Living free on the steppe for much of the year, the Mongol horse can be temperamental when put under a saddle. The breed is one of the world's most ancient and has remained unchanged since the time of Chinggis Khan.

Mongolia – Been There

A man who can't ride isn't a man

Photo by Timothy Allen

Mongolia – Been There

A man who can't ride isn't a man

Given the importance of the horse to the nomad’s way of life, it would be remiss of me to visit the steppes of Mongolia without hopping in the saddle.

Gavin Haines
Gavin Haines Travel Writer

This is why I find myself in the small, ramshackle town of Zuunmod. This ugly outpost is where my driver Ganbaa’s father-in-law lives and he has agreed to take me out for a gallop on one of his trusty steeds. A tall, intimidating man, who wears a traditional Mongolian deel and lots of fur, he is waiting for us with the horses when we arrive. He cuts a dominant figure, to which I react by attempting to lower any expectations.

“Can you explain that I don’t really know how to ride?” I ask my Mongolian friend Davaasuren. She translates but he just looks at me blankly, as if that doesn’t compute. A man who can’t ride? You must be joking. He clearly thinks so and shows me to my steed, which I mount with the grace of a hippo doing yoga.

Leaving Zuunmod behind, we trot along the foothills of Bogd Khan Uul – the mountain in Mongolia overlooking Ulaanbaatar – passing cheeky groups of children and a cluster of gers. My horse is sturdy but strong and gives the impression he can canter all day without any input from me required. I ride without embarrassment but, just as I am hitting my stride, the father-in-law stops and points to a nearby ger – this is where we are eating lunch. The ger belongs to one of his friends and, ducking through the door, I am greeted by the severed heads of six goats, which have been lined up in the porch.

Sensibly, Davaasuren had stayed back in Zuunmod, which makes it very difficult for me to communicate with Ganbaa’s father-in-law and his friend. However, through the use of miming and animal noises, I establish what is for lunch. It is horse.

With a belly full of mare, I ride guiltily back to Zuunmod, where I dismount and thank the horseman for his time. He bids me an indifferent farewell, turns his steed around and gallops off into the sunset. His departure is like the final scene of an old western film. I half expect the credits to start rolling.

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A pole-lasso or "uurga" is used to catch a foal for branding, an important sign on ownership when herds roam widely and freely. While the men look after, and catch, the animals, it is the women's job to milk them.

A pole-lasso or "uurga" is used to catch a foal for branding, an important sign on ownership when herds roam widely and freely. While the men look after, and catch, the animals, it is the women's job to milk them. Photo by Timothy Allen

Timothy Allen

Timothy Allen

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Aperture
ƒ/5.6
Exposure
1/2500
ISO
640
Focal
400 mm

A pole-lasso or "uurga" is used to catch a foal for branding, an important sign on ownership when herds roam widely and freely. While the men look after, and catch, the animals, it is the women's job to milk them.

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