I rode in the two-day réttir, or roundup, as part of a group of riders organized by Eldhestar, one of Iceland’s largest horse farms. Eldhestar (Volcano Horse) specializes in riding tours of Iceland, ranging from half-a-day to nine days. They maintain a herd of over one hundred horses at the farm each summer. Horse tours of Iceland are a practical, and fun way to see the country’s diverse landscape and are especially popular with riders from Scandinavia and Germany.
They advertise the roundup not as a tour, but as an “other activity, recommended for experienced riders only.” Although we rode on the days before and after the roundup, we were in the saddle no more than six hours. The roundup days were spent with the horses, but with significantly less time on horseback. I came away from the experience with much more confidence as a horseperson, that is, handling the horses and being on the ground with them. There was much less riding, but a lot of waiting, and sometime waiting alone with one’s horse. I realized when they say “experienced riders,” that the event is best suited for people who enjoy being around horses in all situations, not just in the saddle.
As I wrote before my departure, the roundup is an annual affair, and the Mountain Herding Directive dictates the weekend in September when each region holds it roundups. Those in contiguous valleys collect sheep on the same day, so if sheep stray over a mountain they will be found. A smaller group of farmers will return to the hills in early October to find any stragglers who have not been forced down into the valleys by deteriorating weather conditions.
The réttir is a necessity for the farmers and the sheep, as well as a social event. In one of the world’s most wired and tech-savvy countries, it is still carried out in much the same way as it was one hundred years ago. For the farmers a century ago, the roundup was a once-a-year opportunity to see others whom harsh geography kept away. Today the farmers do not get together often because of their busy lives: most have other jobs in addition to their agricultural ones. For many farmers the roundup is justification for keeping a few horses on the farm – they may be ridden only a few weeks every September. Practically speaking, horses are not used just for nostalgic reasons: although large tracts of land can be reached by more modernmeans of transportation, the steep hills and mountains are really only accessible by foot or sure-hooved Icelandic equines. It is hard to beat the climbing prowess and speed of the sheep.
Our guide, Geert, aptly described the day’s events as “organized chaos.” The farmers know when and where to assemble and appoint a “mountain king” to run the day. All farmers are expected to participate in some fashion, whether they raise sheep or not. If they choose not to ride, then they can supply hay for the horses, send someone to participate in their place, or transport another farmer’s flock home. It is a real collective effort, in some ways akin to an Amish barn raising.
The roundup is a cultural ritual. There is some bravado involved, and a lot of beer. Yes, copious amounts of beer were consumed each morning. We saw the cases stashed in trucks, in horse trailers, in hay troughs. We saw farmers stow the blue cans of Viking and Thule beer in their saddlebags, which probably held 4 cans per horse. I saw no ill effects of their consumption; perhaps it helped them get down the steep slopes with less hesitation than I felt. But there were those sheep that got away on the second day…
Out of the approximately 30 riders involved, I counted myself among eight women, including the four in my group. The males ranged in age from about 13 to senior citizens. We all, riders and horses, felt a real rush of adrenalin, riding out in a big pack each morning. Some of the horses prance and dance in the face of the riders’ attempts to rein them in; others race to the front; some contentedly follow; but all join in the symphony of hooves beating out the 4- count rhythm of the tölt on the gravel road. I could not wipe the smile off my face.
The first day of the roundup was relatively mild; we were lucky to have good weather – that is no rain, no heavy winds and excellent visibility, even if the sky was not always blue. We would concentrate our efforts on the east side of the volcano Hengill, in an area known as Hellisheidi. (An interesting aside – we rode this day in the shadow of the world’s second largest geothermal power station, and the largest in Iceland. In some of the pictures you will see high tension wires that deliver the electricity to Reykjavik and in others look for the puffs of steam coming out of the earth. Just another wonderful extreme of this truly unique country.)
We set out in different directions, our group to the east, and met more riders at a truck stop. We unsaddled our horses, put them in a makeshift paddock, and headed inside for coffee, tea, pastries, and pancakes. Here was our first break after only 2o minutes of riding!
Half an hour later we were back in the saddle. We headed back to the west and soon left the gravel road for an ancient lava field across a flat plain. The horses instinctively knew where to step amongst the black volcanic rocks on the sponge-mossy ground. One by one we stopped, as instructed by Geert, and dismounted to form a line of horses and riders covering a vast distance. A space of maybe thirty yards separated the pairs. Far across the valley rose steep hills, on the other side of which riders had set out toward us. Our job was to hold the line steady until sheep were driven down those mountains and in front of us. Our wing would then move up behind them driving them toward the rétt, or roundup pen, at our starting point. My job was to stand still until the rider to my immediate left started to move forward, at which time, I would mount and move forward the same distance. Our group was on the far side of the wing; we would have to wait the longest to move. There was a significant amount of confusion, as all but one of us was new to this endeavor. We were perhaps a bit impatient: the desire to ride and participate was strong. When was the last time any of us had stood still waiting for so long?
