Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland

For the love of Icelandic Horses (2004 – 2015 Thingeyrar Iceland, except ‘06, ‘08, ‘12 Connecticut; Epilogue, 2016 Iceland): Once you see a picture of an Icelandic Horse like the author did while daydreaming at her desk job, you understand why she fell madly in love with these precious, unique animals. But don’t let their small size and adorable looks deceive you. “All the horses get wilder here, their blood filled with the wind and the waves of the Arctic waters.”

Icelandic Horse via MaxPixel

Even if you’re an equestrian, how many of us would become so “obsessed” about riding an Icelandic horse in surreal, subarctic Iceland to go to great lengths to actually ride them there? Especially when apparently there are places to ride Icelandic horses in the US, including one in the Berkshires of Massachusetts not too far from the author’s home outside New Haven, Connecticut, where she works at Yale University editing a journal.

That Icelandic horse farm triggered the author’s “Icelandophilia.” The two experiences cannot compare by any stretch of our imagination. And this gorgeous memoir lets your imagination run free, as it did for the author.

Fifteen years ago, Tory Bilski took her first magical trip with a core group of women her age (middle-aged, one older) to temporarily escape the realities of daily life. Back then, not many people were even traveling to Iceland on Icelandair – the only international airline that flies into the country. Landing in Keflavík (not Reykjavik, the capital), the view is bleak, Mars-like. Today, Iceland is a hot destination, but if you only know it as a stopover to Europe or elsewhere, you cannot imagine that the closer you get to the Arctic Sea overlooking Greenland, it’s fantastical, fairy-tale lands. An ancient, mystical Norse country steeped in folklore and myths, inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasies.

Bilski’s adventures come across as mythical: a “horse-lover’s dream” amidst a verdant landscape, “mesmerizing blue fjord,” volcanic sands. This is not only a unique place, but Icelandic horses are a unique breed “that’s remained isolated on this island for over a thousand years.” A breed that’s part “Norwegian Fjord horse, the Shetland Pony, the Irish Connemara, and the Fell and Dales Ponies of Yorkshire.” Interestingly, a bit of the Mongolian horse too, the subject of another memoir reviewed here.

There’s something about horses and their relationship to mankind that’s enchanted, almost spiritual. And those who write memoirs about that profound connection infuse their passion into their prose. “You seek in horses what you can’t get in humans.”

Wild Horses of the Summer Sun is escapist fiction crafted in literary prose.

Remarkable how Bilski fell into something beyond her wildest dreams, recognized that, and made it into an annual tradition for more than a decade, except for a few years when family and personal health prevented her from doing so. The euphoria lasted all year, as best as life lets it, until another late June when she set off again. There’s the summer sun in the title but there’s also cold, windy, driving rains, weather that dramatically changes throughout the day.

These life-enriching experiences confirm the cliché about being in the right place at the right time. Bilksi had gone to that Berkshires Icelandic horse farm, where she met Evie and Sylvie. Evie owned the farm with her husband Jack; Sylvie started riding there after retiring at 59. Already, you have a sense these women are hardy souls with big dreams. Helga was Sylvie’s friend in Iceland, who owned a magical horse farm where she bred and trained these beloved horses. The property included a heavenly guesthouse that was not a B&B, but she graciously and generously let Sylvie stay there, along with some of her friends, year after year for many years. That’s how Sylvie, leader and organizer, Evie, the author, along with another of Sylvie’s friends, Viv, and dear Helga, became a small cadre of women the author bonded with. Friendships that made it all possible, doable, incomparable.

Each year, Sylvie invites other women and teenagers to join her; some returned, many not. Sometimes there were nine or more, other times down to the essential four. Some were problematic as they were dealing with significant issues, which is why compassionate Sylvie invited them in the first place. She wholeheartedly believes, as many do, “horses have a way of healing.”

Besides the magical horses and Iceland, these female friendships at a later stage in life should be factored in. Women value friendships in general; in the author’s case, she describes herself as someone whose life revolved around her husband and three children, and someone who did not make friends naturally. So when she does, she’s grateful for them. And when she looks back, as she does in her memoir, she’s nostalgic for what they had. All along worried, how long can fantastic last?

Icelanders are another draw: easy-going, serene, tolerant people. “After all,” the author says, “this is a country that hosted the Reagan-Gorbachev summit; this is a country where people can make peace and disarm nuclear escalations.” She finds even the language restorative, a “lullaby language with nursery-tale tonality.”

You can think of a lot of adjectives to describe Icelandic horses, but the one that doesn’t fit is they’re easy to ride. Their pony-ish size and shaggy looks belie how highly energetic they are when released into their spirited landscape.

Also challenging is these horses have five gaits, atypical. The author hadn’t ridden much since her younger “horse-crazy years” until she turned forty, when horses became intoxicating again. If this was a mid-life crisis, it’s the kind that creates a second life. One that took her husband time to adjust to, time to understand how much Icelandic horses in Iceland meant to her.

The author was forty-six when these adventures took off. The oldest woman was Sylvie at sixty-six. She hardly knew Sylvie and her friend Eve, the rest were strangers.

Helga’s “state-of-the-art” horse farm in Thingeyrar is at the center. It’s about five hours from the airport, but in 2004 the journey lasted frustratingly longer without a GPS app on a cellphone. Neither existed back then.

What drives our fascination with something? Someplace? the author asks. To be addicted to this spectacular breed in a spectacular setting is one thing, but if you want to ride them you’ve got to master their “complicated” gaits. That’s why the author names her chapters – long but broken into short sections – after their five gaits, ranging in speed and number of beats.

The fifth gait is the one to beat. Also called the Flying Pace, it’s the one we can picture vividly: when all the horse’s legs are suspended in air, “giving it the feeling of flying.” No wonder the author felt “wildly free,” wildly flying in a “wild, moody place,” wildly unconventional compared to her life back home.

The author explains how important it is to get to know each horse’s personalities, moods, abilities. Equally important is how horses are affected by their rider’s competence, confidence, moods. Made more difficult as the years pass, as the women grow older and are not as willing to take risks. “Horses are a mirror. You can’t lie to a horse.”

Sixteen pages of beautiful color photos the author took add to our appreciating, like the author does, “the aching beauty of the universe.” The memoir then is a very timely, important tribute to an Arctic Shangri-La crying out for the urgency of global actions to protect our planet in crisis.

Lorraine

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