Wild horses in a land of summer sun
This is a story about love at first sight.
It started in 1999, at the dawn of the internet, when a Yale employee named Tory Bilski saw an Icelandic horse for the first time. The semi-wild animal’s picture came up by chance after she Googled something else. She was instantly smitten.
“The image stirred my heart in a way that made me feel like I was 10 years old all over again,” said Bilski, communications manager for the Institution for Social and Policy Studies and, on the side, a short-story writer who’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
In her recently published memoir, “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun” (Pegasus Books), Bilski describes the Icelandic horse she fell in love with: “It was a well-muscled horse with a noble head, a compact body, flaring nostrils, and a Fabian black mane swept back from the wind. I knew it was a stallion; he had that tough-guy look to him. It was a horse that I felt some past kinship with, a memory of, a familiarity of place and time.”
The one picture, she said, led to an infatuation with the entire breed, which has inhabited the island for some 1,000 years. Bilski began researching trips to Iceland, determined to ride one of the native horses. Their population is estimated at 97,000.
Then about 40 years old, she had just resumed horseback riding for the first time since her teens, when other interests overcame her fondness for equines. About two years after seeing the horse in the picture, she traveled to Iceland with a tour company to ride her beloved “Icelandics,” as the horses are called. After that trip, she couldn’t wait to go back.
Meanwhile, Bilski found places closer to her Connecticut home, including a farm in the Berkshires, where she could ride Icelandics. There, she made friends with two women who were planning a trip to a horse farm in northern Iceland called Thingeyrar, close to the Greenland Sea. They invited Bilski along, and the 2004 trip was the start of what would become a yearly journey with a core group of women who shared her passion.
“Each June, we left our ordinary life behind, full of work and routine and all the troubles and concerns of adulthood, and ran with the horses in Thingeyrar, so to speak,” Bilski wrote in her book. “… We rode our horses through lupine fields and black volcanic sandbanks. We crossed rivers and lakes and came back, covered in dirt and mud …. We talked incessantly. We ate cake and drank beer. We grew older together; we kept each other young.”
Thick-coated and shaggy-maned, Icelandic horses are the only breed on the island, as laws prohibit any others from being imported. Every summer, many Icelanders allow their horses to roam freely in the mountains, rounding them up again in the autumn. They’re basically half wild.
“They aren’t coddled like horses in the U.S., and even give birth unaided,” Bilski said. “They are hardy, but also calm, and they are curious about and friendly to humans.”
During the early years of her trips, Bilski wrote a blog about her Icelandic experiences, attracting an international following. That inspired her to write the memoir.
The childlike joy she experiences riding Icelandics is not unlike what other adults might feel climbing mountains, surfing, or bicycling, she said.
“Sometimes you get into the right movement with your horse, where everything comes together — the earth and the animal and you just feel entwined. In Iceland, there are these huge vistas where you always can see what’s coming. It’s just the horse in its natural environment. It’s otherworldly. There’s this magical element to the far north, a desolate beauty that appeals to me.”
Her book recounts some trials and tribulations as well as joys — friendships that never materialized, personalities and moods that didn’t gel. But her kinship with her traveling companions was a special comfort.
“Because we didn’t live near each other, we didn’t see each other much during the year. But on that first day in Iceland, we’d get in the car in Reykjavik and start driving north, and for five hours we’d catch up,” Bilski said. “After that, it was horses seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And always the promise of ‘same time next year.’”
Eventually, the journeys ended. But what remained with Bilski is a carpe diem philosophy about life.
“It sounds cliché, but we never know what’s going to come up in our lives. If we are lucky enough to be offered a moment to experience a new adventure, I think we should grab it,” she said. “We need to make spaces and carve out time for those experiences. There are many ways to get there; riding Icelandic horses just happens to be mine.”