The Horse Roundup

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So the big day arrived, it was roundup time!

The morning dawned fine and chilly, overnight snow had dusted the mountain tops, the first snows of the oncoming winter, bringing a timely reminder that summer was over and winters icy grip was just round the corner.

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We’d spent the week preparing for the event, working out exactly how we were going to film 500 wild horses and 200 ridden horses as they thundered from one valley and moved about 4km to the pen where they would be sorted and returned to their owners. There they would spend the winter down on the lowlands around the farm.

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The Icelandic Horse is more than capable of enduring the winters here, but only the fittest would survive, so the youngsters are given the best possible chance of making it through the winter by living in the slightly more comfortable lowlands and away from the harsh extremes of the mountains.

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Hallador and Snorri’s family and friends had all gathered at the farm house, their horses saddled and ready to go, children laughing and playing, there was a great buzz about the place. The roundup is a very big event in the social calendar here in Skagafjordur, this is a very prosperous agricultural area and the only county in Iceland where horses outnumber people so there is a very rich tradtition of horsebreeding and horse training. With such a long history. Its no surprise that to the families that have lived here for centuries, Horsemanship is a highly prized skill, and something that Hallador and his family have running deep and strong in their blood.

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The day started for them with a huge pot of lamb stew (one of the farms own lambs, no supermarket imports here) prepared by Maya very early that morning. It was delicious, and was something we’d come back too at the end of the day for the après roundup party, washed down for the riders with a bit of fortifying Brennevin and beer. Then the group (about 30 family and friends) mounted up and set off for the mountains, to join the other riders rounding up the horses.

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Much of our time had been spent planning the filming operation. It was turning into a bit of a military operation, with bits of paper, maps and weather reports lying around the place. There’s only the 3 of us, with the option for some fixed cameras (gopro and timelapse), we had no “air support” (though someone did fly a camera drone over the roundup bizarrely, much to the consternation of the horses) so everything had to be done from the ground. With a river crossing, a huge valley, a roundup pen and over 2000 people to work around, we had our work cutout!

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Neil drew the short straw (and took time off from his riding lessons, plus he’s the youngest and fittest of us) and hiked up the nearest mountain to set up a timelapse and film into the next valley, whilst Ian and myself stopped filming bullocks and went off down towards the river crossing in the van, buoyant in the hope we could predict exactly where the horses were going to cross. A couple of GoPro’s were placed in likely spots and were ready (sort of!), the wait began.

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Now as waiting goes, this has to be one of the most spectacular places to play the game. The snow capped mountains and wild carved valleys are stunning. Time slipped by and we were rewarded with the sight of wild horses coming up the valley towards us and the crossing point.

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Things never go quite to plan of course and the horses decided to make a last minute adjustment to their crossing point, leaving Ian with a mad 100 metre dash to get back into position. As the the horses made their way up and out of the valley, Ian and myself got ourselves back to the roundup pens, meting up with a very out of breath Neil who had made his descent from the mountain.

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The horses were corralled into a field and the huge crowd got themselves into position to se the horses being sorted. Its done in batches of 50 or so as they wouldn’t all fit in at once.

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There was an intense level of excitement around the place, you could feel the adrenaline levels going up. on a blast of a horn from Hallador, the first horses were led into the central arena to be sorted, and then the madness starts as horses rush headlong around the arena, pursued and herded by their owners…its a bit like jumping headlong into a wildebeest migration!

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This part of the proceedings is a very ancient custom, it was one of the few times of year when all the farming families were gathered in one place. Inevitably, it was a place where scores and disputes between farms and farmers were settled, in a gentlemanly fashion, with fists, horse trades were made, and the young men were able to prove their worth by wrestling errant horses away from the melee into their pen, much to the admiration of a potential suitor. Nowadays of course, things are a little different, but it’s still a time of great celebration, with singing and large quantities of your favourite tipple being consumed, and of course the girls are still there to be impressed!

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Its really quite something to see people boldly going into a throng of wild horses in a confined space, separating them out with great skill (and sometimes brute force – no easy task with a wild horse) and then preparing for the next group.

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The love and care lavished on these horses is plain for all to see, and despite the vast quantities of Rum, Beer and Brennevin being consumed, order is maintained throughout by the gentle but firm hands of the roundup King and his lieutenants. No-one mistreated the horses or misbehaved at all, their love of horses is too deeply ingrained and they were enjoying the day far too much

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Those that have enjoyed the liquid refreshments a bit too much take advantage of the Icelandic Horses legendary abilty to “go with the flow” of their riders swaying, skillfully predicting their owners unsteady movememnts so they don’t fall off. Its certainly an unusual sight, but an impressive one nonetheless, and a superb way of getting back home when slightly worse for wear!

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Music and happiness filled the air here throughout the day, some outstanding singing was done by various groups of men and women, breaking into a traditional song of derring do and legends of old. Its one of those times when you can sense the atmosphere is one of excitement, joy and thanks that a great summer has passed.

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Its tinged of course with the mark of winters approach, the knowledge that for them (the farmers) the most difficult part of the year is to come. A time when the tourists have gone, the roads have disappeared under a metre of snow and farm life revolves around surviving through til spring. For the moment though, its about enjoyment. The day came to its end, the sun dipping away and the riders heading back to the farm.

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Another huge bowl of Lamb stew fed us (Ive got the recipe by the way if anyone is interested) and evening turned to night with lots of singing and more than a few bottles opened, drunk and discarded. It obviously fell to our little British contingent to sing a song too, but Im not sure that Neil and my rendition of Beatles tracks holds a candle to traditional Icelandic folk songs, even if Hallador and Snorri were perhaps generous with their applause.

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For us it was a massive privilege to have been part of this, Ive fallen in love with these horses (my daughter may yet get her wish to own a horse now!) and the warmth and hospitality of Hallador and his family will stay with us for ever, so it was with a smile but a tinge of sadness that we left to continue towards our journeys end….

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