The Mongolian Horse
A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without its wings.
Riding horses to Mongolians is like breathing, they are said to be born in the saddle and raised on horseback. They are taught to ride from the tender age of two, by being literally tied into the saddle.
The Mongolian horse is just as important to the country today, as they were generations ago during the times of Genghis Khan. They have been described as largely unchanged since these times and are sometimes mistaken for a pony due to their small size. Their size however, didn’t stop them from carrying Mongol warriors across half of the world. They were paramount in making it possible for Genghis Khan and his soldiers to create an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the centre of Europe. This could be one of the reasons why they have been referred to as Genghis Khan’s greatest weapon.
In western society, Genghis Khan is remembered as being a ruthless barbarian but in Mongolia he is a national hero, with a 131ft 2in tall statue of him seated in the saddle of a horse just 54km east from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
The Mongol Derby recreates the trail taken by Genghis Khan and takes place every year, with around forty competitors all trying to win the Derby crown. The race is undertaken by professionals, semi professionals and enthusiastic amateurs. It has been regarded, as being the toughest and longest horse race in the world. The race requires riders to weigh no more than 85kgs which includes the weight of their clothes due to the small size of the horses. They are even encouraged to travel light with just 5kg of essential survival equipment. The horses which are used for the race belong to local nomadic herding families and breeders. Fourteen hundred of them are selected in the months prior to the race and they are then put through training to prepare them for the derby.
As well as the famous derby, Mongolians compete in family horse races which are considered to be a big deal amongst the Mongols’, attracting people from miles away who arrive with their families and ‘best horse’. These race meetings can happen up to four or five times over the summer. Children are the ones who ride the horses in these races as the Mongol’s believe that the smaller the jockey the faster the horse. Before the race, each horse has to be blessed with milk taken from the mares known as Irag which is stroked onto them by women using spoons. It is believed that singing Buddhist Mantra helps give the horses speed. The family of the winner is rewarded with a valuable horse, while the runner up is given a sheep and although the other participants are given smaller gifts, everybody gets something.
Mongolians have kept in tradition since the times of Genghis Khan, where the horses are concerned, as they still use metal studs that are located on the wooden saddles which sit on the horse’s backs. These metal studs were originally put on the saddles all of those centuries ago, to encourage men to stand up whilst riding.
The journey that these horses went on to reach Europe shows just how tough they really are and this toughness has not worn down over the years. The native horses survive extreme temperatures of minus forty degrees in the winter and over thirty degrees in the summer with little interference from humans. They survive on the natural sources around them, eating hardly anything but grass and drinking water wherever they find it. The natives around them rarely provide extra food for the animals. They are also seldom shod due to the fact that they naturally have very tough feet. Mongols’ only seek veterinary care for their prized horse, with the outlook of ‘survival of the fittest.’
The male horses are used for transportation and racing while the females (mares) are rarely ridden as they are used for milk and breeding.
Although it is said that Mongolians see horses the same way that people in other societies see cars, these horses are more than just transportation for Mongolians. They are also used for their resources, such as their milk which is used to make a drink called ‘Irag.’ The milk is also used in traditional Mongolian dishes. It is difficult for them to grow fruit and vegetables so the milk is their only source of Vitamin C. In the summer, the horses are milked every two hours (up to six times a day) and this is only done by the women.
In the western society horses are taken care of and kept secure in fenced fields and stables, but in Mongolia they are merely left to leave if they wish to. They are treated with such respect by the Mongol’s, it is said, that they choose to stay.
Having a large number of horses is seen as a symbol of wealth and status amongst Mongol families. The older and quieter horses are usually ridden by the children and women. Children are also put on the backs of foals and weanlings to help break them in for work. Some Mongol’s tie the foals to a line where their toddlers can help ready them for human interaction. Many of them are herded from birth so that when it comes to riding them, the process is sped up. Despite this, they are still considered to be free and wild animals which could be why the riding style varies greatly from western horses. Mongolians do not expect to have complete control over the animals, and put their trust in them to complete tasks themselves. This is why westerners who ride Mongolian horses are advised beforehand to not expect full control over them as this will result in the horses rebelling.