About Mongolian Horses
Mongolian horses (Mongolian aduu: "horse" or mori;
or as a herd, ado, or in Northern Khalka, tabun) are the native horse breed of
Mongolia. They are considered to be have been largely unchanged since the time
of Genghis Khan. Nomads living in the traditional Mongol fashion still hold
more than 3 million horses, which outnumber the country's human population.
Despite their small size, they are horses, not ponies. In Mongolia, the horses
live outdoors all year, dealing with temperatures from 30 °C (86 °F) in summer
down to -40 °C (-40 °F) in winter, and they graze and search for food on their
own. The mare's milk is processed into the national beverage airag. Some
animals are slaughtered for meat. Other than that, they serve as riding and
transport animals; they are used both for the daily work of the nomads and in
The origins of the Mongolian breed are hard to determine.
Nomads of the central Asian steppes have been documented as riding horses since
2000 BC. Tests have shown, that among all horse breeds, Mongol horses feature
the largest genetic variety, followed by the Tuwinian horses. This indicates
that it is a very archaic breed suffering little human-induced selection. The
data also indicate that many other breeds descend from the Mongol horses.
Recently, breeders have begun importing expensive foreign
racehorse breeds like Arabians and Thoroughbreds with the goal of breeding them
to native stock to produce faster horses, but these relatively fragile breeds
are unable to survive on the steppe like Mongolian horses can; if left
unsheltered, such horses inevitably freeze to death or starve. So, breeders
have focused on created crossbreeds between foreign horses and native Mongolian
stock. The ultimate goal is to produce a race horse that has one-quarter
foreign blood and three-quarters Mongolian blood; this proportion is believed
to create a horse hardy enough to survive in Mongolia and combine the Mongolian
horse's stamina and endurance with foreign speed to produce a new breed with
the best qualities of both.
One of the drawbacks to breeding such crosses is that the
foreign stallion is much larger than the smaller Mongolian mare. This results
in large foals that can be difficult for the small mares to birth. Since Mongolian
mares typically give birth on their own without human supervision—and seldom
have problems doing so—breeders have little experience on how to deal with the
birthing problems that result due to the size of the crossed foals. To reduce
birthing problems, a foreign mare could be bred to a native stallion to avoid
the large foal problem, but in practice this reduces the numbers of crossbreed
foals that can be produced each year. In one breeding season, a foreign
stallion can impregnate 10 native mares and produce 10 crossed foals, but a
foreign mare can only be impregnated by a native stallion once and produce one
Mongol horses have been theorized to be the founding stock
for Japan's native horse breeds. Breeds such as the Misaki, Taishu, Tokara,
Kiso, Yonaguni, Noma, Hokkaido, and Myako are believed to be the descendents of
distant Mongolian ancestors.
Genetic analyses have revealed links between the Mongolian
horse and breeds in Iceland, Scandinavia, Central Europe, and the British Isles.
The Mongol horses are believed to have been originally imported from Russia by
Swedish traders; this imported Mongol stock subsequently became the basis for
the Norwegian Fjord horse and a variety of other Scandinavian breeds, including
the Nordland. One of these breeds was eventually exported to Iceland by
settlers, producing the modern day Icelandic horse, which bears a strong
resemblance to the Mongol horse and lives in much the same way, foraging freely
off the land during all seasons. The Exmoor, Scottish Highland, Shetland, and
Connemara pony breeds have also been found to be related to the Icelandic
horse, suggesting that all these northern European breeds had ancestors that
grazed on the steppe of Mongolia.
Mongol horses are best known for their role as the war
steeds of Genghis Khan. The Mongol soldier relied on his horses to provide him
with food, drink, transportation, armor, shoes, ornamentation, bowstring, rope,
fire, sport, music, hunting, entertainment, spiritual power, and in case of his
death, a mount to ride in the afterlife. Mongol horses made excellent warhorses
because of their hardiness, stamina, self-sufficiency, and ability to forage on
their own. The main disadvantage of the Mongol horse as a war steed was that it
was slower than some of the other breeds it faced on the battlefield. Soldiers
preferred to ride lactating mares because they could use them as milk animals.
In times of desperation, they would also slit a minor vein in their horse's
neck and drain some blood into a cup. This they would drink either
"plain" or mixed with milk or water. A Mongol warrior's horse would
come at his whistle and follow him around, dog-like. Each warrior would bring a
small herd of horses with him (three to five being average, but up to 20) as remounts.
They alternated horses so that they always rode a fresh horse.
Horse racing is one of the "three manly arts".
Horse racing is the second-most popular event in Mongolia, after traditional
wrestling. Mongolian races are long, up to 30 km, and can involve thousands of
horses. The native horses have excellent endurance. Though foreign breeds are
faster than Mongolian horses, they are usually exhausted by the end of the run,
while the Mongolian horses still have wind. Nevertheless, horses have died of
exhaustion during the Naadam race on occasion.
