Archive for November, 2014

Moving to Iceland and a Horse Roundup

Chris and I had some more low key hanging out in Reykjavik until we both had early buses to different places.  It was a perfect few days so the goodbye actually wasn’t all that awful!  I napped on the bus up to northwest Iceland, the village of Varmahlið, which has 140 people.  My host Pétur picked me up at the bus stop/gas station/grocery store/buffet.  We met his fiancé Heiðrún at the house and I shared stories about Kyrgyzstan before she went to work at the hotel.  I followed Pétur around as he trained a few horses and I was in awe at the process.  I only have a theoretical working knowledge of how one trains a horse and it was amazing to see it in person.  My mind was a bit blown, which is an excellent and familiar feeling these past few months.


Once again, I was well and truly happy to move in to a room of my own.  At this point in my journey it is September 19, or 10 weeks in to my trip In France I moved every 1-4 days over the whole month, and I was totally over the unpack/pack/repeat.  Similarly, I was ecstatic to have a household with a friendly cat.  Snotra (pronounced Sno-tra, not Snot-ra) and I became great pals right off the bat.


That night, Pétur offered to share the steak he was cooking.  When I mentioned I am a vegetarian, I’m pretty sure he was so shocked that his eyebrows disappeared in his hairline.  (Later they asked me why I’m a vegetarian and he tried to persuade me by saying, “Well, Jesus ate meat.”  Little does he know just how unconvincing an argument that is for me.)


It was Petur’s birthday on my first day, and there was a live music show in town.  Their name is Ljótu Hálfvitarnir, which translates to “The Ugly Halfwits.”  They had ridiculous outfits and played fun folk Icelandic music, but in between songs they made jokes which were presumably hilarious (I’ll never know because it was all in Icelandic).  At times, I was the only person in the place not singing along to the particularly well-known ones.  They almost started singing an English song (500 Miles by the Proclaimers) but they stopped halfway through as a joke.  One of them was a wind instrument player and he had the tenor sax out for one song which made me happy.  It was a great first night.  The remainder of the weekend passed in a lull as I tried to get used to the rhythm of the house.


If you, dear reader, think I am a crazy person for going to Iceland in September and October, then let me explain first that you are not wrong, but also that I had my reasons.  In the north of Iceland where I’d decided to stay, many farmers put their horses in the same valley for the summer and collect them four months later in preparation for winter.  This roundup is called réttir, and I wanted to be in Iceland for such an event.  The local roundup took place one week after I arrived to the farm.  I had one or two days of getting used to the daily routine of breakfast, muck stalls, lunch, follow Pétur around lending a hand, coffee break, muck stalls, dinner.  After that, there was a Norwegian journalist, Mette, who was staying with us and attending the réttir in the weekend.  She is highly interested in the topic of horse meat and I learned a lot about it because of her probing questions.  It is a part of my research project that I have been tentative in exploring because of how difficult it is for me to process.  I’m not going to go into much detail for the sake of my American audience (I don’t want to shock my mother or Amy Russell).  However, the breeding industry of Icelandic horses requires for the least promising individuals to go to the slaughterhouse, otherwise farmers do not make much profit by keeping all of the duds.  It is efficient, but still breaks my heart a little bit inside.  That is exactly what I came to Iceland to learn about.

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Over the next few days Mette and I went to different pastures to photograph herds of horses (stallions one day, mares and foals the next), walked to a nearby waterfall, stopped in the next city for me to get some warmer clothes, and team-interviewing the legend of Icelandic horses Tölty, the man in the trailer below.  He is Heiðrún’s brother and international Icelandic horse competition winner.  Watch the trailer, but have tissues close by.



