Horseback riding in south Iceland

See the well-trodden south of Iceland a little differently from the back of a horse.

Horseback riding in South Iceland

Broadly speaking, the area of south Iceland extends from Reykjavik in the west to Jökulsárlón to the east and is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the central highlands to the north. It’s an easily accessible area, popular with travelers. It incorporates two of the country’s three national parks, Þingvellir and Vatnajökull, though south Iceland’s dramatic beauty extends beyond those boundaries.

Black sand, rugged lava fields, and wild waterfalls

Many of the country’s most beautiful black sand beaches can be found in this part of Iceland, such as those near Vik, and some are suitable for horse riding. When riding on soft sand beaches as we do on our Snæfellsnes tour, offer experienced riders the chance to gallop, while beginners will be less afraid if they’re reassured of a soft landing should they dismount awkwardly. In addition to the lava fields and glaciers which characterize south Iceland, you’ll also find a plethora of breathtaking waterfalls, such as Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss.

The Golden Circle on horseback

It’s possible to combine horse-riding out of Reykjavik with a visit to the popular Blue Lagoon or build time in the saddle into a tour of the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle route makes a good multi-day option for less experienced riders who may be daunted by the more challenging terrain of the highlands. Trails follow the riverside paths to Gullfoss waterfall and hiking the area surrounding the Almannagjá gorge within Þingvellir National Park. Parts of the Golden Circle rides depart year-round. In autumn and winter, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights from the saddle if luck is on your side, whereas in summer the Midnight Sun is almost as compelling.

Geothermal areas are accessible by convenient trails close by enabling visitors to pair a stint on the move with relaxation in one or more of the natural hot springs found in this part of Iceland. There’s surely no better way to ease those aching muscles. A popular option is to ride across Hrunaheiði to Iceland’s oldest swimming pool, a secret geothermal lagoon near Flúðir.

The challenge of the southern highlands

Thanks to the more rugged terrain and unpredictable weather, horse riding in the highlands is usually a multi-day activity and as such more suited to visitors who have ridden many times before. The breathtaking landscape of Thórsmörk, the Fjallabak Nature Reserve and Landmannalaugar are highlights of the southern part of the Icelandic uplands, boasting barely weathered lava fields, geothermal pools, and mineral-rich mountains. Experienced riders should consider timing their visit to coincide with the annual sheep roundup. In the south, sheep are gathered into the Landmannaafréttur communal sheepfold near Landmannalaugar geothermal area and driven across the black sand and ash deposited by one of Iceland’s most fearsome volcanoes, Mount Hekla.

While many come to the highlands to hike, there’s a lot to be said for putting your trust in a sure-footed horse that knows the trails far better than you ever could. Today’s Icelandic horses descend from those brought over by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. What they lack in stature, they make up for in strength, patience and reliability, adapting well to the changeable conditions.