Conquering the fear of riding horses in Mongolia

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Learning to ride a horse while fearing them is one thing, doing it by yourself in Mongolia is another. Straight off the tarmac into the back of a Russian Jeep, over the mountain range I was dropped off at a Kazakh family home in western Mongolia. Rather than just rip around by car as a usual tourist would, I wanted to be greeted as a nomad, as one of them, do it as they do. They are a horse country, so by horse would be most fitting. Fearing horses and not a bit of knowledge on them was a slight hiccup. I had to gain the families’ trust to ride off with the horses, I had to show I could ride. That was the biggest bluff, I was youtubing “how to ride a horse” back in New Zealand, ‘pull back’ to change down a gear, kick and say ‘choo’ to go up, pull left to turn left etc. Mongolian horses were small so I was less scared, it was the lack of knowledge of tying/untying the saddle, dealing with pack horse, not letting them run away at night, that had me worried. There was no ‘do’s and don’ts’ from the family beforehand, it was all hand gestures, I was really in the deep end of things, but heck it was an adventure. I was sticking to my word, I wasn’t giving up.
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In the west of Mongolia were the nomadic kazakh, living in yurts. Even more fascinating were the last eagle hunters in the world that hunted as a tradition for fur and meat, not for tourism. This was the other reason I came to this experience this unique culture. Search by horse to find these hunters. Photograph them in their element. The upcoming local eagle festival would be my back up if I couldn’t find any.

Something I’ve learnt which sadly isn’t common in this money greedy world, equality, the giving to the weary traveller, over accomodating. For a random person to arrive at your doorstep, instantly step inside, sit at the head of the table waiting for tea and food to be served, maybe even get a bed, this isn’t something I’m used to back in New Zealand. They welcome everyone, treat them like family, it’s their way of living. They themselves could be in a position of need someday or simply passing by. Maybe that or they’re they quite social.
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Somehow I was still on this horse and pretending like I knew what I doing. I rode with the father and the brothers to the cemetery, they took me to pray with them for their grandmother. They had really brought me into the family. My bluff was still working a treat, I could cross rivers, 1st gear, 2nd gear, 3rd gear in a horse. I wasn’t trying full throttle yet despite the brothers wanting me to race their “champion horse”. Four hours in, my ass was hurting, what had I gotten myself into. My horse was slow, farted more than me, but at least it listened to me.
I needed a second horse, so we simply went out into their field of horses, rounded them into the pen, lasso’d this bucking wild horse they liked the look of. Far from tame. Yup, that was my second horse. SHIT. My eyes were wide. Thinking should I just tell them I don’t really know how to ride a horse. Again I had to pretend like I knew what I was doing with a pack horse. Before coming to Mongolia I thought, simple, just go buy some horses and ride off, camp solo, fend for myself easy. I just didn’t factor the horse part too much. I was fond of horses, mainly due to fact of not having to worry about petrol stations or breaking down without help.
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I was the one almost breaking down, I was several days in and they weren’t moving, I was tugging these horses. It was like they had a shock collar on, they were on their border and going no further. The only way was home, I had to play little games with them slightly angling towards home but over the range. Then I would change again, they caught on and weren’t having a bar of it. 15 days solo wasn’t looking good. Storm rolling in.
My first night was the opposite, I rode with the son to the town. I had taken their family portraits and we went to print them off. Most tourists take photos and locals never see their photos again. A simple thing like the family photo isn’t as easy for them compared to us. Figured it was the least I could do. So within this mud brick town I was able to track down a printer with my sketchpad. Back to my point, my first night. He treated me like a brother, he was somewhat worried or uncertain this foreigner could take on what I was going to do, he cared. Maybe he realised I was a complete kook with horses. I would like to say we discussed but it was more hand guested that he wanted to stay the night next to my tent to make sure I was ok. He laughed when I said he will be cold, shrugged his shoulders with a smile. I sent him off on his way to ride home and not to worry about me. Now I was on my lonesome, there wasn’t any help now, I had to remember how to do it all, unpack the horses and tie them up. I hoped the morning after the horses still remembered me and not cause me grief.
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Seeing a tourist gripping onto the reins at full gallop and the other horse bucking wildly would be a worrying sight. Yup that was me, the wild pack horse got spooked by the sound of the mud squelch echoing off the rock wall. I was gripping tight, hanging on, watching my bags go flying. I couldn’t stop or turn my horse. I thought maybe I could grip it out, it was getting sketchy and out of my comfort zone plus there wasn’t anyway to turn these horses around to get my bags with my essentials. I had to bail. I never youtube’d how to bail off a horse, but it sure looked like I knew what I was doing. It all went rather quickly as this all happened over 100m, my saddle’s straps had snapped as well and I was slowly leaning. I had to leap before I would be under the horse. Somehow I was able to clear the legs and end out on my bum, maybe even my feet, Either way it was graceful and I was able to run after my horses within moments. My horses weren’t stopping. Thing is, Mongolian horses have amazing endurance too, will run for miles. If they stop I might have a chance as I’ve played hide and go seek quite a bit when I was younger but I’ve never done that with horses. 40 minutes of chasing them down with another local on his horse, we tried our best to round them. Finally at a walking pace I was able to hum myself closer to this frantically breathing beast, it twitched with nerve, brought myself in to a cuddle. There wasn’t a hope of riding him today.