The Friday before the Saturday réttir, I drove all of us to a small horse competition that was just for fun.  There was an obstacle course that two different men rode a horse bareback through.  It involved picking up a pillow from the ground (which the horse was not on board with) and then picking up a beer, riding around for a bit, chugging it, and setting it back on the chair that they found it.  Then there was a rodeo clown type skit with two young men dressed as women and riding horses very badly, falling off, and being unable to get back on (which is ridiculous because these are pony-sized horses, but don’t you dare call them a pony!) and a girl rode over and stole their horses.  There was some singing, since this region is known for horse breeding and group singing, and then was a pace competition.  When people brag about the Icelandic horse, they talk about the five gaits: walk, trot, tölt, pace, and gallop.  Well this was a competition (which included Tölty and Pétur) for the fastest pace over a set distance and it was quite fun to see.  In tölt the rider hardly moves in the saddle, but pace is a bit bumpier.  Mette and I waited for our Icelandic hosts to finish up talking to all of the other spectators, and an incredibly drunk man came over to me and spoke Icelandic.  I said, “Nope!  English!”  He continued to be unintelligible, and I felt incredibly awkward and uncomfortable.  The only thing I could understand him say was, “Why not?” so I decided to literally run away.  Feet, don’t, fail me now!  My feet don’t fail me now!  At one point later I hid behind a pillar and then Mette as he wandered over to my hiding place.  Mette was already my friend at this point after three straight days of hanging out, but she really endeared herself to me when I loudly whispered, “Don’t move!” and half-crouched behind her.


The next day was the RÉTTIR!!!  We woke up early and drove to the valley where the horses stay.  Since Mette was there on journalistic business, we drove to where the herd was waiting and met some of the people who had organized the event.  The anticipation was thick in the air, and once it started I was able to help produce this video by filming the water scenes:



That really does explain what the rest of my day was like.  Mette found some Norwegians she knew so I was an honorary Norwegian for a day, which I really enjoyed.  They were all so friendly and said I had to come to Norway to see their horses!  One day I’ll make it over there (spoiler alert: I make it over there!).  I bought an Icelandic sweater because I was chilled (which contributed to being mistaken as an Icelander many times in the rest of my trip).  I’d stepped into a large hidden puddle of water when Mette and I were running around filming horses, and I was unaware that I had been a slight bit grumpy due to the cold; the sweater solved that.


I so enjoyed watching the roundup.  There was this interesting dichotomy of wild vs domesticated/tame, because the horses that were allowed to run free all summer are suddenly put in a corral and sorted out by the farmers.  It also was a traditional event which has been molded to fit the tourists.  Thirty years ago the locals would go get the horses and then stick around to drink and sing, but now some of them get the horses from the valley and put them closer for the tourists to help round up.  There were only 420 horses this year which means there were more riders than horses that they were gathering!  It was a lovely day.  I can’t believe that in the past year I googled “Icelandic horses,” learned about the réttir, was awarded the Watson, found a farm in the right region, and actually attended it.  There have been ups and downs, but it really is a charmed life I’m leading right now.


Happily moved in to a CLOSET, with HANGERS, and my Icelandic sweater.  It’s the little things in life.  Over and out.


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An Accident Waiting to Happen

I remember many things about my trail ride on 11/11/14.  The one thing I don’t remember is hitting my head.

I had a beautiful ride that afternoon.  I had stumbled upon a Norwegian woman with Quarter Horses, and in a fit of trust she suggested I borrow her horse to go riding alone in the woods without a helmet.  This situation sounds like a recipe for disaster…  And yet it wasn’t.  We ambled along, the horse and I, while I composed a song whose lyrics went like this: “How the hell did I find myself here? / What the fuck is happening? / Is this real life? / Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”  It was exciting to find myself in such a bizarre set of circumstances, enjoying the Norwegian woods from the back of an American horse whose temperament was just as I remembered from my own horses: comfortable and lazy.  It was bliss.

