Book Review: ‘Wild Horses of the Summer Sun’

An Iceland odyssey – on horseback!

Photo by Will Wade

Tory Bilski hooked me with her first line. I was searching riding trips sites by the end of the paragraph. Wild Horses of the Summer Sun is a well-crafted odyssey. The book brims with Icelandic horses, foreign travel exploration and the human (and herd) dynamic of a group of women who crave to “be Iceland” — year after year.

The literary craft in Wild Horses glitters. Sort of “writing Dressage.” The storytelling speaks to the explorer in us. The narrative “voice” is inclusive, from novice to expert. Want to know what escapades await when riding in Iceland on Icelandic horses? Tory guides us around each mystical curve and through a physical (and emotional) blinding fog. She swims us across a (gulp) deep lake. We encounter “Tippi Hedren-esk” killer birds and truculent bulls. We hunger for the “gifts of the earth” meals and well-earned, decadent desserts. Ancient Nordic Sagas of trolls, ghosts and a fatal love affair spice the travelogue.

Photo used with permission from Tory Bilski

Group travel is not all beer and skittles. Tory’s small herd of invited women (aged from early ’20s to 74) are sometimes well synchronized. Sometimes the personalities carom off each other. Tory harnesses the relationships to ponder how we relate to each other, what drives us and how we grapple with our gut responses. All ring with, “oh, yea, I so get that.”

I had questions for Tory:

Who is your target reader? I thought I would pull in readers who were interested in Iceland, not just Icelandic horses and readers interested in horses, but not necessarily Iceland. I saw it as a coming-of-age book for middle-aged women. Once we’ve hit middle age, we find ourselves settled into life. But then it’s like – okay great, now how do I get lost for a while? Iceland, the horses and traveling were about getting lost for a while. Paradoxically I found another part of myself. It’s a female buddy road trip book.”

Waterfall Way behind Skogafoss. Photo by Will Wade.

Fear seems to creep into many “mature” riders. Your thoughts? “It’s always an issue for me. I try various methods of relaxing before I get on a horse. I spend a lot of time grooming the horse.

The women I rode with were mostly experienced riders. Some kept their fears to themselves. Some expressed fear outwardly. ‘Viv’ in the book once said that the more you know about horses, the more you know what can go wrong. She was my go-to horse expert. I kept her close by.

No one wants to bust themselves up having fun. Even a trusted horse can get spooked. I’m less nervous about riding in Iceland because 1) I trust Icelandic horses a little more, and 2) where we rode there were clear vistas that allowed you to see for miles ahead.”

Photo used with permission from Tory Bilski

How did you turn your trials riding into education? “Any time you go through something that tests you, you learn about yourself. You have all this time in the saddle to figure things out when trekking. I had time to figure out the horse’s quirks. Iceland has varying terrain: lupine fields, hills, mud, dirt roads, sheep trails and the hard-packed black sand that lets you tolt forever. The variations of turf and time in the saddle make you improve.

Why Icelandic horses? “I love the gaits. The tolt, of course. But also, I love the canter. I love the size of them – I can easily mount and dismount. They smell good. I don’t know if it’s the Arctic wind blowing through their shaggy mane. They can be complicated with all the gaits. They are very “go-ey” and willing. Icelandics are a lot of horse in a small package.”

Photo by Dave Muller

Talk about travel in a group. “I met a devoted group of horsewomen specific to the Icelandic breed. We could talk 24/7 about horses – about Icelandic horses in Iceland. They wanted to return every year and so did I. Of most importance, they were funny, zany and up for adventure. We had our ups and downs, but it was mostly up. And there were moments when we were truly blithe spirits.

Advice for those who consider the adventure. “Once you hit a certain age you realize there is more time behind you than in front of you. We need to take advantage of anything that makes us feel free. We need to find our joy.”

How do you cope with your loss of your “Iceland?” “I wrote this book! A memoir is about an era of your life. It’s about time and loss. It’s been five years since we were all together in Iceland. The country, the farm, the horses, our company was what drew us together each year. We’re no longer there. We’ve all moved on to the next eras of our lives. You can never step into the same river twice.

West fjord. Photo by Will Wade.

“So much of Iceland to me was the landscape. It felt strange yet familiar. It was a place of constant discovery and constant astonishment. I don’t believe in past lives — until after my third glass of wine. It sounds loony, but there were times I strongly believed I had a past life there. Even without a drop of wine. I was haunted by the ‘sense of place’. I don’t know if I can replace that “

The wild spirit rooted in the Icelandic horse sings to Tory and to those of us who yearn to fly on the hoof. She encourages me to fly. Wild Horses of the Summer Sun will encourage you too.

Photo used with permission from Tory Bilski