A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO HORSE-RIDING IN MONGOLIA
HORSE RIDING IN MONGOLIA
So, you’re thinking of heading to Mongolia?
I’m going to put it out there… If riding a horse isn’t on your list of things to do whilst there, it probably should be.
Not exploring a least a fraction of the country from the back of a horse is the traveling equivalent of going to France and not eating any cheese; Unless you’re dangerously allergic to it, there is really no excuse.
We share this in the hope that anyone who isn’t quite sure which end of the horse is the go-end, will find some solace, advice & clear instruction (written by someone who does… kind of).
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE HORSE-RIDING IN MONGOLIA
How to approach a Mongolian Horse
First thing’s first, always approach horses in Mongolia from their left hand side. They are trained to be used to humans approaching from this side, and should remain calm while you mount & dismount.
Bit of a 101 here but never approach a horse from it’s tail, and try to avoid walking too close behind them - These creatures have a real pair of back-legs on them and aren’t worried about using them.
No doubt you’ve heard before that horses can sense fear? Well… ignore it. It’s like someone telling you you’re blushing - totally unhelpful and bound to make it worse. Horses aren’t telepathic, they can’t read your mind. They will however pick up on and probably mirror your nerves if you act super weird around them - like being jumpy and making sudden movements. Stay calm, move slowly, make sure they can see you as you approach. Piece of cake.
ARE MONGOLIAN HORSES HEALTHY?
They are however not family pets. Horses will not necessarily look in the pinnacle of health - they will likely be dusty, their coats a little grubby, and hair a little wild. Horses are not shooed (can do more damage than good if unchecked for long periods) & rarely groomed. They will also be little bonier than the horses you may have seen before. They live outside & roam freely in a team (or harass) so sport a more ‘weathered’ look. They are however very hardy & typically very fit.
If you are riding in Mongolia anytime from late April, the horses will have what’s known as ‘spring legs’. This basically means that they are a little weak from having not been ridden over the winter and not being able to move around as often due to the weather. A bit like how your legs feel the first time you go for a run after a couple of months (or *ahem* years) off. As a result, your horse will stumble. In fact, for the first half an hour, your horse will probably stumble quite a bit, especially if you are riding in snow. There is absolutely no need to panic. Your horse isn’t lame, you are not too heavy (<90kg) and you’re very unlikely to fall. Your horse should automatically regain its step, but you can help by pulling up their head using the reigns if they trip.
Are Mongolian horses wild?
Most horses in Mongolia are considered semi-wild. You will undoubtedly be told this if you come to ride them, probably more than once (we think it might even be point of pride). Don’t let that phrase worry you - you’re not going to be asked to mount a wild-eyed stallion from a running jump - the horses you will be offered will have been ridden before & at the very least, lightly broken in (usually by an 8 year old child whilst his dad is herding).
All semi-wild actually means is that they’re normally free to roam and that they need to be actively ridden, as opposed to just sat on - These are not ‘pony-club’ horses and they probably wont walk nose to tail. In other words, they aren’t ‘semi-automatic’ - Which is good thing! We promise.
A ‘semi-wild’ horse is however far more likely to be spooked than a schooled pony at home. Flapping jackets, loud noises, unexpected movement should all be avoided where possible. If you are wearing a rain-jacket, make sure it’s done up. No flapping zips or open pockets that things could randomly appear from whilst on or off the horse (packets of cigarettes, gloves, tissues, Pokemon cards - whatever you happen to have stashed in there at the time). Nick learnt the hard way on this one when trying to wrap his coat around his waist - a renegade sleeve dropped below the saddle & his horse got into quite a flap. In fact it would be fair to say it went bat-sh*t crazy.
If you want to pull any tricks while in the saddle let your guide know first. He’ll come and hold your horse while you sort yourself out… or politely let you know that you’re being an absolute lemon.
IS RIDING A HORSE IN MONGOLIA SAFE?
Yes and no. You are on the back of a living, independently thinking creature which is unlikely to be that bright. Keep that at the forefront of your mind.
Don’t expect a helmet to be provided. The Mongolian’s don’t wear them. If you want to ride, but don’t want to do so without a helmet, make sure you bring one with you, or try and find one to buy in UB. Helmets save lives, no doubt about it, and we absolutely would have preferred to wear them if we could have. The only benefit is that you do look less like a melon-head in photos without them.
