As we rode down a wooded trail, the words "prepare to tolt" echoed from the front of the line. I squeezed my lower leg, half of which was dangling below my little Icelandic Horse's belly. At the same time, I gave a slight kiss and firmly held the reins.
Voila! My mount went into his trademark four-beat, lateral gait.
I felt as though I was hovering on a hook above the saddle. Fall colors whizzed by me as we floated along the countryside road just outside of Waitsfield, Vermont, in the heart of the Green Mountains.
For a tiny little package of a horse, ranging from 12 to 14 hands high, these gaited horses of Iceland pack a lot of punch. Bred to move smoothly over difficult terrain, Icelandic Horses can carry one third of their body weight. This means a 900-pound Icelandic Horse is capable of carrying a 300-pound rider.
"We do not encourage that much weight on the animals, but they are capable," says Karen Winhold, who co-owns Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm with her husband, Luc Maranda.
We were tolting on the farm's horses and staying at the couple's Mad River Inn, nearby.
A Warm Welcome
Mary and I had met many of our fellow riders the previous night at the Mad River Inn. We arrived at the bed-and-breakfast quite late. After knocking on the front door, we boldly waltzed right into the 1860 Victorian inn, followed the sound of voices coming from the kitchen, and introduced ourselves like two stragglers off the street.
Interrupting their family dinner, we met Karen and Luc, their daughters, Amelie and Isabelle, and the four-legged welcoming committee: Kamrin, a Shetland Sheepdog; Dillon, a Papillion; and Bear, a Yorkshire Terrier.
After a short meet-and-greet and a tour of the house—including a game room equipped with a bar and pool table—we asked about going out for dinner in the nearby town of Waitsfield.
Luc suggested an organic-food restaurant in town called Mint. The quaint little bistro with a European feel turned out to be an extraordinary surprise.
As we awoke the next morning, the sun's warmth shone through the window. I looked out to see frost-covered cornfields and mist coming off the river. It was only early October, but Jack Frost had already arrived.
The Queen Anne dining table was packed for breakfast with two seats left for Mary and me. Two other couples occupied smaller tables in the corner.
I was relieved to find out that we weren't the only dietary pain in the behind for French Canadian chef Luc. He was extremely accommodating.
There was much chatter at the table as we met some of the guests who'd be riding with us that day, along with others who've been riding all week.
A breakfast of Mexican quiche and marinated pear was enjoyed by all. After a few cups of tea, we got ready for our ride and headed off to the barn, a 10-minute drive from the inn.
Time to Ride
As we turned into the 45-acre Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm, we glimpsed a few small horses in the paddock.
We completed our paperwork in office of an eight-stall barn made especially for the Icelandic Horses and uniquely built directly under the house by Karen's late father, Otto Winhold, 14 years ago.
My mount for the day was a cute bay gelding named Loki, Icelandic for the God of Mischief. Karen felt that he'd cooperate with me when asked to go ahead of the herd to stop and take photos.
I gathered the reins and mounted up. The Astund saddle, specially made for Icelandics, was surprisingly comfortable.
We started up the quiet road in a rough version of single file. The few cars that came along were respectful, slowing down and giving us a wide berth.
I spotted an old cement watering trough being filled with crystal-clear spring water. Originally built for sheepherders' horses in the early 1900s, the trough remains a major source of water for the locals.
Mary and I had come for the annual fall colors ride. The cold, rainy weather had come early this year, so we were about three weeks late for Mother Nature's full display. But there were still ample shades of reds and yellows for our enjoyment.
Passing streams and riding over bridges, I admired the beautiful farms and ski chalets as Loki calmly followed the others.
Lucy, one of our guides, asked us if we were ready to tolt. Loki's ears perked up, and with a slight squeeze of my leg, we went into full tolt. I'd heard of this extremely smooth gait, in which there's always at least one foot on the ground, but I'd never experienced it.
The true tolt—somewhat like the Tennessee Walking Horse's running walk or rack, or the Paso Fino's Corto—feels like floating on air and can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour. It was so smooth, my seat never came out of position. I was amazed.
As we twisted around the windy road, Lucy instructed us to transition to canter. I figured Loki would then revert back to feeling like any other horse at the canter, but I was wrong — the canter was just as smooth as the tolt.
My body didn't rock back and forth as it would do in a normal canter. Again, I felt as though I was hovering on a hook above the saddle.
My little God of Mischief kicked into high gear, and we flew up the hill in no time. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. These little things are cool. I was laughing.
Mary's horse wanted to be at the front of the pack and took off like lightning. Mary was smiling and having a blast. What fun!
The air was brisk and just cold enough to appreciate Karen's mom's squash-and-cider soup waiting for us back at the barn.
For the afternoon ride, Karen chose a mare for me named Crystal. Crystal had an extraordinary tolt and canter, but wasn't as willing as Loki to stand still for photos.
I then attempted to see how smooth the Icelandic's gaits actually were by shooting from the saddle in the faster gaits. The results were unbelievably successful.
Mary switched horses with me for the latter part of the ride, which took us into the colorful woods and back down the road past some beautiful farms and seasonal ski chalets.
When we were asked to tolt, my new mount, Lucy, trotted instead. With the assistance of a second guide, Charles, I sat in the saddle, leaned back a bit, tightened the reins, and urged Lucy forward.
Once Lucy transitioned from trot to tolt, the difference was night and day. It felt like a car shifting from second gear into glide mode. It's something you definitely have to feel to believe.
We climbed and climbed as we wound through the forest path bursting with yellows and reds.
Back at the inn, Mary and I hit the hot tub, enjoying the view from the back deck, sipping wine in the hot tub with guests Philippa and Anne Marie.
After a scrumptious dinner of homemade ravioli and a few glasses of excellent red wine, it was early to bed.
We awoke to breakfast of fresh-fruit crepes. Having only booked a weekend at the inn, we packed our gear and loaded the car before heading to the farm for our ride.
Into the Forest
Karen again gave me Loki, and we headed straight for the forest. Philippa and Anne Marie joined us.
The colors in the forest were brilliantly saturated by the previous night's rain. We passed streams and crossed bridges as the morning mist started to lift.
The trail climbed endlessly, but Loki trucked on, stopping only briefly for a drink in a stream. It's true that Icelandics are hardworking, willing, and have a positive attitude.
Our descent from the mountain was just as colorful as the climb. Passing more bucolic farms and stunning ski chalets, we eventually made it back to the farm for lunch just before the rain started.
After lunch, it continued to rain, so we decided to head home instead of taking the afternoon ride.
Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm offers trail riders a unique opportunity to try an Icelandic Horse in a beautiful setting and enjoy a bit of pampering to boot.
I'll never forget my first real tolt on my God of Mischief.
For more information on Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm, go to www.icelandichorses.com. For more on the Mad River Inn, go to www.madriverinn.com. To book an all-inclusive holiday, contact Hoofbeats International, www.hoofbeatsinternational.com.
As the owner of Clix Photography (www.clixphoto.com), Shawn Hamilton travels world-wide to cover equestrian events. Her images regularly appear in top magazines. She lives with her husband, four children, and five horses on a farm in Ontario, Canada.