Back at the home of my host, Mette (who I’d met in Iceland), asked if I wanted to ride her horse alone?  I had ridden her new eventing (a sport which includes dressage, jumping, and cross-country racing) horse, Cayenne, yesterday with Mette riding a different one.  That was another fantastic ride even through the drizzling rain.  Having felt so immediately at ease with Cayenne the day before, I gladly agreed.  This way, Mette could get some work done, and I would be happily entertained by one of my favorite pastimes.  Win/win/win.  We went to the stable and saddled up, making sure to put reflective gear on both me and the horse since it was an hour before dark.  Donning Mette’s helmet, I set off for the same trail we had taken the day before.

Cayenne was noticeably less relaxed than the day before, but not worryingly so.  We rode up the road to the entrance to the park, and if she was less willing to go around the traffic barrier and terrifying boulder than the day before, then I didn’t blame her.  We rode through the woods and encountered two pedestrians and their dogs, which Cayenne (having been scared by a charging dog before) stopped and watched rather than any other bad behavior.  We turned around after having ridden for 20 minutes, so that we could conserve the light for our ride home.  I admit now that I am a poor judge of how much light is left in autumn in Scandinavia.  In Denmark, I had to walk in the dark for a half hour back to my car after walking in the woods.

When we were nearly out of the park, we crossed a bridge and turned a corner to see a strange sight.  There was a man with a flashlight and a dog with a blinking red light on his forehead.  Knowing Cayenne’s nerves, and since it was twilight to boot, I stopped her so she could get a good look at what was approaching her.  She backed up a few steps in fear and the dog barked and began to chase her.  We bolted back over the bridge, me unstable in the small English riding saddle, but yelling for her to stop and using all of my horse expertise to convince her that sprinting up the trail was not in her best interest.  I managed to stop her and turn her around to see that the dog was no longer in pursuit.  The man had his dog on a leash and had moved into the woods to get out of our way.  Unfortunately to the horse brain, now the dreaded Predator was lurking in the woods.  I managed to communicate through my anger that I only speak English, was his dog safely on a leash, and maybe he shouldn’t do that ever again.  At this point I noticed beyond the bridge was another man with two dogs.  I asked him to put his dogs on a leash if they weren’t already and he continued on his way.  Cayenne was understandably spooked, and I was proud of her for listening to me in the first place.  We walked past the scary dog in the woods with minimal snorting.

I never saw the horse coming.

Behind us we both heard the sound of a running horse.  It did not register anything special to me, but to Cayenne, they weren’t just running, they were running from something.  She already had first-hand confirmation that there was at least one Horse Monster in the woods, and she did not need any more convincing.  She sprinted with less warning and faster than I have ever experienced.  The second man with two dogs was further up the path and I yelled at him to get out of the way (though I did not remember this until two hours later).  I knew with a certainty that I was on a runaway horse who was not amenable to any of my demands, and this was the most dangerous experience I’ve ever been a part of.  After passing the man but not running over him or his dogs, I remembered the traffic barrier and “terrifying” rock at the park entrance.  I tried even harder to get her to stop but to no avail.  There was nothing for me to hold on to in the saddle, and I lost my balance when she slowed down upon noticing the barrier.  Within a few steps I had almost gotten myself seated back in the saddle.  Too frightened to actually stop, she gathered her strength and jumped the meter-high obstacle.  When we landed, I was hanging on her neck with the reigns still in my hands.  For a few paces I attempted to simultaneously stop the horse using the reigns and get back in the saddle, all the while thinking of where we would go if I actually managed to stay on her.  Which, I did not.

What I remember from the fall is this: Impact on my left hip, thinking “I’m going to have to get back on the horse” which did not last long as I felt the blinding pain in my back and hip, and then remembering that I should not stand up.  I had entirely forgotten the hiker with his two dogs as well as the rider of the horse and became immediately terrified that nobody would find me, and I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone to go look for Cayenne.  I did however remember the first dog but had forgotten it was leashed, and, though I was screaming for help, became almost as frightened that the dog would find me and bite me while I was unable to run away.

