A mare can stand perfectly still and make you hear the words: Thou shalt not come closer.
It was our last location of the day, and there were several dozen mares in the pasture beside the lake. All the others were grazing and tolerating the buoyant shenanigans of foals. But a solitary mare stood off by herself at the edge of the field. We skirted her, our eyes downcast to avoid being confrontational or threatening. And when we were in a position to see why she stood so, we saw that there was a foal lying in the deep grass at her feet. It was very still, and we wondered if everything was okay with it. We waited, glancing at her sideways. And then slowly, luxuriously, with the naive trust of a foal born in a place with no predators, the baby awakened, lifted its head and stretched, then got to its feet and tottered off on new legs with its now relaxed mother.
We sat on grassy tussocks. We could have stayed there all afternoon, sheer cliffs to our left, snow covered mountains to our right, a fjord stretching off into the distance, mares and foals wandering congenially among us. But then they decided that there was either tastier grass elsewhere, or they’d grown weary of our presence, and they took their long-maned, multicolored selves down the road beyond the knoll at our backs and out of our view.
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We were off to see another herd, this time youngsters, equine teenagers, actually, between 2 and 4 years old, barely touched by humans, brash and more outspoken than their elders, curious about us like children. They wanted to inspect our cameras and look in our pockets. Often we had to shoo them away to keep their exuberance and horse-to-horse conversations at an appropriate distance from us and our cameras. The ground here was all tussocks, little hills about 18 inches high, created where the near Arctic weather freezes and thaws the ground, over and over. It was difficult for us to walk on it ourselves, but these horses had been raised on this earth and they bounded from end to end of the field, fleet of foot and with unexpected grace.
We continued north, taking in the vast waterfall of Gullfoss, a massive torrent that could compete with Niagara Falls. We stopped at Thingvellier National Park, which encompasses the great Atlantic rift between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We strolled below the sheer stone cliff that has been forced upward a hundred feet, stared into a great dark crack in the earth where the man made path had ruptured and split. Further north, following the road as it tunneled under the Hvalfjörður Fjord – the first actual darkness that we had seen since we’d arrived. Northward, the roads becoming quieter still, and we turned north yet again off the Ring Road, past the town of Blönduós, further north, until all there was were green fields and rocks and the Greenland Sea. Even on this beautiful June day we imagined what the winters would be like on this windswept shore.
We waited for horses. We were assured that they were just over the rise, beyond the empty field. There were flocks of terns, and Eider ducks, and sandpipers, and grebes, amidst the rocks and indigo water.
And then there were horses of many colors. They came over the hill toward us, chestnuts and paints and bays and duns, mostly mares, a few with foals, picking their way over the broken lumpy ground and through streams, pausing before a textured old barn, then pushing past a rocking shoreline. As they circled us, they were in turns illuminated and outlined by the heavenly morning light, filtered through high clouds.
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Somewhere to the northeast of Reykjavik, we crest a hill in the morning light and see a herd of about 70 horses in a pasture that is perhaps half a kilometer across. A dozen horses are at the fence beside the road, and of course we stop to take photos of them. The fence is wire, as are most fences in Iceland (remember there aren’t many trees) and flimsy by our horse-keeping standards, but it is fortified by a daunting ditch…. as are most fields.
We are all equestrian photographers. Between us, there is probably 100 years experience at getting horses’ attention. Several of us are well practiced in the art of whinnying. But we’ve never attempted to use these skills on Icelandic horses. What would have caused all ears to prick toward us in quarter horses, snorts and flaring nostrils and tossing heads in a group of Arabians, and abject terror in a herd of warmbloods, got a long, considered stare from the Icelandics. And then they all calmly turned and walked away.
Well! Now we were challenged. So we drove up the side road to the gate, because in our world, no horse can resist a human at a gate: humans at gates, especially those not carrying halters and lead ropes, generally mean treats. The horses were a long way away now. We could see the gang that we’d originally made contact with joining the larger herd in the far corner. They apparently had a conversation, because the entire long-maned, multicolored population of the pasture slowly began to make its way toward us. They came in a stream across the lower edge of the field, and then up the berm alongside the ditch.
The leaders addressed us calmly, assessing what we were about. Our entertainment factor was apparently not very high, and so they returned to grazing and meandering. These horses were just enough interested in us to come over and chat, but not in any way threatened by our presence. I remembered that there are no predators on Iceland, no wolves, no coyotes, no snakes … and very few dressage trainers. While they are genetically hard wired for flight like any other equine, it’s probably been a millennium since an Icelandic horse has seen anything that posed a threat to them. Except perhaps volcanic eruptions, of course. And even with our cameras we probably didn’t look as scary as that.
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