Esther was dubbed “the Queen” on the very first trip to Iceland. She was, after all, the ring leader, the eldest, the social magnet who gathered friends, and who originally befriended Helga way back when—we’re talking 2003, when they took a long car ride together to look at a horse in Saratoga Springs. They drove many hours in the wrong direction, got lost in the dark, but found a long friendship. On that drive, Helga invited Esther to her farm in Thingeyrar and ever since, Esther and the rest of us have traveled there.
Helga now says, “I didn’t think you’d show up the first year. And here you are on your tenth year.”
The very first time Esther walked in the doors of the guesthouse at Thingeyrar, it was like her little kingdom. She flounced about and although there were eight others, Helga in her wise bemusement, deferred to her, “You are like the Queen, my friend.” And Esther said, “I just like to be taken care of.”
The honorific stuck. One night after much beer we officially dubbed her, Esther the Red, Queen of the Hestar, from the House of Bidwell, Kingdom of Massachusetts. Informally, we referred to her as Queenie, especially in times of crisis.
For ten years Queenie had not been unseated. Okay, there was this one year someone, a veritable harridan, tried to dethrone her and take over the trip. But we all fought back like the musicians of Bremen, kicking and biting and chasing her out of the guesthouse. Actually no, that’s just what we wished we’d done. In reality, we all huddled in our little herd, shaken to the point of tears about the horrible things the harridan did and said to us. But we’re over that. In our folklore, she has become: “She-who-must-not-be-named.”
Notwithstanding that unsettling episode, Esther the Queen had not been unseated in Iceland, unsaddled, that is, until last year.
It was the day of the wild river ride. The ride takes us along the riverbanks of Vatnsdalsâ and it always gets hairy. This is entirely due to the herd of young horses from another farm that grazes there. They like to play, these young’uns, and as we trot by like a Monty Python troupe trying to stay the course, they see our steeds as playmates and friskily gallop beside us.
We are used to this, expect it and try to prepare for it. But still.
Helga was leading up front on a tall grey horse, a horse that looked like the grey charger Cate Blanchett rode as Queen Elizabeth when she urged her soldiers into the battlefield. Unlike the Queen of England, though, Helga gave us all several chances to turn back. From almost the moment we headed out of the farm’s gate, she started with, “Anyone want to turn back?” No one took her up on it. Then when we got to Sveinnstadir, the farm at the end of the road where we cross the bridge, Helga gave us another chance, “Last chance. Anyone want to go home, speak now or forever hold your peace.“ But, no, we all voiced our eagerness to continue.
All went as planned and unplanned. As we got closer to the herd of young horses, the pace picked up. The young wild horses tried to weave into our line, darting in and out of our formation, riling up our saddled, bridled horses. “Don’t let your horses gallop,” Helga warned us. “Hold them back.” Helga pulled her horse to the right of us to ward off the infiltration. She snapped her fingers at Gauper, the yellow lab, who understood the cue to bark and nip at the young horses’ heels. Christina shouted, “Hup Hup,” when the wild horses got in our way. We all took this up. “Hup, hup.” I like shouting this—it makes me feel like a cowgirl, like I know what I’m doing.
But the pace quickened and Christina, who was the sweep, our safety check in the back of the line, became the leader. Then a horse’s shoe was thrown up in front of me.
“Someone threw a shoe,” I shouted. And everyone had an opinion on this as the news traveled up and down the frantic line of riders: “Esther’s horse lost a shoe. Queenie, your horse lost a shoe. What? No, never mind, it was Alison’s horse. Whose? Alison’s. No, I think it was Bev’s, it was Bev’s horse. Mine? Yes. Or maybe it was Kat’s.”
Beth T. yelled out, “Forget about the shoe, guys, there’s a stampede going on!”
It took a while to get the young horses behind us, but we all managed to survive. Helga returned to the front and we tölted swiftly, peacefully along the soft trail that edges the fast-moving river. This is why we do this ride, for the unbelievable smooth tölting path.
When it came time to cross the river, Helga led us in. Alison followed, then Beth B., then a few more of us in single file, then Esther. The river was deep, the water was high from all the rain that year, and the river’s bank was unusually crumbly and broken. Esther’s mare lost her footing and sunk deep into the muddy silt. Down the horse went, dumping Esther into the cold river.
“Esther fell off!” someone shouted. “Esther’s down!” The news traveled up and down the line.
Helga, though midway out in the river, immediately turned around to rescue her, but by the time she got there Esther had dragged herself to the river’s edge.
“Are you alright? Are you alright?” Helga asked, we all asked.
“I’m just annoyed,” Esther said. “I was feeling so good riding, so proud of myself.”
“Consider it a baptism. The Queen was baptized in the river today,” Helga said. And like a pack of Monty Python merrymakers, we cheered.
The Queen is down, the Queen is up, long live Queenie.