We are trotting along a sheep path, passing through fields of buttercups, then fields of lupine that are thigh high. Gauper, the yellow mutt, chases the gulls, terns and skuas. His happy barking punctuates the bird calls.
We are eight this year: Esther, Kathryn, Bev, Diane, Em, Hillary, Beth, me…with Disa leading and Helga bringing up the rear. The only man on the ride is our cook, Helgi. His horse sidles up to mine, and I hear him let out a sigh of contentment. I manage a bumpy question: “Happy now?” He says, “This is good for the soul. Whatever is bothering you, this takes it away.”
The Arctic wind lashes our faces. It is a brisk slap-you-awake, but it is not as if you’d ever doze off on horseback riding to the Arctic sea, which is less than a mile away now. The June sun is high, the sky is wide and it’s probably 6 pm. As always, the horses are fast and willing (“go-ey” in equine terms) and they switch gaits from the four-beated tӧlt to a trot back to a tӧlt. We were told it’s been a dry year, and clouds of brown dust obscure the path in front of me. The horses bunch up on the narrow part, so we are knee-to-knee with each other, clinking stirrups. “Sorry, sorry,” we apologize to each other, but it bothers the riders more than the horses. They are used to being in a herd.
When the path opens up and widens into the soft black sands of a tributary, I nod to Hillary, who is behind me. It means canter time—what I wait for in every ride. We separate out from the rest, and I ask my horse for canter by applying slight pressure from my outside leg and giving her rein. My mare easily obliges into a comfortable three beat footfall, and I am well-balanced, in the rhythmic groove, feeling for all-the-world like a cowgirl.
But as Hill’s horse thunders up beside me, it becomes a race. My mare, it turns out, is alpha and has to win. She goes into a flat out hooves-off-the-ground gallop. So much for the illusion of controlling a horse. It confirms a nagging fear–I’m not much of a rider. All I know are the things I can’t do: I can’t bail at this speed, show fear, tug the reins too hard, lose balance, fall or, of course, stop her. That leaves me with one option: going with it. So I do. And once I do, my mind clears. Or, it is more like I have no mind. Like in a yoga class, I am all about breath, hers and mine. After a kilometer or so, my mare slows only because the terrain gets too soft, and even my indefatigable Icelandic horse gets tired when we hit the deep sand dunes that edge up to the Arctic Sea. When the others catch up, we dismount and let the horses rest and graze on the sparse dune grass. Kathryn says, “You were hot stuff back there,” what Kat says when she is visibly impressed. Helga asks, “Did you mean to do that? We didn’t know if you were in trouble.” I am vague, “Errr, I did ask for canter.”