Most of the year, they ran wild across the treeless, volcanic expanse—loving, fighting, helping, constantly establishing their position within the herd. But when the farmers tracked them down, corralled them into a fenced field and saddled them up, they became, like their riders, part of a unit committed to following and carrying.

The step, step, step of the tolt focused my attention on the horses’ subtler cues: eyes open or half-closed, tails high or lackluster, ears twitched back toward me or slanted front toward the horse ahead. Thoughts and emotions, both mine and my powerful partner’s, flowed in and out of my consciousness without judgement. Each time I dismounted and pulled off the saddle, my temporary companion would vanish into the sea of brown, black, and white spots, stripes, thick manes, long, lush tails—back into the hierarchy of the herd. We had days and days of this ahead. 

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After a week, I began to see how I functioned within my own herd. I realized that the indignities of the proverbial work saddle were temporary. The real or imagined slights against my authority would come and go, like clouds across the sky.

Back in the office in Boston, where I live, I found that I’d developed a newer, healthier sense of time, which made me more empathetic to those around me; my perspective had become at once vast—like the mountains and glaciers of Iceland—and highly focused, like the twitch of a horse’s ear.

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About our author

Rachel Slade is a Boston-based journalist and author of Into the Raging Sea, a gripping account of the sinking of the American cargo ship El Faro. Learn more at rachelslade.net.