The Horse Thief

by Danielle Tate-Stratton

A leap into the unknown Iceland


"Loppaaaaaaaaa! COME!" I screamed so loudly my voice echoed off the mountains on the other side of the valley, more than a kilometre away. "Loppppppaaaaa!" I stood on my tiptoes to get a better view of the sheepdog hot on the heels of the 20 Icelandic horses I had been charged with moving from paddock to paddock. Somewhere along the 50 feet of fenceline I was supposed to gently traverse in northern Iceland, the farm dog, Loppa, had taken matters in to her own paws and stolen my herd, driving them across the road, through a neighbour's fence and on a galloping, snorting, heels-kicking, tails-flowing tour of the valley. If not so horrifying, it would have been stunning. The thoughts were sickening: a horse was going to break a leg. The crops they were galloping through would be ruined. They had already destroyed a fence. In horror, I watched as the children's beloved pony wiped out on the slippery pavement before scrambling back to her feet. I would have to tell the farmers what I had done. My stomach roiled. Puking was not going to help. Believing that a life-long love of animals and experience on my mom's small farm in Canada had prepared me for a dairy farm in the north of Iceland, I had signed up for a month-long work exchange. Once there, I instantly learned the difference between a hobby farm and a working farm. Nothing had prepared me for the daily schedule of milking 36 cows, helping to ride the 10 horses in training, watching over 50 lambing sheep, and taking care of 4 children under 10. Yet there I was, gazing at horses racing over the post-glacial farmland, trying not to throw up. Five minutes-or a lifetime-later, the horses turned and galloped back through the broken fence, across the highway and into their paddock, ready for hay-and surely a nap. The recalcitrant Loppa loped over and, panting in unison, we headed in to the barn admit our follies to the farmer and-I assumed-to pack my bags. The farmer's wife just shrugged and said, "You should tie Loppa up when you move the horses." Her husband added, "It wasn't the neighbour's fence anyway, I built that last year." Unbelievably, that was it. Besides learning that it's a good idea to know some commands in whatever language the farm dog understands, that exchange was the clearest demonstration of an Icelandic way of life I could have hoped for. Life is hard, we make it work. Life happens, we move on.