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At first I was not convinced. I had never been interested in horse riding at all, nor did I even plan on mounting a sturdy white mare upon arrival to Mongolia’s Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. And despite everyone indulging me with horse maxims like, “to ride a horse is like to ride the wind,” or “no hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle,”  I still associated the pastime with priggish bourgeois social classes and the boring equestrian events of the Summer Olympics. Even as a boy I was thoroughly bored with Wild West and Cowboys and Indians movies; and need I even mention the dancing Lipizzaner Stallions of the Spanish Riding school in Austria, which to me, are parodied of their true abilities and groomed to look like pearly “My Little Pony” toys for children.

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But after ceaselessly goading me on the prospect of a mini-adventure within the greater one, to explore the vast, unfurled carpet of green before us that was the Mongolian steppes, my fellow travelers had succeeded in getting under my skin to a positive, “yes, okay, I’ll do it!” Anyhow, the thought of wind through my greasy, tousled locks may have been the closest thing to a “natural” shampoo and conditioner in the three weeks I had been backpacking.  
 
The tour guide was a Mongolian nomad named Sukh. Contrary to the stereotype of a Mongol being stolid, intransigent and blood-lusting, our nomad had an inviting and comical side to him. When we met him for the first time he began pointing to himself as if we suddenly commenced an impromptu game of charades, and motioning a giant axe; hell, by the large sweeping arm movement, it might have been a halberd he was swinging. We didn’t know why, or even what, he was gesticulating, and the language barrier between us may have been what the Berlin wall once was. Did the tour finish off with an animal sacrifice? Was it an invitation to a beheading? Was it supplementary and did we have to pay extra? We wore dumb looks on our faces until one of the children broke away from milking a cow, ran up to us quickly for the cow’s teats had been softened and its owner antsy, and in our suspended state of mental density she yelled out, “Axe! his name…Sukh, means ‘axe’ in English.” We nodded our heads and felt slightly relieved. We still felt dumb in the spectacle, just a downgraded dumbness.
 
As everyone sat atop their horses waiting for me to mount, I was quickly reprimanded derided for sticking my left foot in the horse’s right stirrup—how foolish of me! I nearly stumbled over and the horse nervously danced away, a reaction questioning what in the world I was doing.
 
“Marius!” Lise shouted, an exchange student from Norway and an avid equestrian, “you mount on the nearside, the left side; horses don’t like riders mounting on the offside, particularly Mongolian horses.”
 
“I just can’t get a good grip, my shoe is falling apart, too.” In defending myself with such lame words, my face put on the colors of the Mongolian flag—I was truly embarrassed. Of course, I was hoping to lie my way through looking like an idiot and even to get exempted from such titles, but, unfortunately, the former excuse was transparent and, well, the latter was true but hardly a reason why I couldn’t mount a horse. My shoe was on the verge of becoming furloughed for good, its sole was completely unpeeled from the leather and was flapping around as if it had suddenly learned to speak and be a deceitful and unreliable scoundrel…could you believe the cheek? For a shoe to speak lies because I was just trying to enjoy myself and mount a Mongolian horse.
 
As Sukh shook his head in disappointment, calling the horse back and holding the reins tighter, I tried again, and finally, with some –difficulty—as to be expected from a –beginner—I managed to climb up...on the nearside.
 
As I nestled my rear into the high and narrow wooden saddle, things suddenly became different. Maybe the air was different? Maybe this was the first step at experiencing an unfettered sense of freedom? All in all, life indeed appeared so much better up high then down below. I think a cool, mutton-smelling wind was starting to pick up as well from the nearby ger camp. As the maxim goes, I was ready to ride the wind.


 
The Mongolian Horse, a domesticated variant of the last wild-roaming Przewalski horse, or, Takhi, as is commonly referred to by indigenous Mongols, is a stocky, low-shouldered breed with a large head and long mane and tail. Although the Mongolian Horse’s color is varied, as is the case with my mare being white, the Takhi has a primitive look with a sandy-colored coat and pale underbelly. Though extinct for some time, the Takhi has recently been reintroduced into the wild bringing its numbers back up to 450, still though, classified as critically endangered. Conversely, the Mongolian Horse to Mongol ratio is an astonishing 13:1 and the number of horses a family has is an indication of wealth and status.
 
Half the Mongolian population still resorts to a full or semi-nomadic lifestyle, packing up roughly two to four times per year in search of greener pastures or forgiving temperatures; and so, the native horse has proven over the centuries to be a central survival tool among the “five-animal people.” As essential as camels, sheep, cattle and goats, the horse  provides the most for Mongols for with its resilience, strength, and sustainable and productive output.
 
