Icelandic Horse Trail Riding - June 25-30, 2006, Waitsfield, Vt.

A novice dressage rider with no real trail riding experience, mounted on a strange horse, in the pouring rain, with water already trickling into my boots before we've left the paddock, I began to question the wisdom of this endeavor. Not to worry, who'd have thought riding in a straight line could be so much fun!

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For five days on the Sugarbush Tolt Trek we rode Icelandic horses over country roads, through fields and forests. Many trails were steep, overgrown and rain-slicked where walking on two feet would've been a challenge. These pony-size horses took us up, down and through them easily.

The Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm near Waitsfield, Vermont, breeds, trains, boards and sells Icelandic horses. It's run by Karen, with lots of help from her mother and experienced staff. We stayed at the nearby Mad River B&B, operated by Karen's husband Luc ably assisted by his son and three year old daughter Isabell. Isabell is a cutie who had us all eating out of her hands Soft beds and good food filled the bill after a day of ridding. On Kristall taking a break

While there are other styles, the Icelandic saddles we used only superficially resembled an English dressage saddle. The seat was flatter with a low cantle. The saddle was placed well behind the withers (shoulders for you non-horse people) allowing unrestricted movement of the "shoulders.". Stirrups and leathers were under the flaps and worn long. I should only have such a long leg on Tyler! Reins are short. Bridles were equipped with snaffle bits. Select this link for additional information on Icelandic tack.

With images of tall Nordic blondes in mind I was surprised to see horses in a myriad of color combinations. All but Appaloosa-like coloration can be found. They stand between 12.3 and 14.3 hands (49 to 57 inches) averaging about 800 pounds in weight. Bred to carry a fully armed Viking warrior I was well under their 225 to 250 pound rider weight limit. I found them to be nearly spook proof, patient and affectionate, receiving slobbery kisses in exchange for carrots :-)

To ride properly I had to overcome some of my dressage training. Fortunately my trainer was nowhere is sight! The Icelandic's require more contact on the bit than I'm used to. Sitting further behind the vertical felt strange as well. My first mount, Léttir (light footed), responded with nice turns on the forehand and square shouldered leg yields. While they respond to a direct rein western riders adjusted to the loss of the indirect. We didn't so much ride them as offer suggestions. Often the best aid was "don't get in the way." At gates beyond the walk we rode single file, they're very competitive!

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They are five-gated and I was anxious to try the "tolt", a four-beat gate some compare to a rack or running walk. Léttir decided he would walk and trot but no amount of coaxing would persuade him to use another gate. The third day I rode Kristall and we were off to the races.

Though counterintuitive to my dressage training I entered the tolt by leaning back and maintaining strong contact with the bit to raise the horses head while applying a little leg. Ideally his head and neck elevate, weight is transferred to the hind legs and the back rises. The horse moves laterally, its head bobbing side-to-side, a tell you're tolting. The speed of the tolt can vary from that of a fast walk to a gallop. The sensation is amazing. Aside from a slight left-right motion of my seat in the saddle I was perfectly still. Sitting the tolt was the highlight of my trip. The fifth gate is the "pace" or "flying pace. " Suggested only for experienced Icelandic riders, speeds of up to 30 miles per hour can be reached, we did not ride this gate

 Kristall smiling in his stall

Given an opportunity to canter I gave Kristall dressage canter aids. What I didn't realize was that his little brain was thinking"Oh, he wants to canter! O.K., I'll give him a canter he'll remember!" He stepped out of line and we were soon far ahead of the lead rider, a major faux pas. From then on I just thought, "canter", and gave a little push with my seat. Normally a very cautious rider I wanted to push Kristall on and find out how fast we could go! After a short time in the saddle I became very confident in both mounts.

Joining us on portions of the ride were Darley Newman of Equitrekking, her husband and man of all work Chip Ward and videographer Doug Crawford. Darley rode with us while Chip and Doug filmed, recorded audio and navigated country roads. Staying Wednesday night at the Mad River Inn they joined us for dinner and wide ranging conversation that extended into the night. The Sugarbush Tolt Trek will be one of six episodes in a series of riding vacations produced and hosted by Darley for broadcast on PBS in early 2007. I hope they got my best side.

We spent one night at a second nearby B&B. Arriving soaked to the skin we began using hair dryers on our clothing. Too many hair dryers it turns out as we popped several circuit breakers. Warned by the host to run only two at a time we managed three by turning off most of the lights on the circuits.

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Updated: April 21, 2020