Based on the literature review and our autobiographical reflections we came up with the categories of trail attributes, trail experience and the economic trail. Analysis yielded the further categories of open spaces, experiencing landscapes, history and heritage. Further, the category of trail attributes was broken up into different attributes such as rough, natural, constructed. The category trail experience proved too restrictive as respondents speak of not only experiencing the trail, but also the experience emotions, the movement of the horse and the weather, to name a few topics discussed as experience. Hence, we speak of experiencing and subcategories of experience aspects (Figure 1
3.1. Trail Attributes
A recurring theme in the interviews is diversity, the respondents want trails that are not uniform but varied in terms of terrain, soil, gradient and the surrounding landscape. There is divergence in preference for highland and mountainous trails (B-2). C-1 admits “I guess I’m more of a flatland rider”.
The trail that is easy on horses and riders, that is, soil that is firm yet yielding such as riverbanks, sands and mud trails are preferred by most. The natural trail, explained in more detail below is an ideal that many respondents refer to.
What all the respondents agree on is that trails for horses should be separate from vehicle traffic and preferably at a distance from roads and other traffic.
3.1.1. Trail Experience
“I love it so much, it is such fun, everybody, everybody likes to take long rides and herd horses, it is just such fun and you experience the land totally differently and I just love it!” (A-7).
Riding is a multisensory experience and our respondents talk often about sight, sound and touch when describing how they experience trails. On horseback you sense “the scent of flora, of the soil and of the horse” making for a complex experience. Further being outside, exposed to the weather conditions, pleasantly as “the wind is tickling your cheek” (B-2) or as A-4, a horse tourism entrepreneur recalls a trip: “The weather was horrible, as horrible as can be in Iceland, but we just took shorter rides and proved to ourselves that everything is possible. Researcher: Is it part of the experience? It is part of the experience, we are not only selling horseback riding we are selling Icelandic nature and the horse in all its glory and a kind of moment that you can‘t plan. It just is, and we are catching it.”
C-1 talks about the sounds of hoofs on the trail; beating like a drum on firm riverbanks, the crunch of the gravel on lava trails and the soft thuds on a dry mud trail in the tussocks.
Riding in nature also affords quiet, when you stop you only hear birds, breathing, wind and water, “except maybe for a jet in the high skies” says Valur A-21, horse farmer, who claims that this quiet connects him deeply to nature. Other respondents claim that the quiet in the mountain pastures is a unique experience (A-16; B-2).
An important part of the experience is how far you ride and how long you stay in the saddle. A-4 says that she has thought a lot about what is the perfect day trip or length of day in the saddle to keep the experience enjoyable and safe. Particularly as accidents tend to happen at the end of the day when horses and people are tired. She has as many horse tourism entrepreneurs, shortened the distances traveled and the number of hours in the saddle from what was usual for domestic riders experienced at long rides. C-1 likes her comfort and finds 3–5 hours in the saddle and traveling about 30 km optimal.
3.1.2. The Wide, Open Spaces
One of our respondents explains that as a rider, you are elevated, which affords a better overview and brings into focus the landforms along the trail, whereas when hiking the flora is the immediate experience (B-1). The same respondent summarized the experience in Keywords: “View/Wide horizons—scent—speed/pace—movements/motion—trails/history—friend/connection”.
“It is best to ride away from other traffic and enjoy the landscapes; a good tour takes you through different kinds of terrain over hill, over dale as it were” (C-1). C-2 agrees that riding along busy roads is not interesting, particularly not with a herd of free running horses.
When explaining the constraints he feels in his region one of the horse farmers said “we don´t have the wide open spaces that you have in Húnavatnssýslur and Skagafjörður, where you can have herds of horses grazing” (A-3). A horse tourism entrepreneur considers himself fortunate in having enough land to be able to give experienced riders a bit of mountain experience, while the less experienced stay on the lowland trail (A-5).
The opportunity to range far and wide is seen as important for the horses, while it is also cherished by humans. The horse farmers we interviewed maintained that it is an important element in the training of horses in Iceland to let them stay in herds, that young animals learn from older animals how to be in the land and how to socialize. We need to emphasize that “the horse is a clever animal, as it can be when it is fostered in an environment where it must take care where and how to step and becomes strong from running in the mountains” (A-6). A-12 a horse entrepreneur agrees the terrain that makes the Icelandic horse so foot sure and reliable in different types of trails “it’s no asphalt tracks here”. A-16 talks about the different quality of life for an Icelandic horse in Iceland and other countries “To be a horse in this environment is like being born in Paradise and when you leave Paradise you become just another horse”.
Her colleague A-7 agrees that the horse must have the freedom to run and roam “without the human always tagging along”, that the horse must be allowed to be a horse, to be a herd animal and to be resilient and able to manage in nature without constant human interference. She feels sorry for the big horses in other countries who have lost this connection to other horses and nature “they are completely helpless, many of them and they can’t even be together. They are kept in cages and cannot even meet other horses and such, I think it is terrible!” The owners need to be liberated as well, she mentions a group of women she met overseas and “they had just been plodding along in a riding hall in private lessons with an instructor—never went out to ride in the woods”.
