A Mongolian without a horse is
like a bird without wings.
In the epics of Mongolian literature, there are stories abound of mangas – the multi-headed demons who ate humans, destroyed crops, and stole children away from their mothers. They are a terror, ingrained in the very fabric of Mongolia, in their art, in their homes and stories. But however terrifying the mangas might be, they are always defeated by heroes with shining swords, whistling arrows and a mount to carry them through the danger. As no rider can defeat these monsters without his horse. And so, the horse has woven its way into the hearts, minds, souls and very wardrobe of the people of Mongolia.
Elizabeth Kimball Kendall, a traveller and writer once wrote: “The Mongol without his pony is only half a Mongol, but with his pony, he is as good as two men.” And without ever speaking to a Mongolian, one can easily witness the tradition and history the horse carries across the open steppes. And in the eyes and smiles of the people, there is a love and adoration.
Apart from being a companion, the horse acts as their livelihood; their food, their milk, their transport. From their hair they make ropes, from their skin they make boots, they eat their meat in winter and use their bones to make beautiful instruments. And even a mare’s milk can be made into a refreshing alcoholic drink called airag.
Woven into their lives and livelihood
Without the horse and what it provides, it is easy to see that the Mongolian way of life would drastically change. According to statistics, there are 3 million horses in Mongolia, one for each person. They are a symbol of status and wealth. The larger the herds the higher your status. A man who can tame a wild stallion is respected by men and adored by women. Horse races are grand events called Naadam and they occur every summer.
Young and old riders alike take part, racing across the open fields in endurance races ranging between ten to 30 kilometres. The winning horse is revered and adored. His sweat-soaked body touched and petted by onlookers, who believe it to be good luck. The horse is then sprinkled with airag.
Despite being tamed and used for work, the horses are mostly wild as the Mongols prefer their mounts spirited and independent. The horses are not so much controlled as guided; the rider lets the horse pick the pace, as he ropes and herds the cattle over the grasslands or pick his way across the hefty slopes of the mountain.
Having a stranger on their back could be disastrous for the rider, as these horses are fiercely loyal and tend to bond with only one master.
Children ride mares or older geldings, as do the women. When a favoured mount dies from old age or the simple harshness of the steppes, it is honoured by having its skull buried. Should it be killed for food, it is instead left in the field so that its spirit can remain in the wilds.
Beliefs and traditions
Certain horses are bestowed with honour in life by having a blue sash tied around their necks. Like a prized stallion that has managed to win at the summer races, or a mare who has given many foals in her long years might be given such a sash as a sign of recognition, respect and a thank you. But the most revered of all horses in the wild and striking Takhi, known as the very spirit of the steppes.
Untamable, the Takhi teases and taunts its would-be wranglers, easily springing free from pole or rope.
The riders of Genghis Khan where called 'Hell's Horsemen' and for good reason. They could shoot an arrow from under a horses' chin, while hanging on the side of the horse to avoid enemy fire.
A Mongolian with a herd of mares would always wish them to be bred to a Takhi.
Believed to be the mount of the gods, the Mongolians revere the wild horse of the Steppes as holy. Even its name means ‘spirit’ or ‘worthy of worship’.
The further tradition of the Mongolian horse dictates that to cut a stallion’s mane is forbidden, as it is believed the spirit of the stallion resides within the mane. The riders pick out single horses to ride and use for work – usually geldings, and the mares are milked up to six times a week. The milk is used in rituals, marriages and purification rituals.
With such a rich culture dipped around the horse and its uses, it should come as no surprise that the horse is weaved intricately into the mythology and folklore of the people.
The Mongolians are excellent horsemen, and showcase these skills during hunts, wrangling colts and, of course, sport.
In mythology and folklore
In the epic of Gesar Khan our hero, who was the son of a dragon princess, rides Kyang Go Karkar. The horse was wild, fierce and intelligent and would only let Gesar ride him. He could also fly, but when he competed in a race he resisted and won by galloping as swiftly as the north wind. The magnificent steed is also by Gesar Khan’s side when he battles Lutzen, the twelve-headed manga demon-king. After Gesar defeats the demon he finally takes his rightful place on the golden throne as King of Ling.
The folkloric legend of Suho is told across the entirety of the steppes and surrounding mountains. Suho, the hero of this story, found a young foal in a field, alone with no mother. He cared for the foal and as it grew from a colt to stallion they became great friends and would race across the open fields almost everyday.
He takes part in the Naadam, but the old chief is not happy that a mere peasant should have such a beautiful horse. He orders the boy to be killed and the horse captured.
The boy escapes as does the horse, but he dies from his injuries on the doorstep of his master. That night the stallion comes to the peasant in a dream and shows him how to make an instrument from his bones, skin and hair. The boy does so and makes the Morin Kuuhr, the national instrument of Mongolia today.
It is still made from the bone and hair of horses, and the top of the violin is carved in the shape of a horse’s head, to remember the white stallion who gave them the beautiful instrument.
The Morin Kuuhr, the national instrument of Mongolia.
But most white horses carry a high status amongst the Mongolian tribes. Shamans are privy to owning and riding a white horse, as are chieftains like Genghis Khan who owned two. These white horses are seen as spiritual, and might even carry their Shaman’s to the spirit world.
Although white is sacred, the horses come in an array of colours, from pinto to cream, although some clans prefer certain colours to others. The horse is hardy, with hooves as hard as stone and a spirit twice as fierce. They are able to easily fend off threatening wolves should they attempt to attack their herds.
This hardiness and courage were key to Kahn’s campaign into Asia, where he trampled his enemies under the hooves of his mounts. The small horses could easily run 10 kilometres full speed, and although not as swift as the enemy horses, they were agile and brave enough to aid their riders.
But this would not be the final time these horses saw the frontline of a Great War. In WWI Mongolia sent thousands of its horses to Russia to be used in the war. At least one in every five horses were Mongolian, and just as they were during the 13th century, their spirit and tenacity saw many a rider brought home safe from the battleground.
In the Korean War, another Mongolian horse made her mark, the only horse to receive the title of Sergeant. Her name was Reckless, she was trained to carry supplies to the men on the front line, and during a single skirmish, she made 51 trips for her platoon and carried many a wounded rider back to the barracks. In the words of her platoon:
“She wasn’t a horse, she was a marine.”
Here is Sergeant Reckless with her platoon.
The Mongolian horse is not the elegant Arab, the swift thoroughbred or the beautiful Andalusian. They are small, they are cramped and stocky, barely a horse and more like a pony. And yet they hold a place dear and true in the hearts of the people of the Steppes. They are the spirit and heart of their people and in their small chests lies the heart of a lion, ready to fight the monster, protect its rider and do what is needed.
After all, as the saying goes, “A Mongolian without a horse, is like a bird without wings.”
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Thanks Mathew for letting me use some of your footage for this video! Please check out his video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8EmFEIrwVE
http://www.mongolia-travel-and-tours.com/horse-mongolia.html https://www.amnh.org/explore/videos/biodiversity/wild-horse-mongolia/horse-mongolian-culture https://www.globetrotting.com.au/horse-breed-mongol/