It felt like an eternity, but the two men with dogs found me (without their dogs, though I did not notice or wonder about that until much later).  They bombarded me with questions in Norwegian until they understood I was American.  I think for every question they asked, “Are you ok?  Did you hit your head?  Do you need an ambulance?”  I responded with one of my own, “Can you find my horse?  She’s my friend’s horse, can you go look for her?”  Eventually a girl walked over leading a horse and I asked, “Are you what scared the shit out of my horse?”  I never did get an answer to that…  I asked her to search for Cayenne and she agreed.  Some time later she returned with another horse (I wondered at how strange a view it is to see a horse from the position of lying on the ground) and said her friend had seen Cayenne running.  Did I want them to follow her?  Uh, what a dumb question, the answer is yes.  Please find the horse.

The first man called the emergency number while the second called Mette.  I was asked what hurt, how I fell, did I hit my head?  Eventually they asked me to stand up and I became nauseous.  This development provoked even more questions about my head and I vehemently responded, “NO.  I did not hit my head.”  They asked my birth date and social security number.  I rattled off the first easily but paused to recall my 9-digit identification.  It was decided for me that the second man, whose car was in the parking lot I had fallen in, would drive me to the hospital.  With one man on each arm, they helped me walk to the front seat, and off we went.

My rescuer was named Paul.  We drove to Mette’s house and met her outside on the road.  I cried and apologized for losing Cayenne, and she told me not to worry.  She stayed behind to look for her and Paul agreed to drive me the rest of the way to the hospital.  He was a fantastic conversationalist, and I wished I’d met him in better circumstances.  We talked about his grandchildren, being left-handed, practicing English, my scholarship, and how pretty the Norwegian woods are.  He told me Cayenne would be fine and had probably walked home already.

At the hospital, I laid down on a couch and dictated my personal information to Paul for the paperwork.  I was given acetaminophen in the triage room, sat back down in the waiting room, and then put in an emergency room to wait for the doctor.  At this point, we had gotten a call from Mette that Cayenne had indeed walked home and been caught, and a wave of emotion washed over me.  In past situations, I have had a calm head in stressful times, but that persona had vanished.  Feeling slightly better than the first shock of terror and pain, I began to hide my discomfort in humor.  I think every sentence from my mouth was an attempt to make Paul smile.  Mette came to the hospital just as the doctor showed up and I said goodbye to Paul, who had patiently waited with a stranger he’d met in the woods an hour before.  Since my hands were scraped up we exchanged an odd left-handed handshake.

The doctor was a bit full of himself and swept in the room saying, “Hello, my name is such and such, and I am the doctor.”  I replied just as darkly, “Hello, my name is McKenna, and I am the patient.”  He did not smile at my hilarious effort, bastard, but instead said that a smiling patient is his favorite kind.  Clearly he was unaware as to my coping mechanism.  He asked me loads of questions, starting with “Did you hit your head?”  I said no, once again vehement.  By examining me and moving my legs painfully all around, he concluded I had not fractured my hip in the fall but did have massive bruising.  After checking my wrist he said it was unlikely to be fractured.  But since I was nauseous, I probably had a concussion.  I was so surprised but who am I to critique the doctor?  He then handed me acetaminophen and hydrocodone for pain, and I snapped at him that if he’d read my chart he would know that I was allergic to codine.  He looked slightly ashamed and said, “Thank you for telling me.”  Thank god it wasn’t a bigger concussion or I might have added “stopped breathing” to my list of aches and pains.

Mette paid for my hospital bill (I didn’t have a wallet on me) which was surprisingly cheap.  We drove home and that is the point at which I remembered running past Paul (for the second man with dogs was Paul) in the woods.  Nausea plus forgetting a part of the accident made the doctor’s diagnosis of concussion seem more likely to me….  And then I saw the helmet.  “I didn’t hit my head” my ass.  These are not the scrapes of a life-saving helmet, but there are still obvious scratches all around the front and side of the helmet.  I did not remember rolling at all but the helmet and unexpected bruising this morning confirm that.


