Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mongolian horses

As Jenya the Mongol was thrown from the horse, tumbling onto his back into the river, I caught an embarrassed smirk on his face. Just this morning this descendent of Genghis Khan's people had warned us: "Mongolian horses are half wild."

It is just our second day on horseback. Yesterday we didn't make any distance but just took a short ride, local to our cedar glen campsite by the wide river, to get acquainted with the horses. There are a few important differences between this stout, short-legged breed and domesticated hot-bloods like Arabs and Thoroughbreds. Never approach the horse from its right side. Control it by neck-reining. Don't jump when dismounting or you'll startle it (at 13 hands you can step off)! Stirrups tend to be ridden short and a rawhide lead is always attached to the bridle, even while riding, which should be held in the non-reining hand (the idea is that if you come off the horse the lead will trail so the horse can be caught, as it will make for the hills). It is like riding a semi-mustang. To ride Mongolian horses is to challenge yourself as a rider.

At camp I tried to feed my horse an apple, an otherwise universal equine delicacy, but he wouldn't touch it. Mongolian horses eat nought but grass and don't understand hand-feeding. The entire year they live outdoors, through the harsh -40°C winter, finding their own food. They are hardy animals with miles of stamina. During World War II, three thousand were pressed into pulling Soviet cannon when the winter temperatures were so low that diesel coagulated in the engines. Most of them died at Leningrad. Six made it to Berlin.

All we are demanding of our nameless beasts today is to pull us out of the river, the second of numerous streams to cross where the horses are sometimes belly-deep with our knees acutely bent to keep our feet dry. Most manage effortlessly but Jenya's horse has found itself in a hole. As it thrashes he decides it's safer to bail, and over he goes, clothes and pride thoroughly damped.

"You guys go on," he says, standing sheepishly in mid-stream. "I'll catch up with the support truck to get some dry clothes." In mid-June the temperatures here are in just the low twenties and the water is cold. Jenya hauls his sodden legs out of the water, remounts and, with a smile, rides off.

We continue on without a translator, but it proves not to be a problem. Ercihan, the master Turkish horseman in our group, manages effortless communication with Dondov, the Mongol lead wrangler, despite no common language. Perhaps they both speak equine.

Horses and yaks dot the spectacularly wide glacial valley. Flanked by foothills of cedar forests which rise to mountains still sporting patches of snow in summer, it stretches like a golf course for titans. Underfoot are carpets of white, orange and blue wildflowers. Overhead eagles screech and from the trees cuckoos sound off like broken clocks.

Suddenly we hit some sand and my horse drops to his knees. Any horse likes to roll in sand to scratch its back. I suspect my saddle was rubbing him, but he was about to roll on me. To visualise a horse rolling with your foot in the stirrup, imagine trapping a chicken bone under a rolling pin. Now picture this naïvely oblivious amateur seconds from disaster thinking his horse has a flat tyre.

"Kick it!" Ercihan screams from behind me. "Kick it kick it kick it!"

I kick it.

The horse pops back up onto his feet, the calamity neatly avoided. "Be careful," Ercihan warns me. "Watch your horse in sand." He grins.

Rivers too, I think. These things are half wild.

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