A Tale of Courage in Iceland: The Woman of the Horse and a Lesson in Leadership
The long line of riders stretched out in front of me like a conga line. We’d been riding for nearly eight hours by this time, and the perpetual sun- which, in this nation during summer never sets- was slowly dropping. At best, at this altitude, the temperature might get into the sixties. At best. Add to that the ever-present wind, and it can be damned cold. In July.
I was the only American riding with a group of very young German women. As is typical of Icelandic horse adventures, we rode with a large herd, as we would switch out our horses regularly during the day. In the high country, which is still dense with snow and deep mud this time of year, we would also cross large, dry areas. When it’s your turn to ride at the back of a herd of some thirty horses, it can get unbelievably dusty. Your eyes and nose clog up. It’s hard to breathe. There are millions of black flies that climb into your- and your horse’s- nostrils and ears.
Icelandic horses have a unique gait called the “tolt.” They are among just a few horses in the world born with this extra gait which replaces, or is in addition to, the trot. The others are the Paso Llano and Paso Fino of South America. They way you ride the tolt is fundamentally different from the way most of us who are lifelong riders have been taught. Your legs, rather than riding with your knees bent, are almost completely straight, and you have to push your butt down hard into the saddle. It takes a while to learn this. Many people never do. They end up with extremely sore bodies at day’s end, as their mounts don’t obey their commands for the vastly more comfortable tolt gait. That allows you to sit comfortably for hours, moving at remarkable speed.
That afternoon we were about an hour out from our day’s destination. Eldhestar, the outfit that I had booked three back-to-back riding tours with, hires their guides largely from Europe. Germany, in particular. I never saw a male guide the entire time I was in Iceland. Most of the guides are extremely good riders, and spend their summers in Iceland leading groups just like mine. As with all groups, there are superb guides, and those still learning.
A Land of Endless Water
Towards the end of a very long day in the saddle, we’re all pretty tired. We were snaking towards a broad, low stream which we’d all need to cross. One thing about Iceland: you are never short on water. Ice cold, clean, crisp water, waterfalls aplenty. The only down side is that it’s close to freezing even in the height of summer. The horses are accustomed to it. Most of us are not, certainly not for bathing.
One of our guides, a lovely German woman with a dense cascade of blond hair, was in the middle of the stream on her horse directing traffic as we crossed. I was close to the rear of the follow-on group, and as was my habit, had my camera in my left hand to film our progress.
One moment she was seated on her horse. The next she had plunged into the rushing waters, her foot caught in her right stirrup, the freezing water tumbling over her. At knee-depth, waters this fast can make it impossible to stand, to walk, or in any regard to get up, especially when you are dressed in endless pounds of layers to stay warm. Now those layers are dead weight dragging you under the surface. That’s especially true if your riding helmet also fills with water and is caught by the stream the way an umbrella is caught by the wind. It’s immense force and hard to control.
I was too far away to do anything but watch. None of the other riders stopped or helped, and I watched helplessly as she struggled to rise.
If you have ever been summarily dumped into ice cold water-whether in a kayak or anywhere else, you know how impossible it is to get a breath. The shock is sudden and overwhelming. Add to this the power of sweeping waters, the many many layers of clothing, now soaked, bearing her down, you can understand her distress.
Her dark gelding planted his feet against the current. He didn’t move an inch. I watched her struggle to grasp anything- a leg, a stirrup. I barely breathed. Her horse was steady as a rock. Inch by inch she fought the icy onslaught as the riders continued to pass her. I think most were in shock.
Finally she was able to grasp the stirrup by climbing her hands up her legs. By this time she had to be nearly frozen. She slowly pulled herself up, stood, and remounted. She was soaked head to toe. In those late afternoon winds, it would be hard to imagine how quickly her body was losing heat. The freezing water had soaked her heavy coat, her leather chaps, and most certainly had gotten into her boots.
We had at least an hour before we would reach our destination for the night.
