Favourites on Friday - Year of the Horse

Barely a month later, and another new year to celebrate!  ‘Gong Hi Fa Choy’, or Happy New Year!  And for us horse-lovers, even more reason to celebrate :D

I wanted to do a horse-related post today but couldn’t find anything ‘horse + Chinese’, so having had a look around the region, decided on Mongolia.

Man, surrounded by elements that concocted his ruin, by animals with speed and strength greater than his own, man was once a slave on earth; the horse made him king.” ~ Hephrem Houel

Mongolian horses are descended from Przewalski’s horse and the Tarpan.  Small by European standards, the Mongolian horse may not look like much at 14hh, with a short neck and thick head, but he has proved himself with his power and endurance … vital in a land known as the home of the wind, where there are no tall trees or hedges to block the Arctic winds.

Przewalski's horse

Tarpan stallion - Moscow Zoo 1920s

To the Mongolian, his heritage is so interwoven with his horse, it is difficult to separate them, and the horse features prominently in the man’s legends.  The Mongol people, like so many steppe-dwelling people, owed their survival to the horse.  The small powerful horses bonded closely with man, a mutually beneficial partnership in their land of extremes.  In time, these horses would be instrumental in helping Genghis Khan build his empire.  For, probably what set the Great Khan apart was his use of, some say, up to 250,000 horsemen, his cavalry.

Genghis Khan

In the 13th century, the Mongolian horsemen burst from their homeland, conquering cities across Central Asia.  By 1280, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Yellow Sea to the Mediterranean, and, in size, was second only to the British Empire of the 1h century.

Though usually described as merciless killers, Mongols did not see themselves in that light.  To them, Genghis Khan was a genius who successfully united Mongolia; a trait that was seen again in his grandson, Kublai.  There is no doubt that the Mongols did kill, and conquered countless numbers as they swept across Central Asia.  But to single out Genghis Khan as more ruthless than most is to ignore the fact that he was a man of his time.  The era that he was born into was one of the most war-torn in history, with ongoing wars in Central Asia, Chinese dynasties warring with one another, and Crusaders fighting Saracens in the Holy Land.

And yet, the Mongols were quite tolerant of other religions.  In their own clans were those who worshipped Tengri, the ruler of heaven; there were also Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.  The Mongols did not punish anyone for their faith, although mosques and temples were burned in the cities that refused to surrender. 

Today, the majority of Mongolians have returned to their nomadic lives, which they did after the fall of the Soviet Empire.  The Soviets had banned any mention of Genghis Khan; he was even denounced in the history books of the Mongols.  But, no longer under Communist rule, the Mongols have restored the conqueror to his rightful place in their history, and also restored honour to the horse.

Mongolian nomad (Michel Setboun)

Everyone travels by horse, even the women and children; no one travels on foot.  The horses live free until, with great difficulty, they are caught.  But once they have been trained to wear a saddle, they become quite obedient.  Not surprisingly, children learn to ride before they can walk.  They learn to respect horses, to ride them, and even to distinguish the best ones.

Every July, the Naadam national holiday is celebrated across the provinces.  In the capital of Ulan Bator, people gather for the Naadam Festival, which features wrestling matches and archery competitions.  There is also a horse race, a 7 to 15 mile race, which features the top horses in the region. 

What sets this race apart from any other is that all the jockeys are children – boys and girls, between the ages of 5 and 12!  This race is like a coming of age ritual; victory means being seen as an adult.  And because of the jockeys’ light weight, their horses can gallop for longer over long distances.  Several hundred riders take part; although less than half cross the finish line, yet they all celebrate for it’s surely not an easy task for one so small.

Because the race begins anywhere between 7 to 15 miles away, the main crowd cannot know how the riders are faring.  Until they feel underfoot the lowest of rumblings rolling across the landscape … see the dust clouds on the horizon … hear the gradual crescendo of thundering hooves approaching.  A horde of yelling riders materialise, charging towards the crowd, each determined, straining … pushing to be the first.

The winner is congratulated, but it is the horse that has fermented mare’s milk –  airak – poured onto its mane and croup as an offering to the gods.  For, to the Mongols, the victory belongs to the horse.