My horse knows the land better than I, so I loosen the reins and let her lead our way across Iceland’s southern highlands. Single file, our small group from Íshestar trots toward the row of mossy green mountains on the horizon, following the ancient Kjölur Route that crosses the barren middle of the country from coast to coast.
Steady hooves crunch over miles of new black volcanic earth, lumpy as a field of crushed Oreos. The tall dome of glistening ice is Hekla—the most active volcano in Iceland and the gateway to Hell, according to ancient lore. The Vikings rode this same cross-country route more than a thousand years ago, and since then, Iceland’s wild-maned horses—small and tough—have remained a separate breed largely untouched by outside influence.
The Icelandic horse is equal parts strong and gentle. In the saddle, even the least experienced equestrian can manage this desolate Game of Thrones scenery thanks to the horses’ agility, while more advanced riders upshift to a jaunty tölt—the rocking fifth gait that is entirely unique to this venerable breed.
I breathe in time with my animal, inhaling the damp northern wind as we skirt the glassy Sauðafellsvatn lake. Iceland is remarkably elemental like this—at any moment, you see and feel the earth, air, water, and fire.
Evening comes, but the summer sun never disappears. Instead the horizon blushes pink and the land glows, lighting up the soulful eyes of these fuzzy beasts with tongue-twister names like Eldbjörn, Hroki, and Töfrandi, which roughly translate to “Fire Bear,” “Arrogant,” and “Magic.” Unsaddled, the horses wander off to graze in a field, while the humans slip into bubbling natural hot pools to soak our tired bodies outside the cozy huts near Hveravellir.
Pleasantly exhausted, we revel in the warmth that emanates from the heart of the Earth, grateful for the horses that carried us here, into the rugged silence of off-road Iceland.
Andrew Evans is a travel writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @WheresAndrew.