So, we waited for two hours. I occasionally climbed in the saddle only to find that the riders to my left soon stopped, forcing me to dismount. The horses were very patient as long as we stood on the ground; my horse, aptly named Goliath, happily munched on the tender moss and occasional tufts of long grass left behind by the sheep. He was eager to move and work whenever I got on. He knew what he was supposed to do. We watched in the far distance as Geert and Johnny, one of the farmers, headed back to bring in some sheep they discovered behind them. I must confess that more than once I thought, “Okay, this is supposed to be a sheep roundup. Where are the sheep? I came all this way and I don’t see any.” But of course, just as my faith waivered, there they were, at first just a few pale dots on the far hills – it seemed as though they were a million miles away. Eventually the line started to move and more sheep appeared, as we headed around boulders and over the many small hiccups on the field. We heard the baaing of a few hidden sheep, to be discovered once we navigated the terrain. Forward progress was slow, keeping us all at a walk, but that advantageously allowed the cowboys across the valley to drive the much larger numbers of sheep toward us.
The rider to my immediate left, Daniela, and I, were excited to come upon a few sheep so, so our flank began to move perhaps too quickly. The vast majority of sheep were far away and seemed to be covered by the riders on that side, so we kept going. Apparently they called for us to slow down, but we heard nothing and begin to drive a line of sheep closer toward our goal. Luckily, no harm was done, and we soon all met a few hundred yards from the rétt. Riders moved the sheep into a large temporary enclosure. We tölted in en masse and released the horses in a smaller paddock, enjoyed a quick sandwich and a lot of water, and then set out to sort the sheep, the highlight of the day for the surrounding community.
The good news was that there were more sheep rounded up than in the last couple of years – almost 500; that was also the bad news. Flock size was on the rebound, after an outbreak of some sort of illness a few years ago, which no one was able to name. The community built a new rétt in 2006, but the number of sheep this year was simply too large to handle efficiently. Its rectangular design allowed truck access from only one end, so the sorting was halted numerous times to load sheep and clear out space for the rest to be sorted.
But everyone took all this in stride. Children scaled the sides and balanced on the planks between enclosures. Old friends caught up and farmers looked with satisfaction at the growth of the spring lambs. I had the opportunity to talk with sheep farmers about their flocks and how they care for them. We exchanged notes; one was amazed that we have to trim hooves here. Because the Icelandic sheep roam free for part of the year, the rocky terrain naturally files their hooves. Another could not believe I had a ewe thirteen years old. They simply would not keep a sheep past her productive years. Some raised the animals purely for meat; others prized the wool as well. But as far as I could surmise, there is no market for sheep’s milk in Iceland.
The sorting began with a few farmers replicating what we had done on horseback but now on foot – forcing them to a corner of the large, temporary paddock that led to the opening at one end of the sorting pen. After their initial hesitation the sheep were persuaded to enter, usually after one brave ram lead the way. Once the pen was filled, we all climbed in and started grabbing sheep the Icelandic way: grip the sheep by the horns, straddle its back and drag it to the door whose sign displays the number on the sheep’s ear tag. By the end of the afternoon, most participants sported the same bruises that marked my inner thighs: badges of honor attesting to my strength in subduing these very spirited, springing animals. Nearly all had horns, but for those that didn’t, or for the smallest ones, I used the method we employ at home with our sheep, a thumb in the mouth through the opening behind the bottom front teeth; it did not prove a successful strategy for maneuvering the sheep to a far corner of the pen. We use it here to get the sheep off balance and seated on its hind end.
Again, we witnessed various feats of bravado – as farmers wrestled the largest, strongest rams. But don’t let size trick you, some of the smaller ones put on worthy struggles to evade human contact. And speaking of size, small children get in on the act as well. People fall over, people get back up. I was on my knees more than once.
We couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the animals – whose seemingly peaceful, undisturbed summers came to a screeching halt; distraught lambs were separated from their mothers. Imagine the sound of 100 bleating sheep squeezed tightly together and then asked to go up a ramp into a dark truck. They shook and quivered. It is a sudden, perhaps upsetting end to a quiet season and inevitably to many of their short lives, but I think my flock would still envy the way their Icelandic cousins graze freely, virtually without predator, for most of their lives. (The arctic fox will prey upon the smaller lambs.)
We all joked that we would never forget the faces of the farmers attached to tag number 46A2 (the largest number of sheep), 27A2, 65A2, 47A2. A few stray sheep had made their way into our valley as well; we found some numbers that no one could identify. Someone took these home and would make inquiries. Those numbers swirled through my sleeping mind that night. I won’t forget the weathered faces of the hardworking farmers, smiling, calling out, thanking me for my help. I brought in one handsome black ram to the delight of its owners, to find out that it was just a lamb. He was the daughter’s prize, a single, huge lamb born to its mother last spring. We went home at 4 pm; in time to bring Nico, Eldhestar’s chef, back to prepare dinner for the hotel’s many weekend guests. He had joined in on his first réttir. I found my way to the hot pot and soaked my bruised legs in the warm water wondering what adventures tomorrow would hold.