Have you ever wondered if there are any real wild horses in Iceland? And if there are, are they up in the mountains all year round? Let me take you Laufsskálarétt, the biggest horse round up in Iceland – a famous yearly event that brings the horses back home safely before the winter sets in.
The magnificent Icelandic horse has been pure bred for more than 1000 years. They are smaller than most horse breeds, but surprisingly, they are as strong as some big horses - in fact, they can carry a Viking man with no trouble. The unique Icelandic horse has 4–5 gaits and can come in 40 different colours. Iceland has a long history with its horses - these furry friends represent the country and culture well.
Laufskálarétt is the biggest horse round up in Iceland. It takes place every year during the last weekend of September in Hjaltadalur, a valley in Northwest Iceland close to Sauðárkrókur town. The event attracts around 3000 guests and not only the curious tourist – it’s a very popular event amongst the Icelanders as well. People travel far to come and witness this and it doesn’t come as a surprise – not only is it one of the main events of the year in Northwest Iceland, it really is a spectacular sight to see all of those hundreds of beautiful horses running down the hill and back home from the wilderness.
During the weekend farmers, horse breeders and other horse loving locals who are up for a bit of an adventure, join together to bring these horses back from the mountains. The weekend is filled with laughter and merry times, lots of action by bringing the horses back and sorting them out, with a big dance party afterwards to celebrate the successful round up.
It all starts on Friday with a horse show in a riding hall called Svaðastaðir, located just on the outskirts of Sauðárkrókur. At the show, local farmers and breeders entertain visitors by showing off their most stunning horses, and there is music with some locals start getting merry already.
Saturday is when the real deal happens – the riders start riding out to the wilderness at dawn, chase and round up the horses and then bring them back, usually around 11:30 am. I would recommend to get there a bit before that – 10:45am has been working really well for me – then you can secure yourself a good spot next to the fence or the corral to get the best view of everything. It’s quite an insight to the Icelandic people’s lives to see them participate in this – some come over with their horses, some with empty trailers ready for their wild horses, some are here just to watch and others to sell coffee and kleinur, the Icelandic doughnut. Seeing a bit of brennivin, a signature Icelandic liquor, being passed around with a bag of dry fish is a very common sight here. Together with jolly singing of traditional Icelandic songs and little kids running around in their cute little Icelandic sweaters, it creates a very special atmosphere to the whole valley.
The excitement reaches the top once the horses start running down the hill and you’ll hear the riders yelling “hop hop hop” behind the horses to keep them moving. It’s finally time to get them all down and push them to the big corral where the sorting out happens. After watching the mayhem of the sorting out, one might think that it really doesn’t come gentle here, but this is normal. It’s the Icelandic way, there’s no time to wrap things in cotton wool and the sooner the horses are back to their own farms the sooner the party can start and life can move on.
Seeing many farmers chase up a stubborn or even a scared horse around the pen for a few rounds before getting them through the right gate into their own corral will leave anyone who’s watching very impressed – these Icelanders have been doing this for decades and know exactly what to do. They recognise their own horses through them all, and take the chance of grabbing one’s mane or head and pushing them to the right corrals before they run away again. These majestic animals have just spent the whole summer out in the wild, just grazing and reconnecting with their wild and untamed side without any human contact for months. Things can indeed get quite wild here, but it’s all part of the fun.
Once the horses are all sorted out, people start leaving almost as fast as they came there. Farmers and breeders drive their horses back to their farms and people go back home and get ready for the evening’s dance party that will be held in the same riding hall as the Friday’s show. The dance party is all about celebrating the success of the round up and getting all of the horses safely back home. The kids are back at home sleeping, and adults here to see friends and enjoy the music. Brennivin is being passed around again and many of the Icelanders are still wearing the same Icelandic sweater from the round up – it’s a party that will re-connect many Icelanders who share their love for the horses.
How to get there:
The round up takes place close to Hólar University in a valley called Hjaltadalur, which is located on a fjord called Skagafjörður in Northwest Iceland. Once driving from the road nr. 1, you’ll need to take up road nr. 76 and drive that until you reach a smaller road (nr. 767) on your right hand side. Carry on 767 about 5 min (3 miles) and you’ll see the Laufskálarétt corral on the right hand side. Google maps should be able to find the Laufskálarétt corral and give you exact location. In general, the drive from Akureyri is about 1h 40 min, and from Reykjavik around 4,5 hours.
What to bring:
Camera for sure! This fun and yet slightly crazy event can’t be missed by your camera. Also bring warm clothes as you’ll be standing outside for some hours and good shoes like hiking boots. A little cash is good to prepare with you also in case you’ll fancy a coffee and kleinur. I highly recommend tasting kleinur by the way!
Good to know:
The information center in Varmahlid can give more details about the exact dates although in general the event is held during the last weekend of September.
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.