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Getting back on the horse wasn’t a huge mental challenge after the fall. Serikjan the son rode the families’ famous champion horse across the valley in ridiculous time. The family came in full force to ‘save me’. To their surprise and shock I wasn’t hurt or bothered. Their care is something I will never forget.
One thing that I didn’t plan on, pulling a dead body from the river. The governor got word that I was a swimmer and can dive. He arrived at my tent asking for my help in search for a missing child. They had searched for 4 days, only able to find one of the two children. No one can swim in these areas, there’s no dive squad. Farmers had been searching the banks with home made hooks on ropes. I was taken away to the governors office and sat at the long table and many slow procedures for my official search took place. Taken by army to the search area on river bank followed by 200 villagers on bikes. It was very clear I was their only hope. Handed a oversized wetsuit, and a snorkel without a mask I was well under prepared. With my background around rivers I changed the search area which gathered more villagers either side of the river onlooking. Five hours searching in the freezing river I was able to retrieve the child and return it to the family. Not interested in delving further details, the following affected me greatly. I had the village swam me, kissing me, grabbing me, pulling me everywhere. The farther’s tears rolling down his face, hugging me. No words were needed, it will be something I never forget. I just wanted to be dropped back to my tent and get back on my horse and carry on. Instead I was taken to the family home where the village had lined the way pathway. I had to join lunch where I was head of the massive food laden mat and questioned every detail, how, what, where. Everything was overwhelming, I was happy to help but I didn’t want to be awarded for it, I was dressed in a gold lined Mongolian coat and hat.
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Everywhere I travelled to I was recognised, I was out of the norm, I didn’t know how to feel though. If they didn’t know my name ‘ste’pen’, they would have photos of me on their phone. It was obvious I made an impact, people knew me, thanked me everywhere I went. It was a daunting feeling, I felt happy I could help but didn’t want to be glorified, the after affects took to me more than I thought.
A fresh start, my family I had grown close with since I arrived asked if I would like to ride with them to the Eagle festival. This was a massive honour. Over the previous couple of weeks I had bonded hugely with them I felt accepted into the family, most of all the son. Him and I set off on horseback to the festival with eagle perched on his arm. A couple of hours riding and many tea stops later I was surrounded by eagle hunters riding to the mountain range. Never in my mind would I have pictured this, each hunter joining the clan giving me a nod of acceptance.
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In Preparation to the eagle festival the farther had me helping him teach his new eagle. I would be calling the eagle, releasing it, using baited rabbit carcasses on a string. From rounding up cattle on horse back, milking the cows, retrieving water, I felt more than just a traveller now.
Rested up in the sun after riding home from an eventful festival. I was playing with the kids to suddenly be startled by the father, out of breath and worried eyes. I scrambled to the back of the motorbike and swept quickly to the rivers edge. A local teenager at a family outing was out fishing and sunk to the bottom of the river after his waders filled up. Here I was within five hundred metres, there within a few minutes, the ‘expert, their ‘hero’, in a perfect scenario, ready to preform and succeed again. What turned from ready for performing CPR, 50mins in the ice water in the dark still searching, spewing from exhaustion, my body was convulsing from the cold. I was the only person that could swim, to have the family screaming at me, all eyes were on me. I’ve never felt so much pressure. I pushed my own body past the point. I was drowning in itself. I was hauled onto the back of a horse and carried to a the fire. In complete utter shock and shear pain of all emotions hitting, hero to zero. Their only hope. Body still shaking I stared into the fire. We couldn’t communicate, there were no hand gestures to this.
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All this had taken its toll on me, Swirling through my head, delving on everything. I left the area, even that wasn’t easy. Seeing my friend I had grown to know as my best friend, Serikjan storm off in tears as I left, the family in tears. Everything was hitting me. My first point of contact, my first bit of english for weeks. Talking to my parents and girlfriend at the time saved me. Alone on the horse talking to myself I went crazy, but the delving on the series of events that happened affected me. My last night before departing to China I had 3 men approach me with watery eyes, a translator asked for my time. They had travelled to the town and wait 7 days for me after hearing about the news, they wanted me to search for their missing son that drowned a year prior. Seeing tears roll down their faces as the translator explained from my end there’s no possible way was one of the hardest thing I’ve experienced on top of all. So much still on my shoulders.
I can say I learnt many things, It’s not an experience I’d ever go and ask for but something I’d never want to change. I will always remember this adventure with such a mix of emotions. One day to return to Mongolia.
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