As nomadism demands resourcefulness, mare’s milk is used as nourishment as well as providing merriment in the form of airag, a slightly alcoholic beverage similar in taste to kefir or fermented yogurt. A popular horse delicacy known as kazy, horse meat sausage, is also quite popular among the Mongols but more so favored by the Kazakhs in the Bayan-Ölgii aimag. Marco Polo had reported that a horseman, during long military operations—as in Genghis Khan’s –conquests—nourish himself for ten days by cutting a horse’s vein and drinking its blood. And apart from the standard carting and agricultural work, the horse can also be a gift to young boy riders as early as 3, or sacrificed in Shamanic rituals to ensure safe and secure “transport” to the heavens. The hair is also used in the bows of the country’s national instrument, the morin khuur, and in gers (their felt-covered dwellings) horse hair is braided into rope and used to close ventilation shafts.

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Braided rope is also used to rein horses, which brings me to my second dilemma for a beginner horse rider. With rein in hand, and butt already getting numb in the saddle, how was I to move forward? What signals was I supposed to give?
 
“Go!” I said to the horse.
 
It stood idle. I even squeezed my legs against its side belly but my thigh muscles started to get sore and it began pawing the green Earth, pulling me down as it preferred to graze a patch of grass. Maybe it was my body language? Maybe our rapport was off to a sour start?  
 
Although, historically, the Mongols have been known to train their horses well, especially for the purpose of warfare, the Mongolian Horse need not be subjected to sophisticated dressage, or “Horse Ballet,” or the “highest expression of horse training.” Instead, for the purpose of practicality, the Mongolian Horse is taught a few basic signals involving vocals, rein control, and strength management. Horse maneuvering then becomes as simple and effortless as driving a car.
Watching my tanned, shirtless guide, I immediately learned that, “chooo!” as in “choo-choo train” meant “to go,” along with a slap on the haunch with the rein, and “brrr!” as in “brrr, it’s cold!” meant “to stop with a tug.” With these commands, our horses entered a pleasant and steady trot and we began our adventure.
 
For the next few hours I was familiarizing myself with the barren and fence-less landscapes unique to “The Land of the Blue Sky” because the country’s mean elevation (5,000 feet) permits 250 days of sun a year. Most importantly, though, I was beginning  to build a rapport with my mare.

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We rode for a few hours circling a rocky valley, passing two notable rock formations, the Turtle Rock, which indeed looked no different than the animal, and the Old Man Reading a Book, whom was either reading a book or holding out his fingers. Skulls and bones and occasionally the odd animal carcass littered the endless steppes. Up above, a few wispy clouds gathered with capacious ones and a few birds, which I couldn’t identify but only see their wide wingspans, were flying above our heads. I was finally getting comfortable in the horse’s trot,,too comfortable, in fact, and this level of comfort was gradually bringing me closer to discomfort and tedium, and then a desire for speed, danger and adrenaline to pulse through my bored veins.



 
Sukh, a cheery man, yet no different in muscular build as the horse he rode on, suddenly stood up and entertained us with yet another game of charades. Perfectly stable in his stirrups as the horse was in a canter, he pretended to be firing a bow and arrow, forwards and even backwards, telling the story of Mongolia’s greatest feats which changed the course of world history forever.
 
Genghis Khan, Mongolia’s omnipotent ruler and military strategist, conquered a massive territory which spanned the Black Sea, all the way to the Japanese Sea, in the 13th century. And this couldn’t have been made possible with only artful horsemanship but also impressive archery skills as well. The devised strategy was to sally forth the enemy, devastate them with an ambush of arrows, and retreat hastily proving that such a tactic could only have been done with fast and flexible steeds.
 
When combined, the “Horse and Bow” tactic succeeded in terrorizing opponents on foot or horse and proved to be key in dismantling armies in Genghis Khan’s path. Major cities were destroyed, populations decimated, and massive territorial changes commenced as far as Russia, Ukraine, the Kingdom of Poland and Hungary. This, of course, came after tribal confederations and conquests early in his reign, of Mongolia, Manchuria, China, and even Korea and Vietnam.     

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After a few hours of prancing around leisurely on my horse, I finally decided to ante up and see if I could ride this mare like a Mongolian warrior. I looked over to Sukh who was casually chewing on a twig, unduly bored, and signaled him with a firm nod to race me, if he dared. I was comfortable riding and felt I had perfected this system of “choo!” and “brr!” and controlling the reins—or so I thought.  
 
