Iceland horseback-riding tours suit variety of skill and comfort levels

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NEW YORK -- Horseback-riding tours are a popular vacation activity in Europe in general, and a most unique one in Iceland.

Besides the Viking-bred horse, which has remained pure for over 1,000 years, horseback-riding tour operators to Iceland noted a number of distinctions.

"One of the interesting things about riding in Iceland is that the tours tend not to be dominated by Americans, as a lot of the rides are that are booked through U.S. agencies," said Monie Finley, ride consultant with Equitour, a Dubois, Wyo., agency that offers riding tours in 30 countries.

Horses grazing at a reststop in Maradalur (the Valley of Horses) in southern Iceland. Typically, "maybe a third of the group would be Americans," Finley said.

European riding tours account for some 65% of Equitour's business, Finley said, with Iceland being a "very small percentage of that."

People who select Iceland for a horseback tour tend to be "adventurous, and not looking for luxury," Finley said. "The clientele needs to be easily satisfied."

Finley said that mountain huts along the horse trail offer little privacy or accoutrements; the layout generally is one central room with bunk beds and mattresses and a central kitchen with running water.

Though simple and not all equipped with showers, "the huts are very clean and comfortable inside," Finley said.

Equitour's primary tours of Iceland, offered late June through August, are a five-night ride, priced at $1,060, and a seven-night ride, priced at $1,450.

A six-night ride that explores a new route is also being tested this year, priced at $1,270.

Equitour's comparable five-night riding tours of Italy and Ireland would cost about $2,000 and $1,600, respectively.

Equitour obtains most clients through its own advertising in horsemen's magazines such as Equus, Practical Horseman and Horse & Rider, but typically offers agents who bring in new clients not on their mailing list a 10% commission.

"It's a family business that operates the rides we offer," Finley said. "That's one of the nice things about the ride, that it is a close and intimate look at an Icelandic family. On the first and last days of the ride, you'll be sharing meals with them in their home."

In contrast to the globetrotting Equitour, Millerton, N.Y-based Horses North, now in its third year, provides horseback-riding tours exclusively to Iceland.

"We're pretty enchanted with Iceland as a travel destination," said Holly Nelson, who owns the company with her husband, Brad Vogel, "and the native horse is a really nice way to see the landscape.

"The horse's smooth gait and disposition make it easy for a very broad range of individuals to enjoy riding them," Nelson said.

Horses North works with Icelandair to package inclusive tours from New York (Kennedy), Boston and Baltimore airports, and offers scaling commissions from eight to 15%.

Two of the most popular tours for Horses North include the seven-night Golden Circle, $2,165, and the four-night Geysir/Gullfoss Special, $1,900. Accommodations are at a farm house and guest house, as opposed to mountain huts.

"I think that for Americans who aren't used to a real rugged dose of adventure travel, something like the Gullfoss Special is really ideal," Nelson said.

Among the horseback-riding outfitters that Horses North works with, Nelson said, the largest and oldest is Ishestar Riding Tours, founded in 1982 and located in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland.

Ishestar offers six shorter tours lasting two to nine hours, and three longer tours lasting three to seven nights. For highly experienced riders, Ishestar also offers 11 Highland Rides lasting four to 16 nights.

In the last two years, Ishestar has seen a 178% jump in the popularity of its shorter tours, bringing 9,672 people on shorter tours in 1999, compared with 5,977 in '98 and 3,480 in '97.

"Ishestar's shorter rides are really good for people going to Iceland on a stopover or some other travel adventure," Nelson said.

Ishestar offers a 10% commission to agents and a 20% commission to "agents and operators who market us and sell us on a regular basis, in their brochure or on their Web site," said Bryndis Einarsdottir, marketing manager.

"We are working with Icelandair Holidays, Horses North and Icelandamerica.com, a new Internet service," Einarsdottir said.

"A lot of travel agents contact us and have their own clients come on tours, so we don't exclude any agent. And through the Internet, a lot of clients find us on their own," she said.

"It's a different group of people that will choose Iceland, as opposed to Ireland, Italy or France," Finley said.

"Because Iceland is so isolated and the terrain is so different, it just attracts a different kind of clientele," she said, a clientele attracted to the draw of a more remote and less populated destination.

"A lot of the clients that I've had experience with, they might choose to go to Iceland and do a ride, but they won't go back right away," she said.

"They're more likely to choose a mountainous destination like the Canadian Rockies, as opposed to something in Europe, where you're getting a higher level of service, usually."

Though Equitour's repeat business to Iceland isn't especially high, "I think it's an excellent ride and destination for somebody with an adventurous personality looking for a remote vacation," Finley said.

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