In Mongolia, racing is a people's sport where everyone
participates. Each family selects the best horse from their herd and takes it
to the fair to race. However, in recent years, the introduction of fast foreign
crossbreeds has changed the sport. Only the richest breeder can afford to buy
and raise a Thoroughbred/Mongolian mix, and such horses tend to win races. This
has led to complaints that ordinary people no longer have a chance to win, and
that racing has become the province of the elite. Racing horses with a child in
the saddle run in full gallop over 35 km at a time. Children are used instead
of adults because they are lighter. Mongolians are not so much concerned with
the skill and experience of a jockey as the ability of the horse.
Mongolian nomads have long been considered to be some of the
best horsemen in the world. During the time of Genghis Khan, Mongol horse
archers were capable of feats such as sliding down the side of their horses to
shield their bodies from enemy arrows, while simultaneously holding their bows
under the horses' chins and returning fire, all at full gallop. The education
of a modern Mongolian horseman begins in childhood. Parents place their
children on a horse and hold them there before they can even hang on without
assistance. By age 6, children can ride in races; by age 10, they are learning
to make their own tack. Materials such as books on horse training or medical
care are uncommon and seldom used. Information is passed down orally from
parent to child.
A variety of rules for how tack and horses should be handled
are known. For example, it was taboo to use the whip as a prop or to touch an
arrow to the whip; such crimes were punishable by death. In Genghis Khan's
time, strict rules dictated the way horses were to be used on campaign. The
Khan instructed his general Subutai, "See to it that your men keep their
crupper hanging loose on their mounts and the bit of their bridle out of the
mouth, except when you allow them to hunt. That way they won't be able to
gallop off at their whim [tiring out the horses unnecessarily]. Having
established these rules--see to it you seize and beat any man who breaks them. Any
man.who ignores this decree, cut off his head where he stands."
Mongolian tack differs from Western tack in being made
almost completely of rawhide and using knots instead of metal connectors. Tack
design follows a "one size fits all" approach, with saddles, halters,
and bits all produced in a single size. Mongolian tack is very light compared
to western tack. The modern Mongolian riding saddle is tall, with a wooden
frame and several decorated metal disks that stand out from the sides. It has a
high pommel and cantle and short stirrups. Riders frequently stand in the stirrups
The Mongolian saddle, both medieval and modern, has short
stirrups rather like those used on modern race horses. The design of the
stirrups makes it possible for the rider to control the horse with his legs,
leaving his hands free for tasks like archery or holding a catch-pole.
The Mongols have many stories and songs about horses.
Legendary horses include magical flying steeds, beloved horses that visit in
dreams, and a rich body of folklore about equine protagonists. The horse has long
played a role as a sacred animal, and Mongols have a variety of spiritual
beliefs regarding them. The mane is believed to contain a horse's spirit and
strength; for this reason, the mane of stallions is always left uncut. Mare's
milk has been used in ceremonies of purification, prayer, and blessing since
antiquity. In modern times, it continues to be used in a variety of ceremonies
associated with racing. Historically, horses were sacrificed on special
occasions; 40 horses were sacrificed at the funeral of Genghis Khan. When a
horse is killed, a variety of rituals may be followed to honor the remains.
Horses are believed to have spirits that can help or hurt their owner after
death. When a deceased horse's spirit is content, the owner's herd will flourish;
if not, then the herd will fail.
Of the five kinds of herd animals typically recognized in
Mongolia (horses, camels, oxen/yaks, sheep, and goats), horses are seen to have
the highest prestige. A nomad with many horses is considered wealthy.
Mongolians do not give their horses names; rather, they identify them by their
color, markings, scars, and brands. Over 500 words in the Mongolian language
describe the traits of horses.
Mongolian horses are valued for their milk, meat, and hair.
In the summer, mares are milked six times a day, once every two hours. A mare
produces an average of 0.11 lbs of milk each time, with a yearly production of
662 lbs total. The milk is used to make the ubiquitous fermented drinks of
Mongolia, airag and kumis. Horse meat is considered the healthiest, most
delicious kind of meat. Each 600-lb Mongol horse yields about 240 lb of meat.
The horse's hair can be used for a number of products, including rope, fiddle
strings, and a variety of ornaments. Horse dung is used for camp fuel.
Mongol horses are of a stocky build, with relatively short
but strong legs and a large head. They weigh about 600 lbs. and range in size
from 12 to 14 hands (48 to 56 inches, 122 to 142 cm) high. Their cannon bone
external circumference is about 8 inches (200 mm). They have a slight
resemblance to Przewalski's horse and were once believed to have originated
from that subspecies. However, that theory was disproven in 2011 by genetic
testing. Przewalski's horse has been conclusively shown not to be an ancestor
of any domestic horse, though it can interbreed with domesticated horses to
hybridize and produce fertile offspring. Of the caballine equines, E. ferus,
only E. ferus ferus, also known as the European wild horse or
"tarpan," shares ancestry with the modern domestic horse.
