Welcome back to the Mongolian Badassery Blog.
Aaron here, hijacking Anner’s blog post for a moment – hope you don’t mind! I want to say definitively that this whole riding experience was entirely my fault*. When we originally started planning our round-the-world adventure, seeing Mongolia was one of my must-do’s. Once I started researching what that meant, I came across a blog (the Young Adventuress) where a woman had done this trip and seemed to enjoy it. Well, she had no more riding experience than we did and I was really struck by the idea of getting out where we’d see not a single other tourist for the entire trip. It was a chance to get into true, true Mongolia. How great would that be?
Somehow, though, I got it in my mind that “a horseback riding trek in Mongolia” would be more of “see Mongolia, and you happen to be doing it by horseback” rather than “do a bunch of riding, you just happen to be doing it in Mongolia”. Does that make sense? Well, I’d definitely say that the riding was at least as much of a focus as experiencing the country, if not more. Next time I’ll know (I hope!) and we’ll go into things having the right mindset. That of true horseback riding Mongolian badasses!
*Anner here – yes, at least once I really blamed Aaron for this half-cocked idea…but where’s the personal responsibility in THAT? I agreed to go of my own free will, so I am at least 49% to blame. Okay 30%…maybe 20%…but at least some. I like to think I agreed to all the really good parts!
Ok, take it away again Anner!
What was the riding actually like? Most of the time while riding I swung between extremes of complete boredom and the utter terror of falling off my horse, getting a foot caught in the stirrups and being drug to death through the Mongolian mountains. Sure, the odds of the latter were relatively small, but that kind of emotional swing gets exhausting. And it wasn’t totally an unfounded fear as you’ll see later.
Then there were moments when it’s really, REALLY awesome! When we look up and find ourselves surrounded by stunning mountains, rocky cliffs, and soaring eagles while palling around with the Khazaks, I can’t help but think just how incredible this whole experience has been. Aside from those times you think you might die.
Now for the Juicy Bits! They say that you aren’t a rider until you fall off your horse. I’m happy to report that we are still not real riders (yeaaah!), but we did come close a couple of times (booo!).
Aaron’s Near Miss: We all headed out on our very first ride. Literally the first. Ten trekkers, four wranglers, a translator and two leaders. It’s beautiful beyond beautiful and Day One of riding is nothing but an easy practice ride. I expect this to be rather uneventful – though, as always, I’m nervous about being on horseback. We started off into a flat, stream-crossed valley and imagine my shock when not five minutes after heading out, Aaron nearly goes over the head of his horse!! It was just awful.
Aaron’s horse is set up with rawhide reins that are really short. Other folks have more comfortable-in-the-hand rope reins that are longer. He and his horse have already gotten into a battle of wills – the horse keeps dropping his head while Aaron jerks back on the reins to keep him upright. Pretty annoying! So, we came up to a little set of streams – our first chance to lead our horses over water. Instead of stepping over, Aaron’s horse decided to drink and pulled his head down sharply for a sip from the stream. This, of course, pulls Aaron with him. It’s one of those things that wouldn’t be a problem with longer reins (or more experience!), but the short ones he has don’t give him any excess to allow the horse to not pull him over!
I’m behind and over to the side when I hear the commotion. I look to see Aaron prone over his horse, hanging on for dear life, rear-end in the air, muscles straining, face turned red. My jaw drops, my stomach turns instantly nauseous, and I yell “Hang on!!“, when I realize my horse wants to drink too and I’m off balance and my horse is now walking away from the group down the little stream. With no confidence built up in the first five minutes of riding, I hardly can think what to do, but I have to turn away from Aaron and pull my own horse’s reins and get back on track. As fast as it all happens, our Mongolian translator is off his horse, into the water grabbing Aaron by the back of his pants and the reins at the same time while the group leader is yelling, “Lean back!“. I’m going in little circles with my horse, looking over my shoulder and I see Aaron is shaken, but in one piece. His sunglasses, though, well they were suddenly in two.
Just then I get choked up and feel tears bubbling. Seeing Aaron in distress and completely unable to do anything at all to help was too much for me. I tried to take a few deep breaths, but I was shaken too. My horse was moving forward with the group. Aaron was in the back with the leaders and we got separated. I could tell he wasn’t having fun for the rest of the ride and I couldn’t blame him. He’s strong though, and he powered through. At the break, they changed his reins, which helped a lot, and when we returned home his horse made it through the water and Aaron kept his balance the whole time. The next day Aaron got a new horse.
(Quick note from Aaron: I think this was much more traumatic for Anner watching than for me almost falling. It happened so fast, I really didn’t have any fear, I was just holding on to try not to get dunked in the stream! Plus, I’m happy to say, I was able to fix my sunglasses once we did our first snack stop. It would have REALLY sucked to be without sunglasses for the whole trip! I was quite happy to get a new horse, though.)
