Horseback riding in Iceland: A man, a fjord, 24 poniesMarch 29, 2019
Lonely, barren and wild are the Westfjords in northwest Iceland. The Belgian Wouter Van Hoeymissen and his Icelandic ponies like that. A horseback ride through wide valleys, between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.
Wouter Van Hoeymissen comes out of the stable with a basket full of riding helmets and puts them under the roof of the roof. A rain shower patters down on us, the 39-year-old welcomes us smiling. After all, he is used to the unpredictable weather, as well as his 24 island ponies, who live outside all year round. The animals are already waiting ready-saddled in the stable, so that the saddles do not suck themselves full of water. It smells of leather and horse.
Krafla, Demona, Nói, Garpur, Glói – little by little, Wouter takes the ponies with their fluffy mane to a small square and distributes them to us, depending on the riding experience. He assigns Dama to me, a friendly, black Icelandic pony mare. Whether she is pregnant, I ask Wouter, her stomach is round. “No, just fat,” he says, laughing. “She likes to eat and fast.”
Wouters riding stable is only a few kilometers from the village of Thingeyri. In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the peninsula of the Westfjords in northwest Iceland. Like the paw of a polar bear she juts out into the sea, as if she wanted to claw Greenland. On an area the size of Hesse live here about 7000 people. Between the mighty mountains and the rough Atlantic, their few houses in the valley seem tiny. So far, relatively few tourists get lost here.
Dama, my pony with chocolate brown eyes and long, dark eyelashes, looks idiosyncratic, yet reliable and relaxed. Today she will show me her world. We adjust our riding helmets and swing ourselves into the saddles with the help of the stirrups – packed in rain pants, rain jackets and waterproof boots.
For the love of loneliness
In the past 34 years, the population in Iceland’s most remote corner has shrunk by a third. Because even here villagers migrate to the big cities, where far more job and training opportunities wait. In the fishing village of Thingeyri, however, the sale of profitable fishing quotas was simply too tempting – as the quotas went to larger fisheries in other regions of Iceland.
Today, the formerly large cooperative only offers jobs for around 30 employees, and there is not much going on in the metal workshop for fishing boat spare parts, for which Thingeyri was known. The supermarket closed, as well as the bank, the post office and the small airport. There is hardly anything left of the former infrastructure.
All this did not stop Wouter Van Hoeymissen 14 years ago from settling here. The reason: The native of Belgium had fallen in love. First in the Dane Janne, whom he met in Reykjavik, then in Thingeyri, the 250-soul village on Dyrafjörður. But especially in a very specific house: Simbahöllin. “It was anything but our plan,” our guide tells as he saddles his favorite horse, Mo, and leads us from the farm.
“We traveled through the Westfjords, saw this big old, dilapidated house in the middle of the village and all the possibilities that were connected with it.” From 1916 to 1970 it housed the village shop, where everything from rubber boots to butter was everything. “We bought it for 2500 kroner, around 30 euro at that time, and then renovated it for years.”
He now lives with Janne and her two children upstairs and in 2009 opened Café Simbahöllin on the ground floor. Between May and September he wants to bring together young and old, locals and tourists. In the winter months, when the café is closed, international artists in residence can apply for Simbahöllin.
“I want to breathe life back into the place,” says Wouter, who now speaks fluent Icelandic. He is grateful for the many places, the sense of freedom. And enjoy the simple lifestyle that at least offers everything a family needs. For example, the kindergarten, a school, a postman, who knows everyone personally and looks every day for living senior citizens.
Talking about horse ears
Even Wouters friend Haukur Sigurdsson, who comes from Isafjördur, has deliberately decided to stay here. “For young families, Thingeyri is a good place, where else can I spontaneously pick blueberries with my son, go skiing in the lunchtime or go kayaking on the fjord?” Says the 34-year-old. “And a big house costs as much as a garage in Reykjavik, so we can spend our money on travel.”
Election Icelander Wouter, who has discovered his love of ponies since his arrival in the Westfjords and has been touring for seven years, rides ahead. We follow in a small group, along narrow paths through the sprawling valley. Two border collies accompany us. The Westfjords are covered with mosses, lichens and ankle-high blueberry bushes. Cloudy veils hang in the mountain peaks, it rains almost continuously. Nevertheless, the landscape shines in many nuances of green, brown and rusty red.
Tense and a little scared, I’m sitting in the saddle first. And learn to trust Dama more and more. Again and again, the Iceland pony searches for the best roads through the terrain, catching itself quickly when it stumbles. Then I tap Dama on the neck to praise her and watch her ear play.
Over tails and horse ears, we laugh and chat. Then again the conversations mute. The horses carry us over screeching paths and through the stony, slippery Sandar Riverbed. We loosen the reins so they can take a short break and drink from the mountain water.
There’s the gurgling of the river and the light rain. Otherwise nothing surrounds us but silence and a mild, moss-and-earth-scented air. My clammy hands are full of horse hair, and I enjoy the moment on the wide Iceland pony. Dama seems to feel that and exhales, as if sighing and saying, “Hey, up there, all in the best of order, relax.”
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