Photo Essays | Society

A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

An inside look at a spring ritual among the nomads of the Mongolian steppe.

By Dimitri Staszewski for
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

The first of two small herds is coaxed into a Mongolian herder’s corral for a spring haircutting. Mongolian horses are allowed to roam freely in the nearby mountains. The four herders doing the haircutting rounded up the herd using motorcycles. Putting the horses in a corral makes roping and cutting the horses’ hair much easier.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

Ganbold specialized in roping. He prepares his lasso during a calm moment before the haircutting frenzy begins.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

Otgo cutting a horse’s mane while Ganbold ropes another horse in the background. With little verbal communication, the herders worked as a unit to cut the hair of around 50 horses.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

Ganbold’s lasso almost always found its mark around a horse’s neck on his first throw.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

Some horses were more spirited than others and required two or three herders to wrangle and cut their hair.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

With his back to the wind, Togoo rolls himself a cigarette to get a break from the action.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

The yearly haircutting is also a good time to take stock of the entire herd. Baby teeth cause young horses pain as they chew, which prevents them from gaining weight. Bondon used a screwdriver to precisely remove several teeth in a matter of seconds.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

A horse’s baby tooth after being removed.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

Forgoing his lasso, Ganbold decided to wrestle several of the younger horses.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski
A Haircut for Mongolia’s ‘Half-Wild’ Horses

Most horses have their manes trimmed quickly. Togoo takes extra care as he trims the mane of one of his most prized horses.

Credit: Image by Dimitri Staszewski

“Gadaa aduu dellej baina”—“They’re cutting the horses’ hair outside.”

Filling in the gaps with her hands-turned-scissors mimicry, I was surprised by my own ability to understand the words my host-mother, Enkhchimeg, was saying.

I grabbed my camera and stepped into the furious bluster that characterizes Mongolian spring. Herders and horses kicked dust and dirt, which was caught by the wind and thrown into eyes, ears, and mouths as I photographed the yearly ritual of cutting each horse’s mane.

Mongolian horses have been aptly described to me as “half-wild.” Despite their undersized stature in comparison to their Western counterparts, lifetimes of grazing, running, and playing with the herd have left their spirits uninhibited and whole—gruff and abrasive in both texture and personality. If you held an apple to a Mongolian horse’s face, she would take a momentary pause to gaze at this foreign object and person before putting her head down, returning to graze her familiar pasture.

I entered this whirlwind of hair, teeth, and flying grit with my camera and go-to 50mm lens. I was left in awe as my equipment forced me into close proximity with these half-wild animals and the four men wrangling them.

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Dimitri Staszewski is a recording engineer, producer, and an adventurer who enjoys merging his passions for creating multimedia content and exploration. He is currently in Mongolia on a Fulbright-mtvU scholarship. He is adding to his online archive of traditional Mongolian music performed by nomadic herders.