‘when your horse is young, travel to see places’ Mongolian proverb
Horses remain a central part of the life and culture in Mongolia and are one of the five traditional livestock animals (known as ‘tavan khoshuu mal’ – ‘Five Snouts’) owned by Mongolian herders who are great horsemen and women. And, in a country of great horsemen and women what could be a better way of exploring Mongolia than on horseback? Read on to see what else makes horse trekking in Mongolia such a worthwhile experience.
‘They looked like outlaws of the equine world. What they lacked in stature they made up for with attitude. They were tough, wilful, unsentimental characters.’ Stanley Stewart
Primarily used for herding, travel, hunting, and sport as well as a source of food and drink, Mongolian horses are a little like the herders that own them – self-sufficient, fearless and tough. They’re small (approximately 1.3 metres at the shoulder) but strong and resilient. Ponies they are not.
Mongolian horses live in territorial, almost semi-wild herds, led by a stallion who guides the other horses to water, shelter, and safety. They are hardy and well adapted to living out in a harsh environment facing a range of temperatures from extreme heat in the Gobi to sub-zero temperatures in the winter. They can also dig through snow to graze.
Most of the horses are ‘owned’ by a herder or family. The young, one or two-year-old horses, are examined and branded at the end of summer or in early autumn. They are broken in from the age of two and typically ridden once they are three. In the springtime, the herds are inspected and young males are castrated. This is also the time when the herders cut the mane as only stallions keep a long mane. Mares are generally not ridden in Mongolia. Instead, they are used for breeding and producing Mongolia’s national beverage airag (fermented mare’s milk).
The herders tend to have four or five favoured riding and working horses in a herd of 25 or 30 male horses and the rest remain a symbol of status and wealth. Some horses are kept for the use of the family as riding horses; older quieter horses are ridden by children/women; and everyone in the family will have favourite horses. They also give them as ‘gifts’ to each other.
Tradition & Culture
Horses have helped to shape the history of Mongolia but even in the 21st Century, horses remain central to daily life in Mongolia and Mongolia remains a horse-based culture.
One of the most traditional instruments in Mongolia is the Morin Khuur; the horse head fiddle. The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument – it was traditionally used as an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of nomadic Mongolians and to this day, the Morin Khuur repertory has retained some tunes (tatlaga) specifically intended to tame livestock. The design of the Morin Khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse and when played, it can produce sounds similar to the noises that a horse makes. Find out more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolias-horse-head-fiddle/
Historically, horseback archery was used for hunting, protecting livestock, protecting the tribe from outside enemies, and for war as horseback archery created a highly-mobile warrior. It was one of the defining characteristics of the Mongol Army – the Mongolian composite bow is a formidable tool with explosive acceleration and velocity and accompanied the Mongol Army as they conquered what became the largest contiguous land empire on earth. There has been a recent resurgence in horseback archery and you can find out more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolian-horseback-archery/
Herders in Mongolia are skilled horsemen and women and often festivals – whether local Naadam events or eagle festivals held in western Mongolia – feature horse games that celebrate the partnership between herder and horse. One such game is Kumis Alu (pick up the coin) played by the Mongol Kazakhs. The essence of the game is that while galloping at full speed the horse rider should pick up a coin off the ground. Another to look out for is Buzkashi (literally “goat grabbing” in Persian). Also known as kolpar, the version of the game played in western Mongolia is when horse-mounted players attempt tug-of-war with a goat carcass.
Racing also plays an important part in Mongolian social culture. Naadam is the annual national ‘Three Manly Sports’ festival which includes horse racing but smaller more informal race meetings held throughout the year are also known as ‘Naadams’.Horse races in Mongolia are a test of speed, stamina, and strength. Tradition dictates that race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses.
Our Horse Treks
We run our horse treks in Mongolia in conjunction with the Mongolian horse herding families we work in long-term local community partnership with and we leave the route of each horse trek flexible and in the hands of each of our horse herder guides as this leads to a more organic and Mongolian type of exploration. (Many horse trekking experiences offered in Mongolia have rigid routes and itineraries and that just seems wrong in a country of such freedom. To have a rigid plan seems odd when Mongolian herders rarely wear a watch let alone work to an agenda. They are not lazy but they do not live in our fast-paced time driven Western world and this makes them very relaxed about the time.)
The focus becomes getting to meet and know your Mongolian horse guide/wrangler as you ride alongside them in the areas where they consider home – experiencing one of the world’s greatest horse cultures from horseback, in a land where horses are still central and essential to the herding way of life. By not pre-planning the route, you have the flexibility to explore the hidden valley you just came across, to make the most of the abandoned Soviet hot springs or even to stop off for tea at the ger of the friend of your horse wrangler.
We have known the herders we work in long-term local community partnership with for close to two decades and although their relationship with their horses is practical (towards their livestock, herders are neither cruel nor particularly affectionate. Although they are an integral part of nomadic life, there can be no room for sentimentality) the horses are well cared for.
The horses are working horses, used by the local herders we work with. When not being used as riding horses, they live free – grazing on the steppe. They are responsive but are not considered solely riding horses or ‘broken in’ to the same extent as horses in the West.
However, the Mongolian riding style varies greatly from the Western style. For a start, most horses have five gaits instead of four (most seem to prefer cantering in virtually any situation although sometimes you get the odd horse that doesn’t want to do anything more than plod). Also, as mentioned, riding horses are not ‘broken in’ to the same extent as horses in the West. Mongolian herders give their riding horses a large amount of freedom and do not expect to completely control the horse but ‘trust it to do its job and find the best way through. Therefore, if a Western rider gets on a Mongolian horse and expects absolute control, the Mongolian horses essentially rebel!’ (The Equestrianists)
As a result, and because horses are only brought in occasionally to serve a turn as riding horses if you’re not used to horses you may find them jumpy, unpredictable, and quite boisterous. If you are used to riding, take your time understanding their character and learning how to control the horse the Mongolian way, and once comfortable, you’ll have a ball. They’re as much part of the experience as the trek itself.
The Small Details
Safety & Support
Pace And Experience
It is difficult to describe a typical day, as they vary so much depending on the route, the terrain, and the weather conditions. Expect five–six hours of riding per riding day with a break for lunch with longer days where necessary. The terrain is highly variable, including open grass steppe land, forested mountains, and valleys.
At EL, we mainly offer our Mongolia horse trekking tours as a tailor-made experience – adapted to suit your travel dates and preferred length of trip. And as mentioned, there are no prescribed routes. Just the freedom of riding out in the wide-open expanse of the Mongolian steppe, alongside herders that own the horses and live in the areas you are exploring, experiencing one of the world’s greatest horse cultures from horseback, in a land where horses are still central and essential to the herding way of life. If you’re considering horse trekking in Mongolia, for more information https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolia-tours/mongolia-horse-trekking-tours/ or https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolian-horseback-archery/ or get in touch with your questions.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes