The Horses of the Mongolian Steppes
Here’s the second installation of my Mongolian Diary:
The life of a Mongolian horse is incomparably different to that of your average horse elsewhere. As much as possible they live completely un-tampered with lives out on the steppes in natural wild herds. Nomadic horse people follow these herds and live their lives in total symbiosis with them. To a Mongolian person a horse is so much more than just a companion or leisure animal; it is the only effective means of transport in much of the country, a currency in its own right, a means of income, and also a food source in hard times – mostly for dairy products made from mare’s milk but also the meat of the animals too. This is pretty unpalatable to many of us of course but Mongolia, whilst beautiful, is an exceptionally brutal land. The infrastructure does not allow for very much at all by way of imports – especially out in the further reaches of the country, and the rock solid earth which sees very little rainfall and spends a big chunk of the year at a bone-chilling -40C, is all but useless for crop cultivation. Herd animals are pretty much it for food. Mongolian horses aren’t named and aren’t pets – with the exception of the greatest race horses and winners. Do your family proud and you just might get a name and stay off the dinner table.
Horrible bit out of the way, being a Mongolian horse is pretty sweet up until that point. A foal is born free out there in the infinite grassland with no fields, roads or fences, and it will roam wild with its mother and its family until it is fully grown. If it’s female it will be left alone its entire life and will only have interaction with people if it needs medical attention and in the summer if she has a foal of her own she might be caught and milked before being released again.
For boys life is a bit more eventful; colts will be rounded up and (cover your eyes gents) castrated unless they show good potential as racers. This is to reduce fighting, make sure only the best males breed and make it easier to keep track of whose foals are whose. These geldings will then be trained for riding, their manes will be partially hogged (leaving their forelocks and roughly 10 inches at the base) and they will be re-released into the herd. The hogging makes them more easily identifiable so that when the horsemen round up the herd in the morning they can tell which ones are trained and pick them out, in the evening they’ll be untethered and left to gallop off and re-join their family. During the winter they might go as long as six to eight months without much human interaction at all but once trained they stay trained and they will still be rideable in Spring when they’re rounded up again for a new haircut.
On the other hand, if a colt is particularly speedy and handsome he could be paired with a young jockey (typically 8-11 years old) and together they will train for the Mongolian horse-races, in particular the Naadam festival which is like the Superbowl, world-cup and Christmas all wrapped up in one for Mongolian people. If he’s really lucky and he does well he might get a herd of his own one day, in which case he’ll get to be like Boss – our palomino herd stallion. Never caught or ridden anymore; Boss spends his days eating, sleeping, bossing other horses around and having his way with the enormous herd of ladies at his disposal. At the moment two of his sons are preparing for the races and if they’re lucky they might get to retire in the same style in a few years too.
Mongolian horses are beautiful and come in a spectacular variety of colours, including a lot of ones that are quite rare elsewhere; buckskins, grullos, creams, duns and roans for instance. They also commonly have distinctive two-tone manes, dorsal stripes and vivid zebra bars on their legs; clues to the primitive nature of the breed and how close they are to the Przewalski Wild Horse – the first true horse. Wild Przewalskis are found only in Mongolia and are to horses what wolves are to dogs, which lends quite a lot of credibility to the strongly held Mongolian belief that they were the first to domesticate and ride horses.