On June 28th we left the city squeezing our riding and camping equipment into a too small hire car. Ignoring the driver’s comments about the poor horses who had to carry all this kit we set off for Arburd Sands in Mongol Ils where our horses awaited us.
On arrival Densmaa told us that most of the regions we would be riding through were dry. She promised to keep us abreast of the water situation before we left. This of course worried us but not enough to deter us.
At the camp, enjoying the last of their summer vacation, was Densmaa’s nine year old son and his eight year old friend. They overheard Tim speaking Mongolian with Densmaa and were amazed that a gaddad hoon (literally meaning outside person) was talking their language. Tim was presented with a comic book and asked to read from various pages. They then realised I could also speak the language and asked question after question about us. The rest of Friday afternoon was spent playing card and war games with the two young lads.
We had not met the horses and were looking forward to doing so. The plan was to practise packing and loading in the hope we could refine our skills before starting the ride.
Four days were given over to training the horses to load luggage. This was done the Mongolian way. During our time in Mongolia we and our non-Mongolian friends often referred to things being mongolised. There is actually a word for this.
The loading of the pack horses was mongolised. This involved hobbling the pack horse, putting the pack saddle on and standing back. We had hoped to practise our chosen method of packing/loading learnt via a book from two well respected American packers. The Mongolians we were working with decided this way was no good and insisted on making something up on the spot. We vowed to keep quiet and wait until we were on our own before reverting back to the way we wanted to pack.
We met two of the horses on Saturday. They were both bays and looked like they had western blood in them. One had been trained by Batdrack’s father for two years and the other was from another brother. The two horses were clearly companions. We tried our English endurance saddles on them and they fitted and although the weather was very windy we went out for a couple of two hour rides. When we returned it was decided that the hobbles we had shipped in from the UK needed mongolising. The two sets of hobbles we had brought used to hobbled the front two legs of a horse had a back hobble added and the two single leg hobbles were joined together and supplemented with a back hobble.
Two hobbles aren’t enough for your average Mongolian horse. Due to the lack of enclosures they spend a large part of their working life hobbled. Some horses are extremely agile in hobbles and Tim’s riding horse was a great example. He would easily hobble around the countryside, covering a good distance before returning to camp, he would kneel to drink in his hobbles and one day I watched in astonishment as he jumped a stream.
It is traditional for the back hobble to go on the left hind leg in the day and at night the mantra ″right is night” applies. I asked why but could never get any answer bar ″That’s what they’re trained to.” During the course of the trip I swapped my back hobble from left to right during the day as once my horses realised ″right is night” they offered me their right hind legs, night-time meant a rest, and resisted when I asked for their left hind legs. Captain James was particularly stubborn with this.
Later that night we conversed with, for the sake of convenience and because I am terrible at remembering names, Karl a German tourist. A very interesting man, as often one stumbles across when travelling, he was in Mongolia as an election observer and had travelled to a variety of countries with this role to keep his retirement interesting and allow cheap travel. Turns out Karl is a base jumper. A 74 year old base jumper. He had recently had a stop put on his base jumping activities as his new wife wasn’t keen on the safety aspects. Karl thought our trip was amazing and we chatted about horses over dinner.
My pack horse was accepting of the pack saddle and we loaded him the same day with the two panyards, which he immediately agreed to. At this point I have to insert the comment that due to Tim’s continued and annoying nagging that I use the name panyard instead of bag during the entire trip I will, for a peaceful life, continue to use the correct term. For those not in the know a panyard is a canvas bag. My riding horse was standing nearby and when both were left to stand he hobbled over to the pack horse and the two stood nose to tail reassuring us all that we would have no problems with them.
Tim was introduced to his two horses. One was a small bay with white legs and the other a dun. There are a large number of the dun horses in Mongolia. They have zebra like stripes along their backs and legs and look similar to the Przewalski horse. They are stocky in build. The dun would be Tim’s pack horse and he trembled with fear as the pack saddle was placed on him. After a couple of hours left standing in hobbles he had overcome some of his fear. Two panyards were loaded on to him and he began to buck. Eventually another man named Batdrack, the acknowledged horseman on site and known as Big Batdrack, twitched the horse, which is not something we have seen used in the UK only by a professional horse trainer in Australia. Once the horse calmed down the twitch was removed and the dun was left standing loaded until 11pm when the luggage and saddle were removed.
The use of twitches is a controversial subject in the west. There are some who believe it has a place and others who insist they should never be used. I have an open mind about them and I encourage you to form your own educated opinion.
We were told to be up at 6am when we would reload the new pack horse. At 10.30am we set off on an overnight practice ride with Big Batdrack. We were to ride for 4 hours each way, hobble and tether the horses overnight and ride back the following morning. Big Batdrack felt we should not make this trip alone so decided to join us. In fact what he said was, and it is things like this that make me wish I didn’t understand the language, ″They are like children with the horses.”
My horses proved to be quite content with the whole situation but Tim’s horses regularly spooked. His pack horse bucked, throwing badly packed luggage all over the steppe, and tore away from Tim and Big Batdrack on a few occasions. Big Batdrack’s solution was to reload the dun and twitch him for three hours. Whilst not our preferred method of training it served to calm the horse and when the twitch was removed the bucking ceased for that day and the return trip the following morning. When trying to catch the bucking dun Tim received a kicked to his leg by his riding horse.
The return journey the following morning was hot, hot, hot. We were so thirsty. The drinking water we had access to was via a spring that was used by horses, goats and sheep. The horses were fine but goats and sheep peed and pooed in the water. Some of our horses refused to drink. We filtered the water and put iodine in it but still it tasted of piss. We did start to wonder what we had let ourselves in for.
Tim’s riding horse gave us cause for concern. He was a very lively horse and didn’t take easily to leading a pack horse. I loved my two horses; the two bays we rode on Saturday and named them. My riding horse was called Mongol Muirris. A play on words. Mongol is the Mongolian for Mongolian and Muir is the word for horse. It sounded very like Mongol Morris. My pack horse was named after a dear friend (or he was until he reads this); Captain James. Named so because he was tall, lean and would drink anything.
We returned from our practice run on Tuesday and agreed to strike out alone the following day.
We have read and been asked by other travellers to Mongolia about the physical characteristics of the Mongolian horse. A commonly held opinion is that all Mongolian horses are short backed, narrow, have a thick neck and coarse head. All of our animals were indeed possessed of a coarse head and a thick neck. Some were uglier than others but none were beauties. None of them were narrow though and all were long backed and we saw many more like this during our ride.
Another belief is that the Mongolian horse rises no higher than 13 hands. Captain James was 15 hands and the smallest, Tim’s riding horse, was 14 hands.