During her journey across Asia on the TransMongolian railway from Beijing to St. Petersburg, author Paula Boer stopped off to experience the native horses of the Mongolian steppes.
Horses trot and canter all around us across the open grasslands, buckskins, bays, chestnuts. Their hogged manes and lean hides accentuate their movements, muscles taut and necks stretched low. Riders of all sizes wearing colourful garb wave their arms, flap their legs and twitch the long ends of their reins to gain that extra effort from their mount.
The annual horse races in Mongolia are a splash of orange, red and yellow against a backdrop of rolling green hills. Clothes and tack are made from assortments of materials, knotted together or tied with rawhide. Racing men and boys sit higgledy-piggledy but seem part of the creature beneath them. Like monsters with many limbs, they windmill in a blur of exertion, dripping sweat.
Our guide tells us that many competitors have ridden for hours to come to this important event. The horses will race more than once over a distance of forty kilometres before being ridden home again. The sheer distance that the horses are to perform over amazes me.
There is no doubt that these people love their animals. The horses respond instantly to every command – spinning, barging, galloping or sliding to a halt to gain advantage over the other competitors. Riders jostle and holler amidst an equally raucous crowd cheering on their favourites and shouting advice. A few vehicles dot the open plains but most spectators arrived on horseback.
The race winds over hills, through rivers and down valleys, the riders knowing the route from experience. Craggy outcrops of rock can be climbed or skirted around. No specific tracks mark the way. Cheers and jeers announce the invisible finish line where horses are swamped by family members to be rubbed down and fed in preparation for the next race.
I could hardly wait for a chance to ride these tough fit horses. The day after the race I had my chance. Despite having competed the day before, the ponies felt keen as we mounted up. No two saddles were the same, each cobbled together from whatever the owner had; bits of cloth, leather, and metal tubing, with wire and plaited leather for bridles. We adjusted our stirrups and tried to get used to sitting on wads of stuffed padding.
Once I had settled in to my mount I cantered across the meadow of summer flowers which grew as high as my horse’s nose. Suddenly there was much shouting. I turned to see what the problem was, only to see I was being signalled to come back. Believing the situation urgent, I galloped back to the guides who were getting more and more anxious. I pulled up as they leapt from their horses. Grinning up at me, they indicated my girth had come undone and was dragging on the ground! It seemed my balance impressed the owners of the horses which resulted in a comradeship I hadn’t sensed before.
My new found friends signalled that they would lead the way up the mountain. We climbed through vast stands of conifers, the smell of pine needles rising from under the horses’ hooves. We crossed grasslands where the horses nibbled on the tiny purple, yellow and white flowers without needing to lower their heads. Emerging on a hilltop, an endless vista of green under a clear blue sky lay before us, herds of horses dotted amongst the lush feed.
After a welcome break for us and the horses, we meandered down the hillside and came across a wide river glistening over smooth pebbles. I dismounted to cool my hands in the clear crisp water, shocked at how cold it felt despite the forty degree heat. The river is snow melt, with winters in this vast emptiness reaching minus twenty degrees or lower. Such extremes provide great challenges to the nomadic peoples.
I remounted and urged my horse into the river, lifting my feet high out of the stirrups as the level of the water rose. Screams from behind me had the guides laughing as a couple of the less experienced riders found their legs swamped in icy water. The horses ignored the commotion and ploughed on through, never changing their stride against the strong current, sure-footed over the slippery bottom.
Although conversation was mainly by sign language, we learnt that everyone, yes everyone, in Mongolia can ride. There are more horses than people in the country. Everywhere you look, there are statues of horses, horses carved into their musical instruments, drawings of horses on their banknotes. Horses provide transport, entertainment, food, drink and income.
There are no fences. The herds roam freely, ownership identified by brands. Mustering is not required – twice a day the mares come in to feed their foals. The youngsters remain tied to a long line in rows. When the mares arrive, they are milked for human consumption before the foals are permitted to drink. In this way the foals are well handled from birth and see humans as their providers. It creates a life bond; children nurture the horses that are to be theirs.
The mares’ milk is stored in large containers inside the doorway to the ger, or yurt, where the people live in summer. Tradition insists that everyone stirs the milk as they pass through the door. After a thousand or so churns, the milk has fermented into a beverage like bubbly yoghurt. Tasty, nourishing, and slightly alcoholic!
These friendly people follow their herds through the verdant summer months, caring for their horses, yaks, sheep and goats, then move to permanent homes in winter. But regardless of the season, horses are an integral part of their lives. If you want to live and breathe horses, I highly recommend a riding holiday in Mongolia.