Tölting for the terrified

The Icelandic horse is a unique breed and they are beautiful, with long flowing manes and tails, gentle eyes and a short but sturdy body. Driving around Iceland, you see them everywhere and they will happily come over to say hello. They really are a charming horse.

Happy horses in their natural setting

They have a unique gait called the “tölt”, which is something between a trot and a canter. Their legs look so graceful when they do it. Here is a video, in case you haven’t seen this gait before:

Horse riding is a popular activity with tourists all over Iceland and you can see why – imagine being able to ride beautiful horses in stunning scenery without a lot of traffic or people around to get in the way.

I love the whole idea of horse riding and I really wish I had learned to do it as a child. I’ve tried learning as an adult, and gave up because it was just too hard, scary and expensive. It’s one of those things that I would love to be good at, but am just not. I think it’s the unpredictability and speed element that scares me.

I participated in a group ride in Iceland a few years ago. As is normally the case with these activities, they claim that you don’t ever have to have ridden before to do it as the horses are just following each other the whole time. It’s true that most people in my group had little to no experience. At least half also didn’t want to do the tölting for this reason!

We rode off in single file down paths through beautiful fields, with far reaching views. We were lucky with the weather that day too. It was a great way to explore. Then the guides shouted back that we were going to tölt, which was met with a lot of protesting that was ignored and off we went! Lots of screaming and bouncing ensued. Riding looks really easy and smooth but isn’t. Somehow no one fell off but it probably wasn’t much fun for the horses! To give them credit none of them freaked out or broke away despite the screaming and everyone probably doing all the wrong things with their legs and reins. Towards the end of our ride, the most experienced person in the group DID fall off, having been given quite a difficult horse to ride, which was traumatic for everyone in the group except the guides who seemed to find us all hilarious.

Ready?? Hang on!

Spending time with the horses before and after the ride was really fun and I think everyone came away loving the Icelandic horse even more, despite the adrenaline rush!

Every time I go to Iceland I think about doing the horse riding again. I would have really loved the whole experience if we’d just walked, although it is fun to say you’ve tölted. I know you don’t ever get any better at horse riding if you don’t try things but it definitely left some of the older people in the group a bit shaken up. I hope that some of the other riding companies would adjust their ride more to the ability of the group or split the group in two to make sure everyone could get the ride they wanted.

So, what do you think, should I give it a try again when we do the Ring Road trip this year? Or should I just accept the fact that I’m a big chicken who prefers horses from the ground?


21 thoughts on “Tölting for the terrified

  1. You should defo go for it! Let me know when you’re in Iceland and I’ll introduce you to some lovely folks with horses. A friend of mine is an equine massage therapist 🙂

    • Thanks for your encouragement and offer. Having tried to get involved with horse riding here I am amazed at how many people dedicate their lives to looking after animals that are such a lot of work. I’m sure it is very rewarding but heartbreaking sometimes. If Mr Iceland doesn’t want to do it on the next trip I might have to save it up for my next solo one! (if you’re still there!)

  2. As they say, you should definitely get back in the horse! Scary, but worth it! I’m really enjoying your blog. We were in Iceland about a year and a half ago, and your bringing back some great memories for us!

  3. From your description and my own experience I am wondering whether half the horses on that ride actually tolted at all. As your lovely video clip shows, the tolt is such a smooth gait it has been said you can carry a glass of water without spilling any! If you watch the rider, he hardly moves at all. No bouncing or jolting!

    When I rode an Icelandic horse in Sweden, as an experienced rider at the time (haven’t ridden for years now) it was not easy to get the horse to tolt. The aids (signals given to the horse) were not easy for me as I think you had to pull on the reins and kick a certain part of the flank in a certain way, something like that, it was long ago now. I don’t tend to pull the reins hard and have weak arthritic hands, so it was tricky, but eventually the horse understood what I was trying to say and rewarded my efforts with a real tolt, which very different in feel to any other gait I’ve ridden. Trot, however, is very bouncy and it is what the horse did instead of tolting when I got it wrong! Canter can also be quite bouncy. The tolt felt very flat smooth, but swayed a lot side to side.

    So unless those horses were trained to tolt when the horse in front did it, many of them would just have gone faster, more likely trot or canter. After all, how are non-horsey tourists supposed to know the difference? 🙂 I could be wrong, but if I were you I’d leap at ethnaparker’s offer as that would most likely be a much different experience!

    • I think you might be right. We would have liked to see the horses tolting in action – as we were on them, we couldn’t see anything, and yes, they were very bouncy like trotting! Or maybe that was because most of us weren’t good enough to do the rising trot, which does take some practice, as I found a few years later?

      Interesting that you say the aids are quite tricky. I can promise that we gave no aids at all! Maybe they did just all go along at whatever gait felt right for them to keep up with the first horse. When trying to learn to ride, I was really surprised to find how complicated horses were, and how hard it was to get them to do what you wanted – this is partly what puts me off hem now!

      I’m sure Ethna’s friends would give a better experience and care more that you actually enjoyed yourself. Would you go riding if you visited Iceland now?

      • Riding across Icelandic scenery is one of the things I want to do most in the whole world. But I am more fragile with my arthritis than ever, so I’d have to be careful to find the most suitable experience, even if it meant paying a bit more for a customised trip, just me, the husband and the guide. Also I would prepare by having a few riding lessons just get some semblance of a seat back or I’d be falling off at the trot for sure!

        It’s not hard to get a well trained horse to do what you want 🙂 but trekking horses are understandably problematic. They are used to just following the horse in front and ignoring the rider, who may be unconsciously telling them all kinds of confusing things! Usually stop and go at the same time. So they quickly learn to ignore the rider. They also have to get a thick skin and a hard mouth, poor things.

      • Yes, I always felt a bit sorry for the riding school horses. They must hate having beginners on them, of course they’d rather just be out in the field enjoying themselves. As a beginner it was hard to have a horse that wasn’t responsive at all, but then one that WAS responsive was so sensitive that I’d be scared to move! It was all a bit too subtle for me and I found it really hard to keep my legs in position yet not squeezing.

        Maybe I’ll just get an Icelandic horse calendar instead. 🙂

  4. Yeah, I started learning to ride when I was 8 and I couldn’t get the Icelandic horse I rode one time to tölt. Being used to bigger horses, I have to say I don’t super enjoy riding Icelandic “horses” (I know Icelanders get upset when you say it, but they are totally ponies, no matter how strong they are). Shorter strides and everything, they just feel uncomfortable for me. They are really cute, though.

    • That’s interesting that they are so different even for a good rider. As a beginner I struggled with any “wide” horses, I must have really short legs. It’s a shame as that would be a fun hobby for you if you enjoyed riding there.

  5. Sounds like you had a funny and exciting experience. To let the horses go suddenly in “Tölt” wasn’t kind of funny of the guides. I’ve never been interested in horses or riding. As a child I sat on a really big horse. And I was terribly scared. I’m looking forward to read here if you went rinding again this year. 🙂

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