This brave woman sat straight-backed, dripping icy water, as she continued to direct us across the river, watching each of us with the protective eye of a mother hen, while her body shivered and shook. You could hear it in her voice as her teeth chattered. She didn’t move an inch until every single one of us had safely passed the danger point where she’d fallen in.
An hour later she was helping the slower among us to dismount and take off their tack as we released the horses for the night, and gathered in the small hotel which was our shelter for the night.
Not once did she complain. Not once did she stop working until we were all inside and unpacked, getting ready for dinner. She didn’t take care of herself until every single one of us- and all the horses- had been attended to.
About an hour later, she came to see me. She’d heard that I had a video. With all the calm of a natural leader, she asked to see what I’d filmed. She simply wanted to understand what had happened, so that it wouldn’t happen again. I transferred the video to her camera. I wish I still had it. It was a lesson in courage.
Let’s be clear. This wasn’t a woman wanting to watch herself be heroic. She wanted to understand what, if anything she had done wrong, so as to learn from it and make better preparations for the future.
As a military veteran, one of things that I notice as I travel the world doing rather epic adventures is the quality of the guides. All too often, very young people with limited experience are hired to take on the sometimes very dangerous work of leading people across forbidding country. Without good leadership and exceptional instincts, people can get hurt. They die. If they don’t know what to do about a rushing elephant, then a great many people can get badly injured or worse. Leading adventure trips isn’t for sissies or narcissists.
I’ve been on trips in the high country where other riders- even after days on the trail, still can’t sort out how to pitch their tents. They can’t be bothered to clean up their dinner dishes or help bring water to the cooks, a necessary chore if they are to eat, or to have clean dishes the following day. They are quite happy to avoid the hard work of the adventure, and drink coffee around a hot fire while others take care of their comforts. I’ve spent many a morning helping five or six other people take their tents down just so that we can get off to an on-time start. Hauled endless heavy buckets of water while others sat at the breakfast table and chatted. It’s a lesson in entitlement, and a concerted lack of respect for what the group needs. Most people cannot be bothered. I’m just as as much a paying guest as they are, and we are expected to help. All of us, not just some of us, because the chore list is endless. Part of the purpose is to teach responsibility. Not many get that message.
On average, at least half or more of those on these adventures simply cannot be bothered.
There aren’t many natural leaders in situations like this. My German guide in Iceland, a woman with a PhD and a career in scientific research, was the perfect example of what true leadership looks like. She pulled herself out of a very dangerous situation where nobody else bothered to stop and help her. She suffered extreme discomfort and the danger of hypothermia in the freezing winds while soaking wet, waiting for all the rest of us to pass safely. She didn’t take care of her own needs until all of us were safely inside and warm.
Adventures in the wild like this are deeply telling about character. Among the many reasons I do them, not only to experience our world but also to push the boundaries of my own comfort level, is to be exposed to people like this extraordinary German guide. I am forever reminded that there are those who understand what selflessness looks like. The real cost of leadership. What it takes to earn trust. This woman was a true Viking, and a natural leader. Because she wasn’t just concerned about her own life- she was even more motivated to ensure that what had happened to her wouldn’t happen to any of the rest of us.
When the going gets tough, do you get going? Or do you keep going? Do you only worry about yourself, your reputation, your own optics? Or are you more concerned about the welfare of those you intend to lead? Are you concerned about the safety of others first and foremost? That is what it takes to lead.
A woman of the horse, a true Viking, demonstrated more about leadership in the space of a few hours than any class, any program I have ever attended.
There is nothing like watching pure courage in action. It’s not about taking foolish, mindless risks. It’s not about being the best or being stronger or having bigger muscles or whatever our tender egos may tell us. Pure courage, pure leadership is action in the face of adversity, putting others’ needs before your own if necessary, and doing what others will not, cannot do when the situation demands it.
Taking the heat, or in this case, taking the extreme cold, for as long as it takes to make sure others are safe. For my part, watching her was deeply humbling. I am immensely grateful to be able to see people like this demonstrate what courage looks like.