Yesterday we considered the contrasts of modern Mongolian life and the nation’s post-1990 boom. With so much in flux these past few decades it is difficult to find elements of continuity – especially in the nation’s capital, Ulan Bator, where one-third of the Mongolia’s population lives and continues to build this young, burgeoning urban center.
But beyond the urban sprawl and clusters of gers (traditional portable houses) that fan out beyond the city’s limits it does not take long before the concrete gives way to grass and the crowds of people give way to herds of quasi feral herds of Mongol horses.
“They’re everywhere, as common as cows on Western farmland,” Shatra Galbadrah, a resident of Ulan Bator who works as the Mongolian liaison for a 1,000-kilometer horse race called the Mongol Derby, told The Diplomat. “There is one main breed seen all over Mongolia. If you go 20 kilometers from any town they’re all over the place.”
She continued, “Mongol horses are semi-wild. In the West horses are treated more like pets. But here, herders will have maybe 200 horses. Of course, they don’t ride them all every day. But they choose some to selectively train, while others go for long periods of time without being ridden. They become more wild again, so the herders will break them in when the time comes.”
For Westerners this implies “saddling up,” but in Mongolia – though a small wooden saddle is often employed – horsemanship is different. These horses are particularly small in size and are not built to bear a heavy burden. But this need not be seen as a drawback. An article titled “The Mighty Mongol Horse” sings the praises for this unique breed: “Diminutive, sturdy, fearless, wild and unbelievably tough, they are revered in Mongolian culture, and have changed very little over the centuries, remaining essentially free from human interference.” The article notes that although they are pony-sized, steeds of Mongolian stock are known to work up to the age of 18.
The article continues: “Mongolian horses are not monitored by any kind of breeding society or registry. Mother Nature is pretty much the registry association for the breed. If they can’t survive the weather, the terrain and cannot exist on available plants, then they won’t survive to breed.”
Not that the steeds need any help from their human neighbors. Mongol horses have made a home on the steppe, surviving in temperatures that dip to minus 40 Celsius in winter and climb to plus 30 in summer. The terrain is dry, barren, and yet the nation’s three million steeds manage to nourish their muscular frames with little more than grass and water. And they are renowned for their unfaltering ability to go the distance, running up to 40 kilometers a day.
Mongolians have historically been equestrians almost from birth. Perhaps nowhere else on earth has horsemanship been elevated to such an art. As the saying goes, “A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without the wings.” Genghis Khan is widely quoted as having said, “It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse,” which is exactly what he and an army of Mongol warriors did, as they rode halfway around the globe astride their homeland’s steeds in the pursuit of empire.
That was the male horses – which are also turned into meat on occasion. The females (mares) on the other hand, are not ridden as often; but they are readily used for milk up to six times on a summer day. While the stallions roam free, they tend to stay within a 10 kilometer range, which allows herders to keep tabs on them as they scout out the choicest patches of turf to graze. Herders tend to pick favorites to do work, milk and breed, while rounding up the rest as symbols of status. They are also given as gifts. In short, horses are deeply embedded in the lives of Mongolians from cradle to grave.
“We have really skilled horsemanship. It’s different compared to Western horsemanship,” Galbadrah said. “It’s very common to begin riding horses from a young age here. I used to ride with my grandparents in the countryside during summer. I remember learning to ride without a saddle…that’s normal. In July there is a very famous race with six age groups of children jockeys from the ages of 6 to 12. People are amazed as they watch from a distance when they find out that it’s actually kids riding.”
She continued, “During my grandparents’ generation almost everyone knew how to ride horses. In Mongolia today most people can still ride, but not like they used to. Many kids are born in the city and just don’t have a chance to learn.”
This, however, is beginning to change. Now that the country is opening up, people are beginning to travel again and are “taking much more interest in going out to the countryside for vacations and riding horses.”
Mongolians are not alone. Now that the country’s doors are wide open to visitors from abroad, travelers have also begun to explore the steppe. And in the popular imagination this often means racing. Next week we look at the Mongol Derby, a grueling 1,000-kilometer race that traces the postal route once laid out by Genghis Khan.