Round Up - Iceland

Sheep Round Up - Rangárvallaafréttur

5 star rating   16 September 2023

Kim who has been on 19 In The Saddle rides. Challenging week working with locals, riding in remote and stunning other wordly landscapes | Absolutely love the Icelandic method of riding, it is very different from the English style and initially takes a bit of getting used to to get the best from your horse. You put your weight much further back in the saddle and use very little leg contact, with much of the impulsion from your seat and hands. Important to grasp as some horses were extremely sensitive to leg pressure.

I was matched with Kristin's horses as I stated I was an intermediate rather than advanced rider. I felt completely comfortable with all 3 of them as they were sensible and calm, easy to control, even if you had to work harder to go faster. They actually taught me to ride properly as trot is an easier gait for them and I had to insist on tolt, rather than it happen naturally with Empla. It made me a better rider by the end of the week as I had to learn which buttons to press to keep her going in tolt! It was also a surprise to experience how each horse was completely different to ride, the tolt was much easier to achieve and maintain in the other two, and Empla's sister was possibly the most comfortable horse I have ever ridden with incredibly smooth paces !

A lot of the shepherd's horses are much more forward going and more challenging, so be honest about your ability. They are keen, willing and have tremendous stamina, plus are very quick to change direction and the pace. They were very well behaved riding in a group, despite coming from several farms, but you need to be happy to ride amongst loose horses at times as the herd sometimes travels with the group. You must be happy at all paces in open country and capable of riding together and independently at all times.

Horses live and work as a herd, so they are corralled and herded into a small pen to catch in the mornings. They are well fed and watered but they work extremely hard so you need to be prepared to get off and walk in some places to let them rest and also to climb up and down some pretty steep canyons and gorges. This can we a bit daunting if you don't like heights or challenging terrain. You will also be expected to change horses up to 2-3 times a day.

The horses cover huge distances, so where possible there are long periods of tolt. Some of the terrain is very rocky and uneven, plus there are numerous river crossings. There are long periods standing around waiting for other groups of shepherds to collect subgroups of sheep, so warm clothing and patience is required!

When driving sheep, a lot of the pace is at walk but with the need for quick reactions and short bursts of speed to recapture any breakaway fractions of the flock, of which there are numerous! Flexibility is the buzz word on this trip, you will be expected to saddle your own horses, although there is minimal fuss, merely flicking off any mud, and one saddle fits all horses!

On the whole, be prepared for some long hours in the saddle (our longest was almost 11hrs from getting on to untacking!), but I am not especially riding fit and found the saddles very comfortable. Worth considering riding knickers and anti-chafing cream!

[In The Saddle - thank you so much for your very comprehensive feedback. We are so glad you enjoyed this riding experience.]

The Riding

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The Accommodation

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The places we stayed are extremely remote, they are log cabins designed for hikers which are heated and comfortable, but this is shared dormitory accommodation with either bunkbeds or mattresses provided on the floor and your sleeping bags on top. Perfectly adequate, but there is quite a lot of noise with floors/walls being thin, so take ear plugs and expect to hear (or join in with) singing and late night drinking and hilarity, plus the inevitable snoring! Sleep is in pretty short supply generally, although some of that was down to my decision to spend hours outside watching the incredible stars and fantastic aurora borealis.

Mornings start around 6am with communal breakfasts of porridge, cereals and cold meats. You will not go hungry on these trips, there are two amazing ladies that cater for the group and you will get hot and hearty, warming local Icelandic food. We ate horse meat for two nights, and as that is what they do in Iceland, and I don't have a problem with that. If you didn't want to partake in that, they would find you something else. If you have any dietary issues they do their best to work round it, but this is basic catering over a small gas stove or BBQ, so don't expect miracles. Personally I though they did an amazing job! There are huge amounts of cake, sweets and candy! The Icelanders love their liquorice, so plenty of variations on that theme.

There was a very long day on the Friday (11hrs) and we finished with a limited meal of lamb and potatoes/ tinned fruit served out of a trailer in the rain which was possibly the only night I was disappointed with the food, but the logistics were such that this was necessary. Not helped by the fact we were all completely exhausted and one lady was projectile vomiting as there was a stomach bug going through us. Luckily I didn't succumb until I got home!

There is no light pollution as it's so remote, so take a torch to find the outside loos in the night, but the upside of that is that the aurora was so fantastic for much of the night, so put on plenty of clothes over the pyjamas (as it was minus 6 outside overnight)! I stood out for at least 2 hours on the 3 nights it was visible, until I couldn't feel my feet or nose, it's hard to drag yourself away, even at 2am!

A shower was unavailable on 3 nights, so worth taking wet wipes. It was outside, and only one for everyone, so patience required, but it was hot! The toilets and washing facilities in the first hut are also outside and the water is cold. This is not camping, but don't expect luxury.

Before Your Holiday

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Fully informed in the booklet as ever! There was a minor change to the cabins as we spent 2 nights at the second one rather than stopping at a different one in the middle, but that was fine and made more sense.

There was no party after the end of the roundup sorting at the round pen. Admittedly it was pissing down with rain and we were waiting for transport, hanging around as we finished much earlier than anticipated. There were noisy celebrations in the hut until 2-3am on the Thursday night after we had corralled the sheep in the holding pen , to which we were invited, but we were all too knackered and went to bed. The Icelanders sure know how to drink and have a good time.

Some of the shepherds have no English and can seem quite reserved at first, but as you join in through the week they open up and we were made to feel a valued part of the group. Kristin was in charge of the 5 guests and was the perfect hostess. She made sure everyone was happy, fed and comfortable with what we were doing and translated when necessary. We were honoured to spend the last night in her beautiful home, shame we were so tired that we couldn't make use of the hot tub nor had time to look at her amazing horse breeding facilities. Please send her thanks as she really did her level best to look after us all, even when the group were ill. She is a remarkable lady, and so passionate about what she does! Her horses were amazing, and she was so informative and inclusive.

How could we improve the way we handled your booking and payment?

It's a shame you no longer a complete holiday package, but having experienced the numerous flight related disasters over the years, I fully appreciate why you have changed to not including the flights! I made sure to have a couple of nights in Reykjavik prior to the ride to ensure if it went pear shaped that I could get to the meeting point at 6am on time. Actually Reykjavik is an amazing city to spend time in, so it is a great idea to go out early and explore as it's small enough to be able to see much on foot, and if you have a few extra days, there are day trips to the highlights. This was about my 8th or 9th Icelandic trip, so I only had a couple of additional days, but never been disappointed, and always something new!

Do you have any other feedback for us?

This is not a ride for the faint hearted or for a novice. It is a fantastic experience, offering some of the most challenging and spectacular riding, in some of Iceland's most beautiful countryside. It is suitable for someone who is fit, flexible, patient, and open to learning new things.

I had the most incredible time, the wonderful Icelandic horses, the incredible scenery and the icing on the cake was 3 nights of the most incredible displays of the northern lights. It's humbling to see what these amazing people do to get these sheep back to their home flocks, and to work as part of that community. Its both exhausting and terrifying at times when you see where these sheep manage to get! I got very good at spotting white dots on top of a mountain, and sometimes the dots were the shepherds with their horses, when it became clear why we all needed high viz jackets with SMALI or shepherd printed on them! One shepherd was 75, his horse was 24, and this was his 61st roundup! He led from the front, and sharing his cognac bottle, despite not speaking a word of English, was a great privilege! He was a true inspiration!

One of my highlights for the week was staggering up and down a steep mountain on foot, chasing 3 sheep until we were all exhausted, and finally rugby tackling the last one with a roar of approval from everyone and a High Five from the shepherd! Teamwork is everything!

Although experience with sheep is not required, you must be open to working as a team, taking instructions and adapting quickly to changes in conditions. Sheep have two ambitions in life, one is to escape and one is to die, and if they do both together, they died happy! They will test your patience to the limits, but delivering almost a thousand sheep to a round-pen, and watching the community come together to deliver them back to their farms of origin for a safe winter, will stay with me forever.