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In Iceland, forget the bounce

I noticed a line of people sitting strangely upright on small horses. I couldn't keep my eyes off them.

A friend from St. Louis made me realize that I missed out on something during our visit to Iceland a year or two ago. For some reason I had always hankered after Iceland. I believed it would be the nearest I might get to lunar dust. And it does have a very ashy kind of surface. Not that we went there by lunar module.

It was quite a peripatetic week, nevertheless. We flew there. We took a taxi into Reykjavik because there was a bus drivers' strike. Some tour companies were still operating, though, and we had a stirringly bumpy Land Roverish drive to see geysers, a glacier, and a rainbowy waterfall, and to gaze over the rim of a defunct volcano.

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We also flew in a tiny plane sweeping and swooping over the same terrain. We walked around the capital a lot. And then we were able to take a bus (driven by a great-grandmother who was determined, we surmised, to break the strike but who periodically dozed off) to see the Blue Lagoon hot springs, where intrepid tourists submerge themselves in sulphurous hot water. Not my scene.

But this was not the experience I regret missing.

On a different day, when we were waiting at the geysers for one to blow, we suddenly caught sight of a rapidly moving straight line of people sitting strangely upright on a collection of small horses. I couldn't keep my eyes off them.

They challenged my classical notion of the relative proportions of horse and rider. Jockeys look diminutive atop race horses, yet it seems natural. Generals, sculpted for public monuments on rearing, campaign-hungry chargers, are always in heroic balance. When Van Dyck painted Charles I with his horse, he felt compelled to make the king much taller than he really was, so he wouldn't be belittled by his steed. Quite right.

These tourists out on their Icelandic mounts did, however, look out of proportion - too big - like overgrown children perched on rocking horses or actors on hobbyhorses artfully suggesting a Shakespearean battle scene.

The horses themselves, in a wonderful variety of colors, some with Scandinavian blond manes, looked sturdy and irresistibly appealing, but - and I hope that enthusiasts will forgive me - I laughed. This equine procession seemed to me delightfully funny.

It turns out my St. Louis friend, who has travelled to countless countries (well, about 60) and shows no signs of stopping until she has conquered the lot, sat in an Icelandic saddle for an hour and a half. She is a real tourist.

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I say she "sat." But by her own account, this was not quite the case. She bounced. And when she was telling me about this horsey escapade the other day, I suddenly realized why that line of riders and horses had made me giggle. Nobody was bouncing.

"Our guide told us that you don't bounce up and down when you ride an Icelandic horse," she said. These intrepid little horses have a remarkable and smooth gait. But our St. Louis friend, in her safety helmet, couldn't stop herself from bouncing. Old instincts die hard.

What happened next may have been the nearest to a verbal protest that her horse could muster. He probably wanted to say, "Stop bouncing on me! I don't need it." So, when the riders in front turned right and started to climb an ashy hillside, her horse went on strike. He went straight.

St. Louis did everything she could to persuade him otherwise. The retired sailor at the end of the 12-tourist cavalcade came from behind and gave her well- meaning advice.

"Try pulling your reins to the right," he advised. She did. The horse at first ignored her. Then he just started going round in circles on the spot.

Well, eventually he decided that enough was enough and, resigning himself to a spell of mountaineering, he followed the line. But I think he had made his point, perhaps.

I like the sound of him.

When he went forward quickly again, however, St. Louis's upping-and-downing hadn't stopped. So, because she wanted to do things properly, she asked the man for more help.

"Try putting the front of your feet - not the arches - in the stirrups," the man advised. She did. The horse took no notice.

"Try sitting back more on your derrière," he advised (but not in French.) She tried this, and at last that did it. The horse was presumably impressed. The rest of the ride was as smooth as honey.

So, "if wishes were horses," then I now wish I had taken a ride on an Icelandic horse. A quotation from the United States Icelandic Horse website makes me even keener: "As a riding horse, it is extraordinarily versatile - a capable, willing horse for pleasure riding, and for sport competitions, suitable for adults and children. The horse is tough, independent, yet sociable and easy to get on with, is self-assured and has good staying power."

Oh yes! My sort of horse. I've never learned to bounce.


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