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Nowhere else are horses more central to daily life than in Mongolia. Mongolia is known as the land of the horses, and Mongols have a reputation for being the best horsemen on Earth.

Nearly 10 thousand years ago, when the nomads of Central Asia domesticated a wild horse called the Tarpan, the horse became a part of civilization. Half-wild horses that are capable of feeding themselves in the wild have created a whole culture of steppe nomads. Horses are not just a daily means of transportation, but are true companions during long journeys and their milk is used to make drinks. Mongolians consume horse meat during cold winter months. Horse manes and tails are used to make harnesses and ropes for tying up a ger. The Morin khuur, or horse headed fiddle, has strings that are made of horse tail hair, and there is one in nearly every Mongolian household. Mongolians believe the sound of the fiddle can rid a home of bad spirits. Horses are often praised in commonly performed songs and poems. Even the Mongolian national emblem is an image of a horse.

Nomadic by Nature

Over the centuries, using chariots as well as mounted warriors, nomadic armies of Mongols struck south of the Great Wall and into the heart of Europe. The legendary thirteenth-century leader of whole Mongolia Genghis Khan established an empire that extended from Hungary to Korea and from Siberia to Tibet. Known in Europe as “Hell’s Horsemen,” Mongols could ride up to 80 miles a day, across deserts and mountains considered—until the arrival of these mounted armies—to be impassable.

An Important Part of Daily Life

Even in the twenty-first century, Mongolia remains a horse-based culture and retains its pastoral traditions. Its 2.4 million people are semi-nomadic and support themselves primarily by breeding five domestic species. These are invariably spoken of in a set of order: horses, cattle (including yaks), camels, sheep, and goats. The horse, which is used for travel, herding, hunting, and sport, is the most among the five domestic species. In the words of a herder who lives outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, “We Mongols respect horse as our companion of night and day. The horse is the source of joy and pride of a Mongolian herder. And we are nothing without our horses.”

Wide open valleys are heaven for horses

Beyond Ulaanbaatar, the horse is still the main means of transportation. Mongolian children learn to ride when they are as young as three years old.

Horse racing is one of the favorite sport of Mongolia, and young children are often become the jockeys, as the Mongolians believe the race tests the horse’s ability, not the rider’s ability to control the horse. Mongols have a large vocabulary of horse-related terms, and believe that one rides to heaven on a horse.

While all horses are important to the Mongolians, takhi is the wild horses that once roamed the Eurasian steppe in huge herds especially in Mongolian territory. “Takhi” means “spirit” or “spiritual” in Mongolian, and Mongolians consider the species a symbol of their national heritage. “We have a saying, ‘as fast as takhi,’ and we, as herders, all have a dream of having our mares mate with takhi to have a breed of fast horses—but they always get away from our catching poles,” says the herder.

The takhi went extinct in the wild in the late 1960s, but several programs have since reintroduced the wild horse to the Mongolian steppe and the Gobi Desert. In this country where horses are equated with freedom and well-being, the takhi’s return is profoundly meaningful. In the words of J. Tserendeleg “The history of Mongols is closely related to horses and . . . takhi were and are still worshipped by Mongols.”

Information resource: American museum of Natural History

At present there are 70 million horses in the world. Mongolia has over 2 million horses. It is in the eighth place by number of horses and in the first place by number of horses per person.
The Mongolian horse has a life expectancy of 20 years in average. The period of mare’s impregnation goes on from June through August. The duration of gestation lasts for approximately 335-340 days. A mare usually gives a birth to one foal. Females 3 years and over are called mare, and are allowed to breed desirably until 13 years old. An ungelded horse becomes a stallion, and its mane is not trimmed.

In spring, herdsmen separate mares from stallions, and guard them at night as mares foal at dusk or just before dawn. The animals live outdoors all year around. They are stocky, and with relatively short legs and a large head. The mane and tail are very long and often used for braiding ropes.

It is pride of a ranger to carry a slim and long pole of which the tip and the bottom nearby brush against the ground. Long pole is a fashion accessory for a young horse ranger

The tail hair is used for the strings of Morin Khuur, the most ancient popular musical instrument of Mongolians, invented at least a thousand years ago.

Most animals are kept roaming free, and only a small number of animals get caught and tethered for riding and other purposes. In Mongolia, the horses are tamed to be ridden as young as two years old. In fact, taming starts earlier when the mares are rounded up, and foals are taking away while milking.

The Mongolian horse is quite docile, friendly and reliable, and possesses a remarkable working ability, and can carry 1-2 tons of loads, in average, and weighs 280-320 kilos in average and drinks 40-9-liters of water a day. Horses have long been among the most economically important domesticated animals. The animals are used primarily for riding, both for the daily work of the herdsmen, and carting.

The common Mongolian practice and tradition of saddling and the adornments of a saddle were made of iron, copper and silver. A stirrup may be decorated with traditional patterns and a bridle with a set of small silver pieces. The harness reflected the owner’s wealth, age, sex and social status.

In addition, the horse is used for meat and milk production in Mongolia. The mares are rounded up from July through October for milking. It is the period of grass- growing seasons when the mares have enough green, and foals are put on flesh. In the first months the mares are milked 6-8 times a day, and in the last months 3-5 times a day. In average, the mare produces 3 litters of milk a day.
Mare’s milk is rich with protein, sweet minerals and various vitamins, including vitamin C. It is processed into the national beverage Airag, what the west, following Russians, call it Kumis.

Some horses are slaughtered for meat. As the horses are pasture-land animals, the meat is much tasty. The calorific value of horse meat is not less than other domesticated animals and considered to be rich in protein and easily digestive. However, in some countries it is taboo to consume horse meat.

The horse-racing sport is seen in almost every nation in the world. However, it is a very popular sport in Mongolia statehood, being a national festival with almost 2000 years history. Horse-racing is one of the Mongolians traditional festival “Three Manly Games”. Up to 1000 horses can compete in a race. Judging a race horse and conditioning a horse for racing requires experiences.

Hence the role of racehorse trainers has been always important in the development of this sport.

Race horse trainers catch their fast horses before sunrise and release them back to the herd after sunset

The Mongolians, throughout the history are simply unimaginable without their horses. Their rich folklore, be it dance or music, custom and tradition, ceremony and ritual, festivity and drama, legends and fairy tales are all saturated with horses. The great Mongol Empire would not be the same without its imposing riding warriors.   

It is said that Mongolians do not learn to ride, they are born to ride

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