Iceland ProCruises: Whales, horses, sheep, mosquitoes and crossing the Arctic Circle

Icelandic horses are about the size of ponies but they are considered horses.
Icelandic horses are about the size of ponies but they are considered horses.

ABOARD THE OCEAN DIAMOND – Imagine Iceland without horses, those beautiful short husky creatures that look so striking on the country’s landscape.

That’s the way it was until the Vikings came more than 1,000 years ago and brought  Nordic horses with them. Although they are smaller than most horses, I learned shortly after arriving in Iceland not to call them ponies.

“Icelanders get very offended when you say they are ponies,” said Hermann Guõmundsson, expedition team member on the Ocean Diamond. “They are much bigger than ponies.”

Not sure about that. But I will agree that the special Icelandic breed of horses is friendly, spirited, sturdy, intelligent and very important to Icelanders. The horses are known for being surefooted and able to cross rough terrain, which certainly describes much of Iceland.

Icelandic horses are purebreds from the days of the Vikings.
Icelandic horses are purebreds from the days of the Vikings.

Today, aboard the Ocean Diamond we had a relaxing day watching whales. We did see several and people got photos of their tail fins, in between “oohs” and “aah.”

I also talked with expedition members to learn more about Icelandic horses, sheep and the fact that there are no mosquitoes in Iceland.

“That is true,”  Hermann said. “Iceland has no mosquitoes.”  What a blessing that must be compared to the hordes of flying pests at my Hoosier home.

“There are 75,000 horses in Iceland,” Hermann said. “They are used for sheep herding,  for riding and for horse shows.”

                                       What makes the Icelandic horse unusual

Besides their compact size, what makes the Icelandic horse unusual is that it has five walking styles and more than 100 color options. An average Icelandic horse weighs about 800 pounds and stands about 4 ½ feet tall.

Although horseback riding was a shore option one day on our Ocean Diamond cruise,  I signed up for hiking instead. Passengers who did go horseback riding said the gait of the Icelandic horse is so smooth that their guide told them they could drink a glass of champagne while on horseback and not spill a drop. Of course, our riders were not drinking alcoholic beverages.

The Icelandic breed has developed a double coat for extra insulation in cold weather and has a full mane and tail. That’s why they look so shaggy and huggable, almost like a child’s toy animal.

Along with the typical gaits – walk, trot and canter/gallop –  the Icelandic horse has a four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt. It produces great speed very quickly, sort of like a gallop. The tölt lets a rider cover ground very quickly and comfortably. Even a 20 mph speed on a tölt gait can produce a bounce-free ride.

Whale watching was the activity for the day.
Whale watching was the activity for the day.

The flying pace is a high-speed gait which can reach up to 30 mile per hour, sort of like flooring your car for fast acceleration. This gait is used only for short distances and can equal the speed of a full gallop. At one interval in the flying pace, all four hooves are suspended off the ground. Amazing animals.

Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy. In their native country they have few diseases. To help keep it that way, Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return. This also keeps the Icelandic horse a purebred, one of the most purely bred horses in the world, so isolated and exclusive to Iceland for more than 1,000 years.

Sheep are also prevalent in Iceland. Hermann said there are more sheep than people. “Iceland has 475,000 sheep, as compared to a population of  a population of 325,700 people,” he noted.

A surprise toast of schnapps while crossing the Arctic Circle.
A surprise toast of schnapps while crossing the Arctic Circle.

“The wool of the sheep is very important to Icelanders,” Hermann said. “It is a special kind of wool and it is what we use for our sweaters.”

The wool is warm, waterproof, breathable and practically indestructible. Icelandic wool consists of two types of fibers – inner ones which are insulating, soft and warm – and outer ones which are long, glossy and water repellant.

Today we also celebrated the Ocean Diamond passing the line of the Arctic Circle at about 6 p.m. I definitely prefer the Ocean Diamond’s way of celebrating that event. Some ships dump ice on passengers to mark the crossing, I’ve been told. Not a pleasant thought to me.

On the Ocean Diamond, however, servers appeared with complimentary glasses of schnapps. “Skol,” expedition leader Örvar Már Kristinsson toasted as we drank the warming liquor and celebrated our special day in incredible Iceland.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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