Which ever way you go, the whole activity is at your own risk. Do what you feel comfortable with, with what’s available to you.
Where do I put my feet?
Mongolian tack (the name for all the riding clobber a horse wears when you ride them) is pretty similar to everywhere else - there may be more rope as opposed to leather involved, but it’s all recognisable. This means you’ll have stirrups! They are half-moon shaped loops to slide your feet into on either side of the saddle (typically metal, but sometimes leather).
It is really important to only partially place your foot in the stirrup. You should be resting the ball of your foot in the stirrup, not the arch, and definitely not the heel. In the un-likely event that you fall, this is so your feet will come out of the stirrups quickly & easily, as opposed to getting tangled - you don’t want to still be attached to an un-mounted horse by your ankle (speaking from experience…).
Brace the balls of your feet against the stirrup and push you heels down so your feet are parallel to the floor - this is the most stable way to ride & your feet shouldn’t slip out.
How do I make my horse go?
To make your horse go, you have a couple of options. If you’ve got a responsive horse a squeeze of the heels into their sides should be enough to send them forward. Alternatively sharply saying the Mongolian “Chuu” is the equivalent of “walk on”. A lazier horse might need a sharp clap of your legs against its sides as a kick. If you end up with the same kind of horse I had (who actually lay down twice while I was still in the saddle - the absolute scoundrel) you may want to have a crop in hand (usually just having a stick will be enough to encourage the horse without ever having to use it - they’ll know you have it).
We would never recommend needless hitting of a horse, and if you do need to use a crop, try lightly tapping or rubbing over their flanks to remind them that you have it first. If you do need to use the crop, start light and see how they respond - too hard and you could risk the horse bolting. Amusing for anyone watching, a little alarming for yourself.
How do I make my horse stop?
Somewhat worryingly there is no equivalent Mongolian instruction for ‘Stop’ - one assumes horses were just ridden until they *HAD* to stop in the past? However, Mongolian horses respond primarily to the weight of the rider in the saddle (as opposed to heavy rein movement) so bringing your weight backward in the saddle to settle over their back legs (+ a slight lean back) should get a response. Pulling evenly & firmly back on the reins will slow your horse down in most cases too. I opted to use good old “wooaah” in addition and it seemed to translate quite well. A lazy horse perhaps, but at least he had the good nature to be bi-lingual.
How do I turn my horse?
You will be given two things to hold while you ride:
A lead rope: This is single long rope that is attached to a horses bridle just under their chin. It’s used for attaching the horse to something secure when you’re not in the saddle, and also for holding & leading the horse when you’re on foot. You can either hold this, or loop it round part of the saddle. Do not wrap this around your arm, hand or wrist, if you hold it, hold it as a bunch -If you fall and have this wrapped around a limb, you could be in for a dislocation or worse - ouch!
Reins: These are the equivalent to a steering-wheel. A rein is a strap of leather (or sometimes rope) with each end attached to either side of the horses face using the bridle. It is then looped back behind the head. In England & Australia, you hold the rein with both hands, pulling your left hand in towards you to go left, and your right hand in to go right. In Mongolia you hold the reins in one hand. They are usually quite short meaning your hand will be held slightly higher or further in front of you than they would elsewhere. To steer, you simply guide the horses head left or right.
With your spare hand you’re holding the lead rope. You can either rest this nonchalantly on a thigh (popular) or grip on to the front of the saddle for dear life - whichever feels best at the time.
How to sit when my horse trots?
Trotting is the next speed up from a walk, its the horse equivalent of a jog which can be sustained over long distances. Another squeeze of the legs should set you going. Alternatively, wait for someone else to start & your horse will automatically speed up - they are pack animals & hate to be left behind.
If you’ve ever had a riding lesson, particularly in the UK or Australia, it is likely that you would have been taught to rise as your horse trots. This is basically moving out of the saddle in time with two diagonal hooves hitting the ground. It is a very comfortable, and very tidy way to ride over short distances. Minimal flailing around looking flustered... But, alas, in Mongolia you won’t be travelling short distances. You could be travelling many kilometres over several hours, and the horses are used to being ridden at a trot for these extended periods of time. To rise up and down for that long you’d need thighs & an arse of steel. Instead, Mongolians stand into their trot, gripping with their legs, slightly leaning forwards, and holding their torso’s steady. As i’ve mentioned, the horses responds to weight, so relieving weight from the forehand (front of the horses) allows the horse to move more freely.
