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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