Thursday, February 13, 2014


Mongolia is a country that is located just above China on the map.  In fact, Mongolia sort of snuggles down into China like a bird in a nest.  But back long ago, the fierce Mongol warriors were not very snuggly.  They were mostly trying to conquer China, which is why the Great Wall got built.

The 13th-Century warrior, Genghis Khan, and his mounted armies managed to conquer a lot of land in Europe and south of the Great Wall.  These "Hell's Horsemen" could ride up to 80 miles a day, crossing deserts and mountains that everyone had thought couldn't be crossed.  Eventually, Genghis Khan established an empire that stretched from Hungary to Korea and from Siberia to Tibet.  And the main reason the Mongols were able to do this was because of their horses.

Mongol warrior reenactor

The Mongolian people have always been nomadic, which means that they moved around from place to place, and they carried their houses with them.  They were able to do all this moving around because as far back as anyone can remember, the Mongols have had horses.   In fact, there are records to prove they had horses at least as long ago as 2000 B.C.E.

Hustai National Park, Mongolia
Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Chinneeb

When scientists tested the DNA of the Mongol horses, they found that they had the largest genetic variety of any other type of horse.  This means that these horses are a very ancient breed that has just bred naturally without humans interfering.  And another thing it means is that lots of other horse breeds descend from Mongolian horses.

Mongolian family and their ger
Photo by Kikutake Yuji

About a third of the people of Mongolia live in cities, and the rest of them live in the country as nomads.  Their houses are called gers.  The nomads own more than 3 million horses, which is more than the country's whole human population.  Besides horses, they also raise cattle (including yaks), camels, sheep, and goats.  But horses are the most prized.  There is a traditional saying that "A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings."

Most Mongol horses are actually semi-wild.  They are not kept in barns or pastures.  Instead, they stay outdoors all year without shelter.  In the summer, it can be as hot as 86ºF and in the winter it gets as cold as -40º.  The horses have to find their own food to eat because they are not fed hay or oats or sugar cubes or anything like that.  The horses that are handled and broken to ride become quite friendly.   Each Mongolian family member usually has a horse or two that are his favorites, but the horses aren't given names.  They are just thought about sort of the same way Westerners think of their cars.

Besides being used for riding, horses can also be a source of meat.  Fermented milk from the mares is used to make the national beverage, airag.

Mongolian horses are stocky, with short, strong legs.  In some ways, they look like ponies, but they are tall enough to be classified as horses.  They range in size from 12 to 14 hands (48" to 56").  The mane and tail are very long, which provides nice hair for making braided ropes.  The tail hair can be used to make violin bows.  These horses have strong, tough hooves, so they don't usually need shoes.  The horses have great stamina and can gallop for 6 miles without a break.

Photo:  Ohno Satoshi

Riding a horse in Mongolia is different from riding in Europe or the U.S.  For one thing, the Mongolian saddle is very tall, with a wooden frame.  The rider can't really control the gait of the horse.  Instead, the rider lets the horse choose the gait that seems right for whatever task is being done, such as herding cattle.  Cantering is the gait often chosen.  Mongolian horses have five gaits instead of four.  The fifth gait is a running walk.

Photo:  Kikutake Yuji

Horse racing is very popular in Mongolia.  Lots of times, children ride in these races.  Most of them have been riding since a very early age, and they are quite good at it.  The horses are trained to keep running, even if their riders fall off, so people have to wait at the finish line to catch any riderless horses.

Wikimedia Commons
Photo: JaniKajala

The most famous race is the Mongol Derby.  In 2010, it earned a place in 2010 in the Guinness Book of World Records as  the world's longest horse race.  The race course is 1000 km (621 miles) through the Mongolian Steppe, following the ancient postal route set up in 1224 by Genghis Khan.  Along the course of the race, there are 25 horse stations and rest stops.  Every day each rider has a new horse, and since they've never ridden these horses before, that adds more challenge to the race.  There are rules about how long people can ride each day, and at night they can stay with local nomads or camp out.

So anyway, Mongolia is probably the only country that still has a horse-based culture, even in the 21st century.  One herder, who was quoted in an article I found, said, "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."


  1. Dorrie-

    Very good blog today! It reminded my mom of this book:

    She thinks you and your mom would enjoy it.

    --Zest! superstar of finding forbidden food

    1. Dear Zest!
      I'm glad you liked my blog entry. I will be writing about lots of horses during the Year of the Horse, but I thought I should start with horses from the country that invented the Year of the Horse -- or at least the country that kept trying to conquer the country that did. Thanks for your book recommendation. We will check it out!
      Your friend, Dorrie, who had to go on a diet because her mom did not want her to be one of those fat chihuahuas!