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How to experience life on a working horse ranch in southern Iceland

Saddle up to learn about Iceland’s equine obsession at Torfhús Retreat, offering turf-roofed cabins and private geothermal pools on a working horse ranch, just a short detour from the geological drama of south Iceland’s Golden Circle route.

Alex Hoop with two of the horses at Torfhús Retreat, which offers traditional turf-roof cabins on a working horse farm.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty
Published 20 Sept 2021, 12:31 BST, Updated 20 Oct 2021, 08:43 BST

The dust from Siggi’s car is still settling on the road as a dozen young stallions approach. They look not unlike The Cure in their heyday, all big hair and inscrutability. These boys don’t cry, either — not even when they’re biting each other and stampeding around the field. As they edge towards us, owners Siggi Jensson and partner Alex Hoop watch on with something like parental pride.

We’re just outside their couple’s remarkable Torfhús Retreat, a luxury hotel that could also be called a ranch. The horses spend their formative years in fields around the site before going into proper training.The couple explain that these Icelandic horses are all three or four years old, but are yet to really start their training. The next 12 months will represent a steep learning curve for the horses, as they go from untamed animals to athletes fit for show. “Some people think it’s somewhat controversial that we wait until they’re four,” says Alex. “But really, they’re only ready by then.”

By contrast, on mainland Europe some of the most successful racing thoroughbreds have their most prominent seasons as three-year-olds. It’s not uncommon for them to be retired to stud after that. The horses in front of me certainly don’t look like they’re at retirement age. 
How best to describe their appearance?For an total equine ignoramus like me, it’s pretty hard to say. They’re not unlike Shetland ponies, but scaled up. Their temperament is, generally, much more placid and affable than the average thoroughbred, too. When they run, especially in competition, perhaps their most singular quality is their tölt, a particular type of gait during which their front legs thunder down onto the turf as though trying to crush the heads of a thousand snakes. Their manes are uniformly extraordinary, and their winter coats are so thick and cosy as to look like knitted jumpers. 

Siggi and Alex take great pains to explain to me that there are plenty of specifics, too. In fact, the world of the Icelandic horse is as involved and complex as that of their counterparts on the European mainland. Speaking of those foreigners, they’re banned. “Yes, it’s true,” explains Siggi. “No other horses can come here to Iceland.” “And if ours go outside of the country, they can’t come back,” adds Alex. “It’s important to keep the bloodline pure.” The couple have a neat habit of dovetailing their conversation like this. 

Alex is from Austria via Liechtenstein, and Siggi is Icelandic through and through. “More or less all my life, I’ve had Icelandic horses,” he says. The couple live in what was once just a summer house on the edge of their ranch and the wider Torfhús property. 

The traditional huts at Torfhús Retreat are crafted from local stone, reclaimed wood and turf.

Photograph by Torfhús Retreat

Built in the style of traditional Icelandic turf-roof houses, it’s a retreat just off the much-visited Golden Circle, the popular tourist route offering a sampler of some of Southern Iceland’s easiest-access attractions. Each of these beautiful cottages has its own hot plunge pool — in the dark months of winter, guests can lie in the soothing water and watch the Aurora Borealis flickering in the sky above.

“Many of the guests are interested in the horses and some want to ride as well. We can also arrange for them to go to Gullfoss if they want,” says Siggi, referring to the region’s most popular waterfall. 

“Or further, if they like,” adds Alex. “We leave it up to them, depending on what they’re comfortable with.” In any case, the horses are often in fields surrounding the cottages, adding to its sense of belonging to a different era.

On my final night in Torfhús, the couple bring an iPad to dinner in the hotel’s outstanding onsite restaurant. The menu changes every night and though tonight’s meal is a spectacular symphony of Asian fusion food, the owners are focused on the screen. One of the country’s Icelandic horse shows is on and the couple have entered three of their animals. While Siggi and Alex watch the live stream, I watch them. It’s clear their eyes see things mine can’t — almost imperceptible movements of the horses’ heads seem like crushing disappointments. Conversely, when the tölt is precise, they both beam with pride. Regardless, none of the judges’ scores seem entirely satisfactory.

“We won’t lose any sleep over it,” says Alex with a wave of her hand, but for once, Siggi has nothing to add. 

How to do it

A three-night stay at Torfhús Retreat starts at £,1395 per person based on two people sharing a Torfbaer Suite on a B&B basis, including a light lunch each day and gastronomic dinner on the arrival night, international flights with Icelandair and four-wheel-drive car hire for the duration. abercrombiekent.co.uk  

Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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