Mongolia – Land of … a far and distant land we don’t generally think of for our annual holiday but Competition Horse Nutritionist Vanessa Allen chose to discover the true wilderness of the Mongolian Steppe.
Situated between China and Russia Mongolia is a vast country which has a population of 3 million humans and 70 million animals most of which live a fairly wild and free existence. Each herd is ‘managed’ by their owner who lives a nomadic lifestyle alongside them in a simple yet homely Ger (a circular domed dwelling that is portable), moving region as the seasons change. The Mongolian Steppe covers the 3,000 mile width of the country and is mostly open plains nestled between mountain ranges.
A short drive from capital city Ulaan Baatar (UB) you instantly feel like you’re in one of the last truly remote places on our over populated earth. Open roads become dirt tracks across the plains with only the locals knowing which track leads to which Ger camp.
Hosts Baggi and Sara at Sara’s Horse Trek Mongolia spoke no English but guide Gabby was fluent in numerous languages and a competent horse woman. Despite its wonderful year round blue skies Mongolia has an 8 month long winter. Travelling in late September meant the cold weather was imminent so warm clothing was essential, daytime temperatures didn’t rise above 5°C and we had one day of freezing blizzard, nights dropped to -10°C!
A ‘short’ welcome 3 hour afternoon ride baptized us for the week ahead. Mongolian horses can be summed up in one word – hardy. Barely 13hh, narrow bodied, lean, stoic & incredibly tough. Born in the wild managed herds once broken in and worked they are turned out wild on the plains in between treks. At first I thought they were robotic and sad and yes their work was hard but they had the essential freedoms horses need and the community of the herd. None of them need their feet trimmed or have teeth seen to. They receive excellent quality hay and basic but calorific feed during the harsh winters where -40°C is not uncommon.
Riding is more western than classical - one handed, loose contact, a shift in your weight is enough to change direction and speed. The saddles provided for clients are fairly similar to home but the leather bridles are very thin and our Mongolian hosts still ride in traditional saddles. The rein is one long piece of leather attached to the bit (we had eggbutt snaffles) on one side and tied to a loop on the other. When you dismount you can untie the long piece and handily tie your horse to a tree or truck. If there’s nothing nearer you can use it to hobble the horse and then tie the other ponies to each other and walk away – surprisingly effective!
With weather changeable we opted for a 3 day adventure rather than 5 days. The pack ponies carrying food, tents, sleeping bags & personal belongings were loaded and away we went Baggi leading the way. Six hours of blissful riding along the plains, past wild herds of ponies and sheep, passing remote Gers and crossing rivers. We saw no tarmac just tracks and one wooden car bridge to cross the main swollen river. Lunch was bread & cheese with tea and chocolate seated on the ground next to a wood & our horses. After 40km we stopped for the night next to the river, the ponies let loose bar one who was long lined to a tree. A spaghetti / pasta dinner was prepared and after we were full we gathered the loose wood from the ground lit a bonfire and the Mongolian vodka was bought out as Baggi sand traditional songs. The morning alarm was the sound of the icy rushing river and horses hooves.
We covered another 40km again the second day moving up to the Princess’s grave. The ground became very boggy in places and the ponies sank deep into the ground in places. I named my pony Kieran, after England football player Kieran Tripper, as he tripped a lot. When
he fell on his knees and face in the bog I will admit to a rush of adrenaline at the thought of a natural facial but thankfully he found an 8th leg every time. At lunchtime we gatecrashed a herder’s Ger for pot noodles and tried some hot mares’ milk which was fermenting over the stove when we arrived. The second night was far colder and we huddled round the campfire and ate our stew before retiring to bed early. In the morning there was ice on my sleeping bag inside the tent so I was thankful to get up and load the ponies again for our trip back.
We needed to cover more than 70km to get back to camp, taking the unknown ‘short cut’ over the mountains certainly didn’t save us time but instead provided the most memorable day in the saddle of my life. More deep lumpy bog & thicket to wade through, thick trees to duck between and steep rocky sections were all heroically navigated by Kieran who never stumbled once even when the going got really tough. The pack pony we’d nicknamed Tonto was fabulous to watch as he picked his own path at his own speed across the spectacular terrain.
Once across the mountains we moved much faster in the afternoon to try and beat the sun home. I was amazed at the relentless pace these ponies were able to maintain, at lunch they weren’t allowed to graze and during the whole 3 days the only water they had was slurping in the streams as we crossed. But the longer we went on the stronger Kieran seemed to become, his homing beacon turned my previously lazy stumbling steed turned into the leader of the pack by late afternoon. 9 hours in the saddle later we arrived home to a very jolly canine welcome and the warmth of the fire in our homely Ger.
We spent one day in the slums visiting the Children of the Peak, a kindergarten funded by The Veloo Foundation, which provides the most wonderful environment, food and educ
ation for children who qualify as some of the most in need. Sadly the slums of UB cover 60% of the city as people have flocked to the city for work and find there’s nothing there. It’s a complex country, stark contrast between chaotic city and total wilderness, there’s little in between. Despite the abundance of electric cars the smog is inescapable, like a duvet over the city it has nowhere to go, the surrounding hills holding it in place.
So would I recommend a riding holiday in Mongolia? Absolutely!
The only downside was the food although plentiful it wasn’t great for more than a few days - take plenty of snacks! And don’t expect home comforts out of the city.
The positives –The people and culture were wonderful, the food in UB was fabulous and we had 3 fun days exploring the city before flying home. There’s plenty of other adventures to be had if you have the time. But mostly the riding is simply sensational - the ponies will steal your heart and the freedom of vast wilderness will truly bring your soul to life.