Islandic equestrian center aims for first-time riders

Einar Bollason, director of Ishestar Riding Tours, talked about his plans to expand the company with associate editor Paul Felt at the equestrian operator's new 10,000-square-foot Ishestar Riding Centre.

HAFNARFJORDUR, Iceland -- "We want to make the Icelandic horse a symbol of Iceland in the same way the elephant is a symbol of India," Bollason said.

A former professional basketball player in Europe for 20 years, and a stout, Viking-like man at 6 feet 8 inches and 260 pounds, Bollason said he has tested the limits of the horse's capacity to carry a heavy load.

"[I am] living proof of the strength of the Icelandic horse. Height-wise, it's a pony. But strength-wise, no way," he said.

Much of Bollason's business agenda, to make riding a must-do activity in Iceland, is evident in the new riding center itself, which opened March with a bar, restaurant and changing rooms.

"We are trying to establish a country club atmosphere," Bollason said of the new facility.

To that end, large picture windows look out to the horse pen from the dining area, much like a golf club restaurant overlooks the greens.

Wood trim abounds, particularly at the bar.

Other country club-like enhancements include a gazebo addition to the restaurant, completed this September, and three outdoor hot tubs to be installed by next summer.

"Next summer we will also have tables and chairs on the veranda for outdoor dining," said Bryndis Einarsdottir, Ishestar marketing manager.

Ishestar received about 10,000 people on short riding tours in 1999, up from about 6,000 in 1998 and 3,500 in 1997.

Einarsdottir said the operator's goal of 15,000 riders for 2000 appears to be within reach.Bollason said the majority of the operator's guests have never been on a horse.

The point of developing a country club-like facility, he added, is to appeal to the mainstream, non-enthusiast market, particularly families and weekend, incentive and business travelers.

"The main purpose of this riding center is to get to the non-riders, people that didn't ever consider going riding before," Bollason said.

A diploma is presented to every guest who completes a ride.

Making the learning easier, all groups are limited to seven riders per guide.

Horses are selected for their patience; Bollason noted that one or two of every three horses Ishestar receives are sent back.

Looking ahead, Bollason said he sees the center becoming a base for non-equestrian sports that also could be enjoyed in the immediate area. The center is located about 20 minutes outside of central Reykjavik.

These activities include biking and hiking, kayaking on a nearby lake and salmon fishing within walking distance.

Short walking tours of approximately one hour were introduced this summer.

Although the other sports aren't in Ishestar's brochures, "We can organize almost anything people want to do for groups," Einarsdottir said.

"We are also looking at action combinations, such as horses-and-jeep safaris. Most likely we'll put that in our program for 2002."

For 2001, she added, "We will offer an option, for all the people coming to our Riding Centre to go to Mecca Spa to have a specially developed Ishestar massage."

The optional massage and two-hour spa visit is priced at about $45 per person, including transfers.

Also new for next year is a two-day ride, entitled the Power of Creation, which will depart every Monday from June 18 through Sept. 10.

The 37-mile journey features six to seven hours of riding both days through a conservation area of the Reykjanes peninsula.

Hotel transfers and an overnight stay using sleeping bags are included.

The cost of the ride is $333 per person.

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