I wrote yesterday about the history of Mongolia and mentioned the importance of horses to this place and her people.
Mongolian horses are a bit smaller than those in the West. The saddles are different and the stirrups are set higher. All in all, it’s a different riding experience.
Even though I haven’t been near a horse in more than a decade, there was no way I was coming to Mongolia without riding across the steppe on one.
“Our horses are semi-wild. So you have to be careful.”
If my guide said that once, she said it 100 times.
This was the warning that accompanied a list of instructions that seemed to have no end:
- Only approach from the left
- Sit up straight and tall
- Stand up in the stirrups if your back hurts
- Don’t startle the horses
- No noises
- Don’t talk loudly
- Make sure your clothes aren’t loose fitting (no problem there after this trip!!)
These “advices” as they were called continued to a point where I was scared to death of this animal. Apparently, the least little mistake would set off two tons of killing machine.
With that, I was told to get on. Cautiously, on the count of three, I climbed on. The horse didn’t seem too startled by my presence at all. Were the warnings for nothing?
“Does this horse have a name”
“No. We just call them by color.”
I rode “Grey One.”
I went to a liberal arts college in the truest sense: In addition to the normal courses, we were required to take five gym classes (think softball, running, tennis, etc.). Given my extreme lack of coordination, college athletics were not for me, and selecting from the list of options required some real effort on my part.
Fortunately, the college offered horseback riding. I signed up and found the horses to be well-trained. In fact, I’m pretty sure mine had been walking the same track for longer than I’d been alive. All I had to do, it seemed, was get on, stay on, and get off when she stopped. It was pretty good.
Until the “final exam,” that is. We had to complete a trail ride, which we’d made several times before. Now, I should have mentioned that our teacher had a strong bias against men. She preferred women in every respect. Everyone at the college seemed to know this, except for me. I was the only guy in the class. And my horse was the only one that seized up on the final exam. It refused to make the trail ride. Coincidence? I think not. Secret language between teacher and horse, I say.
So, with that experience (and the C+ to go with it), we were on our way out into the land of Genghis Kahn’s birth on horseback.
Seeing the steppe from the back of a Mongolian horse has been a dream of mine for a long time. As we went along, I was imagining myself as Genghis Khan riding along, surveying my domain. Independent and free. Able to go wherever I wanted.
Then I’d look over and see my guide tightly holding the lead rope. I’d snap back to reality and remember that he was the one directing my horse. Yeah, that brought me back down to earth, quickly dashing my dreams. I’m sure Genghis never had a “guide.”
Even still, the ride was brilliant. The scenery was fantastic. And we really lucked out: Thanks to a cloudy morning, the flies were few. Usually, I’m told, the flies – especially the biting kind – love to follow horses, which means fairly constant annoyance and occasional pain for horse and rider alike.
We returned to the camp just in time for the arrival of the yaks, which are used to haul everything from water to luggage. Unfortunately, my semi-wild horse wasn’t expecting to encounter a yak.
One of the yaks coughed. At least I think it was a cough. Everything happened so fast.
My horse startled, which meant it did its best to get away from the sick yak as quickly as it could. Apparently, horses make better speed on their back two legs, which left me hanging on for dear life. Yeah, I was hanging on for dear life, gripping that saddle with everything I had.
As much as I’d like to credit my own horsemanship, I owe my life to the guide who yanked my horse down and gently guided us both in for a smooth landing.
I’m grateful the near-miss didn’t happen until the end, otherwise, it would have been a long walk back. Also, I really don’t like yaks anymore.
So what exactly made Genghis Khan such an important leader? That, and more, in our next installment of the “Mongolia Diaries…”