I took unnecessary risks by going out on a quarter horse with no helmet in unfamiliar woods carrying no cellphone.  I did not think it unduly risky to ride a horse for the second time, wearing a helmet, in the same woods as the day before.  As a competent rider, I was able to quiet a horse after we were chased by a dog, and it was the unfortunate circumstances of the failing light and being surprised by other horses around a corner that set off Cayenne in the end.  I suppose I can end with the platitude that I will be more careful in the future, but I am generally a very careful rider.  I visited Cayenne today and was not unduly upset.  I think I will be more nervous of dogs in the future, but so will she.  It is amazing that she and I are both, on the whole, unhurt by the terrible experience.  I thank my body for all it has put up with and am grateful that it was not worse.  I am a bit impressed that I was able to stay on a leaping horse, but not so much that I’ll try to incorporate jumping into my riding routine any time soon.

I think what I will end with is this: do not trust someone, especially me, when they say, “No I definitely did not hit my head.”

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As Aurelion pointed out, “Sometimes the cheapest flight is not the best.”  I woke up at the buttcrack of dawn and walked out of the apartment in Paris to find a taxi waiting for me, just as I had arranged.  But then a second taxi showed up… I believe the internal monologue of my panic went something like this: “Shitshitshitshitshitshit.”  I walked to the first taxi just as other people were getting out of it, which solved my conundrum.  At 5:30 in the morning it was startling!  I wish I could say getting to the plane was uneventful, but I was so tired (and at one point distracted by three American guys who really liked my cowboy hat) that I took the shuttle in the wrong direction of my terminal not once, not twice, but three different times.  Sometimes the cheapest flight is not the best.  Lesson learned.  I also forgot my hat in security and ran back two minutes later for it.  Doh.

On the flight to Reykjavik, I realized I hadn’t done quite enough research about the place that I was going.  Feeling guilty, I watched all of the touristy-aimed promotional videos about the different regions of Iceland and was disappointed that none of them said anything about horses!  Poor marketing choice.  I met Chris Johnson in the airport and was greeted with a penguin wave before I got close enough to tackle him in a bear hug.  We got bus tickets from the airport to the city and as SOON as we walked out of the door we were hit by a fierce gust of wind and freezing rain.  I most definitely squealed loudly, and someone walked past us and whispered ominously, “Welcome to Iceland.”

We checked in to the hostel and had a miniature investigation of the tourist street of Reykjavik, including a purchase of beer bottle moustaches.  It was so nice to have someone to be weird with.  Highlights of Reykjavik besides getting to be consistently strange include walking to the Grotta light house, figuring out the bus system, going to geothermally heated pools three times, history museum of Iceland (pretty small since there have only been 1000 years of occupation), hiking on Viðey island, and having a fancy schmancy Indian restaurant dinner compliments of the Johnsons.  We also saw a seal out in the harbor and hung out with it for 10 minutes.  He would dip down under the waves and pop up again and we’d walk to where he was to say hello again.  It is possible we named him George.


My favorite part was the day trip outside of the city.  If you go to Iceland, you have to see the nature!  At the first stop everyone went inside for a tour of a geothermal plant, but Chris and I stayed outside and played on the moss and lava.  It was definitely more fun and the moss gets to be a foot deep in places.  All of the other places we stopped were beautimous: a crater we hiked around (and I learned Chris is part mountain goat), a cute waterfall, Geyser, Gullfoss, and Parliament plains.  The latter is the rift between the North American and European plates which causes a huge cliff to jut out of the landscape, which is where the Icelandic tribes used to gather once a year.  Our tour attempted stop to pet Icelandic horses at one point and Chris and I use teeth and a barbed wire fence to cut an apple in half, but then we realized the horses were behind another fence and too far away.  We stopped later and gave it to a different pasture of horses, and there were two men with cowboy hats that stopped with us as well.  I was too shy to talk to the cowboys. Who knows where that came from.

Eat your heart out.  Enjoy the photos of the sites we stopped at on our tour: The crater, Geyser, Gullfoss (golden waterfall), and Parliament plains.


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