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Real Life

Real life: I travelled to Iceland for its horses

Now I’ve found my calling, nothing will keep me out of the saddle.

By Mitchell Jordan

Tory Bilski, 62, shares her story with Take 5’s Mitchell Jordan;

I gazed at the horse standing alone in the field, surrounded by mist and sweeping hills.
Its rich black mane was striking, but the shape was like nothing I'd seen before.
This was no ordinary stead, it was an Icelandic horse.
When I'd turned 40, it had somehow reignited a childhood love of horses I'd ignored for so long. I'd taken up riding lessons at a local barn where Charlie, a 21-year-old thoroughbred helped me regain my
confidence.
Soon, horses were all I could think about.
In my search for more information, I'd come across the picture of the black Icelandic horse.
Iceland, a Nordic island almost equal distance between New York and London, was a country I knew very little about.
But as I researched this land of lava fields, geysers, midnight sun and northern lights, I became more fascinated.
When I'd turned 40, it had somehow reignited a childhood love of horses I'd ignored for so long. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
It was barely touched by tourism, and full of the majestic horses that wouldn't leave my thoughts.
An idea came to me: as a wife and mother of two, I'd barely had any time to myself.
Maybe it was time to explore a new country and ride the horses of Iceland?
"You want to go where?" a cousin asked in disbelief. "That sounds like hell."
My husband discouraged the idea, too.
"Why can't you fall in love with a horse around here?" he asked.
But Icelandic horses were few and far between: buying one was very expensive, and once the horse leaves Iceland, it's never allowed back, in case it introduces disease to the island.
Maybe it was time to explore a new country and ride the horses of Iceland? (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Over the next two years I toyed with the idea of visiting the country.
My heart wanted Icelandic horses, and that was it.
After finding an Equitour company, I flew to Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland, where I joined 11 other riders from around the world.
It was an eye-opening experience.
On the first day, a woman from England fell off her horse, dislocated her shoulder and left.
I joined 11 other riders from around the world. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
The second day, an American couple decided to call it quits, too.
"That's it for us, after what happened to the English girl," the wife began.
"I'm 59, I can't bust myself up like this."
Our tour guide, Jonki, a big, bald Icelandic man, trusted me enough to hand over the reins to two horses.
I did my best to keep them and my own horse trotting in a straight line, but as we cantered down a hill, I lost both my stirrups and seat, and had to cling on desperately to keep the three horses under my
control.
I felt like a cowgirl and I loved the thrill of it all.
Back home, I was sore and tired, but determined to return to Iceland and do it all over again.
I felt like a cowgirl and I loved the thrill of it all. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Next time, I joined eight other women and stayed in a two-storey guesthouse built in the early 1900s.
Being with only women was an amazing experience: I felt like I was back in university again.
We stayed up talking, joking and developed deep friendships.
Our guide, Helga, was a brilliant rider who taught us so much with her knowledge and enthusiasm.
I learned that Icelandic horses didn't get diabetes because of the forage, and experienced almost no health problems.
"Everything's better in Iceland," I noted, staring in wonderment at the sun burning strong even though it was well past midnight. "Even for horses."
After riding our horses through lupine fields and along the black sands of an estuary, we arrived at Lake Hóp, a tidal lagoon which emptied into the Greenland Sea.
"Everything's better in Iceland, even for horses." (Image: Supplied)
"We're crossing that?" my friend Sylvie asked, petrified.
"Yes," Helga confirmed.
Some of us were daunted, so the guides offered us either cognac or Brennivín, an Icelandic spirit referred to by some as 'Black Death'.
The wind was howling and the alcohol helped warm me and take away my jitters.
On my horse, Gnott, we trotted into the shallows and broke into a canter through the middle of the lake.
As the water grew deeper, I lifted the stirrups over the saddle and grabbed Gnott's mane.
She plunged into the water, taking me with her.
It was freezing cold, but I hardly noticed.
Together, Gnott and I floated and drifted with the current.
Once, I might have been terrified, but as Gnott carried me through the water, I felt completely at peace.
When I die, this is how I want to enter the other world, I thought, on the back of a horse that is swimming in a cold lake.
I spent the next 12 years going back and forth between my home and Helga's horse farm.
All up, I only had about 10 days of the year in Iceland, but I looked forward to them like nothing else.
Strange as it sounds, it felt like I was leading two lives: the mum who went to work each day, and the free woman who rode horses whenever she could.
As Iceland became increasingly popular with tourists and shows like Game of Thrones used it as a filming location, my family's interest in the country grew and they even joined me on a visit.
"It's amazing here!" my husband said, beaming.
I'll forever be grateful to Iceland and its horses for changing my life. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Helga has since sold her farm, but I'm still in contact with most of the women I met there and have recently published my story in a book, Wild Horses of the Summer Sun which is about carving a space in our lives and finding a place that brings joy, awakening all that lies dormant in our hearts.
These days, you just log onto the internet to see what it's like in another country, but nothing beats the buzz of getting on a plane and going.
I hope that through sharing my journey, I might encourage others to be just as brave, because it's the best decision I've ever made.
I'll forever be grateful to Iceland and its horses for changing my life.

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