All the horse farmers also maintain that herding and traveling with horses is part of the training, claiming that it is not only important for the motor exercise but also in socializing the horse to run with a herd. However, those living in the peri-urban and urban areas feel more hemmed in and constrained, unable to give their horses the mountain experience that traditionally was so important. “You worry all the time if you have suddenly ridden into a garden or a golf course!” A-13 says.
3.1.3. Experiencing Landforms with the Horse
The Rough Trail
When riding the respondents feel and adapt to the trail with the horse; “you try to follow the motion of the horse, to merge with it—it’s not so easy to merge with the motions of a Land Rover!” respondent B-1 says about riding rough trails. C-1 talks about working with the horse on the steep track, shifting the weight to ease the ascent and descent for both parties as a kind of bonding. This is however challenging and even unsafe for the inexperienced rider. One of the horse farmers we interviewed explains why bringing visitors to gather sheep and horses in his area is not a good idea:
The land is difficult, there are creeks and you cannot cross wherever … and they often have trouble getting the horses across the brooks and creeks. The land is steep and difficult—we need land that is more flat for this! (A-3).
In one of our pilot interviews, an experienced rider shares the concern that tour groups cannot handle all types of terrain: “I love crossing rivers and lakes, but you cannot plan for swimming the horses when traveling in a group” (B-2). However, the rough terrain may entail different roles for the equine travel companion; that of a packhorse and to assist hikers for instance with crossing rivers and as a safety measure in case of exhaustion or injury. This is seen by some as an opportunity to develop hiking in mountainous and difficult areas (A-3).
An important part of riding is experiencing how the horse understands and responds to the land. C-2 points out that different kinds of surface and length of rides is chosen for different horses, depending on their age, training conditions and preferred gaits. Young and unexperienced horses are ridden for short distances and more experienced horses are used for longer and more challenging rides.
Many tales have been told of how horses have a keener sense of weather, better orientation and are more adept at choosing the path than humans. C-1 has personal experience of this, leading her unwilling horse into a bog that looked firm but the horse wanted to avoid. Needless to say, the horse was right.
The Gentle Trail
“Of course it is bliss to ride soft mud trails in between (although neither in drought or rain) and grassy riverbanks, not to mention the soft sands, but not only this type of land, it is absolutely essential that the soil is varied but not so stony that horses hurt themselves” (B-2).
“But the best is riding shallow water on tidal sands, when the water reaches just above the hoof and the sand is firm and the horses are frisky” (C-1).
3.1.4. The Natural Trail—Trailing Naturally
Many respondents mention freedom, not being constrained by a road, which is not always well adapted to the landscape, and preferring old and traditional trails that follow the landforms more naturally than new roads: “The old riding trails lie more naturally in the land, where it was most easily traveled. The trail gives you information that is not perhaps so obvious—the bog that it takes you around may seem harmless, but why then did the trail go around?” (B-1). C-1 talks also about this, “I like riding old trails made by hooves of horses and sheep on grasslands and moors. The riding trails made now are not terribly interesting, they are too often just by roads with vehicle traffic and the gravel and sand is sometimes really heavy and made for slow going. Sometimes good old mud trails have been damaged with gravel, which I do not like, and it rather invites other traffic, motorbikes and four-wheel drives. It is best to ride away from other traffic and enjoy the landscapes; a good tour takes you through different kinds of terrain over hill, over dale as it were” (C-1).
The importance of avoiding the driving traffic is clearly indicated. B-2 prefers riding in the highlands and mountainous areas: “It is best when the riding trail is mostly in uninhabited areas and at least far away from asphalt and vehicle traffic. And that it affords you the opportunity to explore—to learn about your land on the tour”. “I’m not excited about riding or herding horses next to the highway” says A-20, horse farmer and trainer. C-2 also claims that riding on asphalt roads can be harmful for horses and even riders as the asphalt is slippery particularly when it is wet. It is also bad for the feet of the horses as it is a very hard substrate.
3.1.5. Human and Animal Impact—History in the Trail
“We would never have been able to settle this land if we hadn’t had the horse with us” Kjartan A-14, horse tourism entrepreneur says about Icelanders. The connection with the land is not only about landforms but also history “When you ride them you also experience the history in the land, you understand better the connection between humans and nature and you understand nature better” (B-1). “Great fun to think through and try out traditional, ancient riding trails. History matters” (B-2).
A-6 is a horse farmer and for her riding through parishes where only the old roads and the ruins remain, is special and she believes very attractive for horse tourists as well. She uses gravel roads for training her horses as the terrain around her farm is wetland and does not have a lot of old trails that are still open but she thinks it would be interesting to reopen them.
C-1 is concerned when seeing new trails emerge in lava, destroying moss and prefers to hear the crunch of the gravel on existing trails in such landscapes. However, “multiple paths side by side in the tussocks don’t bother me; they just suggest that this is an old trail used by animals and people for centuries even”.