We raced, had our diversions, but no victor had been decided. I then nodded for the final bell lap. To get the lead, I began whipping my surefooted mare’s haunch faster and harder than previous whips. I kicked its side belly with my ankle to signal exactly what I wanted to achieve and before I delivered my third kick, the horse took off in such a gallop that it might have omitted the first “gears” of trot and canter.
 
After giving me a head start, Sukh and I were suddenly head-to-head. If the race were to finish then and there, it would have been a dead heat. But I was edging him, then he was edging me, we were about even when cornering the mountain. His stance seemed sturdier as he stood up in the stirrups; mine, looser and inexperienced, but still at one with the horse. The green fields before me were zipping by as though I were watching them from the Trans-Mongolian rail. My long hair was flowing in the wind and my beard dancing around on my face. We then cut the valley sharply and headed towards the empty horizon, when suddenly, disaster struck at a 40-kmh gallop.
 
I veered off to the side, and while trying to regain control, the saddle’s buckle under the girth broke. My handle, too, specially devised for the beginner – gave out and wedged open from the wooden frame. I saw nails sticking up which I figured was not supposed to happen. Then, suddenly, the saddle felt like a loose garment and gave out under me, taking me with it. I flew off head-first into a dense growth of bushes, just short of Mongolia’s only tree standing tall enough to see across the vast territory.   
 
I thought I was done for. Mongolians in the countryside, in times of emergencies, rarely head to hospitals and usually opt to remain at camp hoping to have fate decide things or let the immune system fight their afflictions and injuries; and if a hospital was even close by, how would a dumb foreigner like myself be received especially after wanting to race the greatest jockeys/warriors known to man?  




I was sprawled out on the grass. I then clutched at my left ribs where I felt the impact the most; I was in agony and couldn’t catch my breath. Blood covered my whole side but looking down I didn’t see any puncture wounds only small gashes and scrapes. My mare had taken off, and Sukh had not a clue as to what had happened for he was gone with the wind.
 
Suddenly, I look up, and looking down at me, was my white mare. The setting sun was exactly behind her head giving the impression that she was wearing a halo, like an angel, perhaps my guardian angel; because upon standing up I actually noticed how I was able to stand up and even straighten my body without any problems or feel any pain whatsoever, despite the battle scars clearly indicating some level of misfortune caused by my pride and want of excitement.
 
She stood there patiently by my side, compassionately I’d even say, with her eyes fixated on me, her mouth masticating grass, and her head nodding to me something like, “come on there, you’re alright!” My first riding experience had resulted in a wonderfully solidified bond between horse and man. I then concluded: unlike humans who sometimes bail out in times of need, my mare came back and was there, signaling to me with her head to jump back on and go. It was in that moment that the horse was more human than human. I patted her head, parted her forelocks which fell over her eyes, and stood there staring at her. It was a moment I will hold onto for the rest of my life.
 
Sukh, Lise, and my fellow traveler friends returned to find me less in pain but more shocked and surprised that nothing serious had happened. Sukh suggested taking another horse, but I remained adamant in wanting my mare. I climbed her again, in slight pain but easier than the first time, and sat atop a different saddle already set up for me. She gently pawed the Earth and delicately neighed, as a sign perhaps that there was nothing to worry about. We rode back to the ger camp, with me less at the reins than her controlling things herself. I was fine, really, just a little blood and some bruises but upon riding into camp, Sukh let out a loud halloo along with some Mongolian words and a rush of children and elders ran up to see what had happened. I showed them my wounds, and at that moment, everyone lit up with warm smiles and cheers, as though they were overjoyed. How was this? What was happening? Did they enjoy me being in pain? Maybe they were cheering because I really got to ride this horse and that I even passed the test.
 
Sukh then said something to one of the children who was milking a cow earlier, and she translated it to me. “He said that you know how to ride now, but you have also learned how to fall.”  The words froze me of meaning and profundity. Yes, maybe they were sappy and cliché words, but I suppose that at that particular moment, they were gospel in meaning. I then left the crowd smiling, went into my ger to lie down, and continued soaking in those words…those horse maxims.

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©Mariusz Stankiewicz

Away from the riding plains of Mongolia, Mariusz can also be found spelunking in the Philippines or dancing salsa in Cuba, or better, you can follow him at www.mariuszstankiewicz.com, in doing what he loves to do best which is to shutter press and to scribble about his travels.

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