The mane and tail of the Mongol horse are very long. Their
strands are often used for braiding ropes; the tail hair can be used for violin
bows. Mongolian horses have great stamina; although they have small bodies,
they can gallop for 10 km without a break. When pulling a cart, a team of four
Mongol horses can draw a load of 4400 lbs for 50–60 km a day. Because the
horses are allowed to live much the same as wild horses, they require little in
the way of hoof care. The hooves are left untrimmed and unshod, and few
farriers are in the country. Mongol horses have hard, strong hooves and seldom
have foot problems. Sometimes, horses will be branded.
Horses from different regions of Mongolia are considered to
have different traits. Desert horses are said to have larger feet than average
("like camel's feet"). Mountain horses are short and particularly
strong. Steppe horses are the tallest, fastest variety of Mongol horses.
Specifically, the eastern Khentii Province and Sükhbaatar Province steppe
provinces are widely considered to produce the fastest horses in the country.
Darkhad horses are known for their strength. A Darkhad horse weighing only 250
kg can carry a load of 300 kg—the equivalent of carrying another horse on its
back. On a broader level, some Mongolian provinces are considered to be more
suitable for horse rearing than others. The eastern steppe provinces are
informally known as the "horse provinces" because of their
suitability for horse breeding. The northern mountain provinces are considered
"cow provinces", though horses are reared there, as well.
A wide variety of horse colorations are seen. People in the
different regions of Mongolia favor different colors of horses and breed
accordingly. The Darkhad ethnic group prefers white horses, while the Nyamgavaa
prefer dun, bay, or black horses and shun white-colored animals. Some horses
are bred for the preferences of foreign markets. Elizabeth Kendall, travelling
through southern Mongolia in 1911, wrote, "I was struck by the number of
white and grey ponies, and was told that horses are bred chiefly for the market
in China, and this is the Chinese preference." She also observed that the
northern Mongolian herds near Tuerin seemed to consist mainly of black and
Herdsmen breed horses primarily for color and speed, but
also for conformation, disposition, and lineage. In Mongolia, conformation is
not stressed so strongly as it is in Western culture. However, a few traits are
preferred in a horse. When walking, a horse should leave hind footprints that
fall upon or outside the fore footprints. A desirable animal should also have a
large head, thick bones, a large barrel, thick legs, be tall (but not so tall
as to impede winter survival), possess a thick coat for cold resistance, have a
thick mane and tail, and a Roman nose; the latter is considered important
because dish-faced horses are considered to have difficulty grazing.
Mongol horses are frugal, hardy, somewhat wily, and tread
safely in rough terrain. In Mongolia, most animals are kept roaming free, and
only a small number of riding animals are caught and tethered. A nomad's herd
of horses hangs out around the family's dwelling, typically grazing several
miles away. The herd is allowed to choose its own pasturage with little
interference from the owners. They may disappear for days at a time, and
eventually the owners go out to look for them. Once a horse has become familiar
with carrying a rider, it will be calm, friendly, and very reliable. Because
nature provides so well for Mongol horses, they cost little to nothing to
raise. They are a practical necessity of everyday life, in which a substantial
portion of the population still lives as nomads. Herdsmen regard their horses
as both a form of wealth and a source of the daily necessities: transportation,
food, and drink.
The horses typically eat nothing but grass and require very
little water, a trait useful for survival in environments like the Gobi desert.
A horse may drink only once a day. In the winter, Mongol horses paw up the snow
to eat the grass underneath. For water, they eat snow.
During the winter and early spring, horses lose about 30% of
their body weight. They must regain this weight during summer and fall so as to
survive another year. During particularly hard winters ("zuds"),
horses may starve to death en masse or die of exposure. Herdsmen can do little
to save their herds in such conditions. In the bitter winter of 2009 - 2010,
188,270 Mongol horses perished. Despite their life in semiferal conditions,
most horses live to be 20 – 40 years old.
The horse is believed to have been first domesticated
somewhere in the Eurasian Steppe. Never have all the horses in Mongolia been
domesticated at once; rather, wild and domesticated horses coexisted and interbred,
so verifiably "true" wild blood no longer exists in the Mongol horses
of today. However, although not considered true wild horses in the same sense
as Przewalski's horse, some feral Mongolian horses browse the steppe alongside
their semiferal domesticated kin. Unlike the mustangs that roam the West in the
United States, which are categorized as a non-native species, feral Mongol
horses are living in the same manner and place as where their ancestors had run
and lived for hundreds of thousands of years. Occasionally, the nomads capture
feral horses to add to their herds.