(Quick note from Anner: Yes it WAS traumatic! Anner No Like!!!)
Anner’s Near Miss: We were an hour or two into Day Six of riding. We had ridden up a mountain-side through rocky, mossy forest, getting whacked in the face by large larch tree branches around every turn, when we finally entered a more flat and open area. That’s when it happened: Horseflies! Those nasty little things were out to hurt my horse, Trusty! He started shaking his head quickly back and forth, prancing on his feet, dancing around, snorting and neighing. I yelled, “Whoa! Whoa!” and pulled the reins back hard. In my head it felt like we had gone hi-ho-silver style up on Trusty’s rear feet as he bucked all over, though I doubt it was anything that cool. Feeling like my voice was that of a scared little kid screaming for his mom, I continued, “Whoa, Whooooooa!!!” Trusty was thrashing around and I could see something in the air and his nostrils flaring when Mauitkhan (aka Smokey Joe), one of the old wranglers, came to my rescue.
Looking like he’s 80, just a skinny, shriveled up old man who wears a traditional Khazak hat with a home-rolled cigarette of tobacco and newspaper constantly pursed in his lips, Mauitkhan leaps from his horse and grabs Trusty’s lead. In loud Mongolian he yells at me and because of the situation I immediately understood he was saying, “Get the hell off the horse!” I kicked my right leg over my horse and like always my left leg stayed in the stirrup – a sure way to get dragged. With my ass on the ground, Smokey Joe holding the lead, I scream (or at least that’s how it sounded in my head) “I’m stuck!!” With the adrenaline of a mom lifting a car off her baby, I do one giant sit-up from the ground into the air to extricate my foot, then a quick roll away and I popped up standing. That’s how I remember it. Aaron says I sounded like I was in office mode, speaking with authority, like I knew something. I like that version better.
Jen, our group leader, said I was “Doing some cowboy shit.” and everyone complimented my balance. I even got a few hugs, which I appreciated very much. I would not think of me as well balanced. Maybe bottom heavy, like a weeble-wobble. In any event, it kept me on Trusty until Smokey Joe came to my rescue and I’m greatful for it. Aaron and I have been planking, push-uping and leg-lifting since our Ecuador horse riding, so perhaps that helped as well. Whew! Dodged a bullet there, but remember my fear of getting dragged – it could happen! Later on in the trip one of our fellow riders, Max, had his saddle get loose on his horse and the horse just took off over the hills! Luckily Max hadn’t gotten on yet, but it was a close thing – Max had fallen off two other times trying to ride just a bit beyond his skill level – though he was getting pretty good for a beginner!
I got back on my horse assuming all was well….but not so! Two mintues later Trusty did the same thing again! I stayed on this time, though I was scared all over again. After the next break, the wranglers got together and talked amongst themselves, deciding I would be given a new horse for the day. I took Trusty back the following day and for the remainder of the trip I learned to be very alert to Trusty vs. Fly encounters. About once a day he’d go a little wack-a-doo and I would give him a kick or yell “Hey!” in hopes of distracting him. Whatever it was, we made it through the rest of the trip a-okay.
What’s in a Name? We were assigned horses the first day and mine was a biggun with a tendency to nap whenever he could and eat whenever he wasn’t napping. Yep, well chosen for me. As soon as I was up, Bec yelled over, “What’s his name?” The Mongolians don’t name their horses as they are only ridden for a month each year and then just to do work. The other eleven months they are out with their wild herds on the steppes and mountains.
“What’s his name?” I had no idea, so I had to think quick. I decided that since I had to put all my trust into this beast, ‘Trusty’ would be a good way to start things off. Except for horseflies up his nose, he never let me down. He was a seriously sure-footed fellow. Once I was standing the wrong way and not holding the lead correctly. We had been walking down another mountain-side when I fell behind and Trusty came up beside me (we were always supposed to stay in front of our horses while walking). His hoof came down right on top of my foot! Instincts were quick when I pulled on my shoe, yelled, “Noooooooooo!” and pushed Trusty’s shoulder. Sure enough, he must have felt my shoe and moved his foot without ever causing a scratch. Thank you, Trusty!
The one thing about Trusty is that he had a need for speed. I think he fancied himself a bit of a Seabiscuit. Sadly, I had to keep the reins short…really, really short, to hold him back. I could often feel him pull and my arm would get sore from holding him back. I hated doing it, but I also hated the idea of falling right off his back-side, one shoe caught in a stirrup. Occasionally, I would loosen the rein, stand up in the stirrup just a little, and without even saying the magic word, “choo”, Trusty would dart into the wind at a fast trot before breaking into a canter. Cantering lasted for about 15 seconds before I’d get scared and sit back down. Trusty seemed to understand. I’d pull back and he’d slow down. I gave him all I could. On the last day, I gave him an extra scratch and said good-bye to the horse I had grown to call Trusty, Rusty Seabiscuit.
