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Photo story: the autumn ritual of wild horse herding in Iceland's Kolbeinsdalur Valley

Everyone is waiting; anticipation lies heavy in the air. A distant rumble of hoofs breaks the silence and over the horizon a herd of more than 500 wild horses thunders into view. Welcome to Laufskálarétt, Iceland’s biggest annual horse round-up.

By Richard James Taylor
photographs by Richard James Taylor
Published 20 Jun 2020, 08:00 BST
The annual Laufskálarétt horse round up in Iceland's Kolbeinsdalur Valley.

You feel it as much as see the annual Laufskálarétt horse round up in Iceland's Kolbeinsdalur Valley. The ground shakes as the horses thunder past.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Welcome to Laufskálarétt

Every year at the end of September, the wild horses that’ve been allowed to roam free throughout the summer months in the valleys surrounding Kolbeinsdalur have to be rounded up and taken back to their farms for the winter, before the harsh weather sets in. The horses are rounded up individually over the preceding days and kept in a valley close to the Laufskálarétt coral, where they’re allowed to rest. The herd grows to approximately 600 once they’ve all been gathered together from the surrounding valleys. Then, on the day of the event, which always falls on the last Saturday in September, the herd are driven over the final valley to the corral in one final push — hundreds of horses, all at full gallop. You feel it as much as see it, as the ground shakes as the horses thunder past.

The farmhands and spectators who’ve gathered to watch the event await the arrival of the herd at the réttir, a circular corral structure where the horses will be sorted. Each farm has its own section into where their horses will be moved, known as the dilkur. A name-plate denotes each farm's dilkur. 

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Before being sorted in the corral, the herd is allowed to rest for a while in the pastures nearby. This allows them an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with old friends. 

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Over the hill 

Once past the final mountain ridge and into the pastures of Laufskálarétt, the horses are allowed to rest, and to mix with many other herds. Meanwhile, farmhands and the spectators that have gathered to watch await the arrival of the herd at the réttir. This is a circular corral structure for sorting of the horses into different farm dilkur, or sections.

The farmhands begin the process of identifying their horses.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Coming home

Once the horses are led into the réttir, the farmhands begin the process of identifying their horses and attempt to guide them into their own dilkur. They can usually identify their own horses by eye. In the past, the horses had unique ear clippings, which enabled the farmhands to identify them when in doubt. This has largely been replaced by microchips, which can be scanned if necessary. It’s tough physical work and only the farmhands are allowed to enter into this part of the corral.

Horse breeder Magnus Andresson and his geldings. 

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

In from the cold 

Horse breeder Magnús Andrésson is reunited with his geldings at Miðsitja Farm, located far inland from the urban trappings of Laufskálarétt town (left). The sorting of the wild herds can be frenetic work and takes a couple of hours to complete. The horses are then led back to their respective farms, where they’ll see out the harsh Icelandic winter. 

The corral is located in the picturesque valley of Laufskálarétt, next to the small village of Holar. The Holar University College, which is a centre of excellence in the region for equine studies and science, stands behind the town's traditional Icelandic church.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Horseshoes mounted in the stables at Midsitja farm.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

The bay of Skagafjordur in the north of Iceland, where the horses roam free during the warmer months. 

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Free rein 

Icelandic horses roam free throughout the warmer months, ensuring they are fit and strong by the end of the summer. There are many benefits to allowing the horses to roam in this way. They also learn how to socialise with other horses, gain experience of rough terrain by climbing hills and crossing rivers, and also learn how to search for the best food. This way of life allows the horses to become brave and independent, important character traits of the Icelandic horse breed. At the end of September, when weather conditions begin to deteriorate, the round-up at Laufskálarétt begins again.  

Icelandic horses roaming free in the Kolbeinsdalur Valley. 

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

How to do it:
Laufskálarétt takes place annually on the last Saturday of September, in the region of Skagafjörður, north Iceland. It’s a four-hour drive on Ring Road 1 from Reykjavik or a 45-minute flight to the regional airport of Akureyri, where you can pick up a hire car for the short drive to Hólar. There’s a wide range of accommodation to choose from in the nearby towns of Varmahlíð and Sauðárkrókur. Horses of Iceland is a government organisation set up to promote the image of the Icelandic horse internationally.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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