Aaron named his horse Triple, a natural with his three white feet and one black one. Trusty liked Triple, so sometimes we’d walk together. Triple was the replacement after the horse on the first day – ole whatshisname – tried to hurl my honey into the trickle of water. Aaron and his new horse got along great – no falls and Triple was easy-peasy going over and around rocks and other obstacles. He did seem to want to sit down in the water a lot as we crossed streams, but Aaron picked up quickly that a well timed combo of kicking and “choo”-ing worked wonders!
Giddy-Up! What Were the Horses Like? I can hardly believe it, but we really did learn how to ride horses!! The Mongolian horses are broken and and therefore considered “calm” by Mongolian standards… By Ecuador standards (my only other horse riding experience) they were spirited, high energy, strong, used to running in a herd and not used to being ridden by a novice, nervous rider. Our leader said that this trek was like one year of riding lessons compressed into two weeks and I believe her. Nothing like baptism by fire! When you’re up on the mountain and your horse freaks out from flies, you can’t just call it quits and go inside. You have to get back on and keep working on it. Here’s a really quick video proving we can actually ride horses. Quick note about the video: This was pretty much the only time we walked on a worn path which is why it felt safe to hand the camera to someone and show off a little. Don’t get ideas in your head that this is what the trek was like!
One of my favorite things was at night when we would ride into camp and the pack horses there would neigh and let out a big hello! to the horses we were riding back to join them. Then our horses would all neigh back. The excitement and horse-y happiness was palpable.
When all the horses were out grazing, not necessarily tethered, a group might bunch up and take off running with tails rising in the wind, waving like flags, as they’d race up a hill. Suddenly, they’d all stop and just go back to eating. I loved the sight of them all running free – just can’t experience that in the US very often. In some places we would see many herds of horses grazing with the occasional yaks, goats and sheep keeping them company. So wonderful!
Ride’em Bareback At a remote camp we had time to kill and someone said, “Let’s ride bareback!” Lots of times the Khazaks ride around without a saddle, but of course they’ve been riding since they were three! You should see them mount the horse – they literally just jump on like an Olympian getting on the pommel horse. We often watched the Khazak Mongolian kids mount horses bareback and race into the horizon to get their herds of yaks or goats or whatever. The horses go SO fast but the rider appears to not even move. Amazing! These folks really are unbelievable riders.
Aaron and I said we’d watch, but no way are we riding bareback. We were a few minutes late and as we walked up the hill, Aaron and I got there just in time to see Bec riding a horse sans saddle. Aaron said, “If Bec can do it…and she’s not really comfortable out here either…then so can I” and just like that a wrangler was pushing him onto a horse. As the wrangler walked away, he made a gesture to the other wranglers of what it was like getting Aaron on the horse. After seeing that, I was SURE I wasn’t going to try it! Aaron did GREAT though! You can see him here. A natural, really, and I was so impressed. Aaron did move a lot, not like the Mongolians, but he stayed on the horse and can forever say he rode bareback in Mongolia! Even trotted for a few seconds! Booya!
How Sore Are We? Before the trek all our friends laughed and warned us, “Oooooo, you’re gonna be so sore…you’ve never going to walk right again!!” I’m here to inform you that we are mostly walking just fine! Much of that is due to Mongol horses being much smaller than Western breeds. They are incredibly strong, but short and thin (except for Trusty…he’s pretty tubby) as they are built to live off scraggly scrub grass and make it through Mongolian winters without the safety of a barn. So, unlike our practice rides in Ecuador, we barely had any saddle soreness to speak of. Perhaps the planking helped with that, too, as our cores are much stronger now!
What we did have were sore knees and ankles and maybe hips, necks and shoulders…but the saddle regions were just fine. I’d hobble like a particularly infirmed old lady for about 15 minutes after each ride and for the same amount of time every morning. As promised, here’s the video of Aaron after his first ride. Still, it was never really bad. We hurt worse from the day we walked up and down the stupid mountains than from riding. Ibuprofen provided relief quickly and easily every time. No big deal is my answer to this – we were much sorer after our 2hr Ecuadorian practice rides!
Next up – all about the Khazak Mongolian people, aka, the very best part of the trip!
If you missed it, here’s the start of our blogs on Mongolia:
Part 1 – A Day in the Life of Two Mongolian Backcountry Badasses