It takes some time & practice to find the right ‘seat’ in this style - if you feel like a rag-doll sat on a tumble-dryer… I’m afraid to say, you’re probably not doing it right.
How do I go faster?
If you want to get your horse to go faster and canter (one speed up from a trot, down from a gallop), another “chuu” and kick of the heels should give your mount the right idea. You can also give the horse a little more length in the rein to let it know it can move faster.
Again, British riding school technique teaches you to sit into a canter, riding in a comfortable rocking motion, in Mongolia you effectively stand in your stirrups, grip with your legs and lean slightly forward (a more upright version of the position we would ride when in a gallop). Most horses can canter for a fair amount of time, but it will exhaust them. If you have a long ride think about your horse running a marathon i.e. you don’t want it to sprint if it doesn’t need to.
We got the impression that Mongolian’s don’t really distinguish between a canter & a gallop, so the technique to ride both is the same. This standing canter/gallop is in fact famously Mongolian. Warriors in the time of the Kahns’ would stand with their legs locked in their stirrups, ride full speed, and let go of the reins to loose arrows at the enemy whilst flying past.
Do try to remember that, despite the landscape, you are in fact not a mongol warrior. No raiding, pillaging & conquering here, and you probably don’t have a bow & arrow strapped to your back. If you feel more comfortable being sat while you canter… sit while you canter. Helpfully, Mongolian saddles often have a metal loop like a handle at the front which you can also hold on to if you need a little extra stability - but for heaven’s sake… try not to land on the damn thing. You’ll be tenderised enough after a few hours in the saddle - no need to add insult to injury.
What to wear horse-riding in MONGOLIA
In my imagination, whilst I rode across the plains of Mongolia, I wore smart figure-hugging jodhpurs, long boots & suede chaps, a loose white blouse, my hair streaming out behind me in golden waves…
In reality, I was bundled in waterproof trousers, filthy leather gaters, a stale smelling anorak, and a snood that absorbed some of the grease my hair had been growing after 10 days without a shower. But hey-ho, such is life.
The most important thing to bear in mind when packing for a horse-riding adventure is that you want to be comfortable and warm.
Long trousers or leggings instead of jeans - Fabric that won’t rub too badly.
Boots with a slight heel are a good idea (stops your foot sliding all the way through the stirrup) - we wore walking boots and were actually fine.
If you haven’t bought your knee high riding boots (likely), wearing gaters or chaps can help add some extra padding between your calfs & any buckles, ridges or straps on the saddle which can chafe over time.
Comfy pants! (briefs/knickers/underwear for all you Americans). For guys that means wearing something that keeps everything in one place - You don’t want to be bouncing around with everything errr… loose. For girls that means anything but a thong! Sexiness is naaat for the saddle.
A wind breaker - If you’re moving quickly, the wind is what will cool you down the most. Fortunately, everything from the waist down should be pretty toasty - a horse kicks out a lot of heat, but keeping your core warm with layers is important.
Gloves if its cold. Leather, suede or something with a bit of grip is a good idea. Mittens are a terrible idea and from experience, socks on your hands - also not great.
Something to keep your hair out of your eyes
Will I get saddle sores?
Ah the best ‘til last.
I’m not going to lie, if you’re in the saddle for more than 5 hours and riding consecutive days, there is strong likelihood that you could develop saddle sores. There’s not point describing what these are - you’ll know if you get them! They often turn up on the upper inner-thighs, around the groin, or below the coccyx. DELIGHTFUL.
They are caused by three things: pressure, friction, and sweat. All of which riding provides in spades - Especially if you’re riding in a particularly well worn saddle (likely), or if the saddle is a little too big for you & you slide around a lot.
If you get them, you’re only real option to heal is to stop riding (problematic if you’re in the middle of the steppe). The best route is obviously prevention and fortunately there are a bunch of things that can help!
Wear form-fitting clothing in minimal friction fabrics: Denim - no, corduroy - no, wool - heavens no, hessian - go home.
Lube up: Some sort of grease like a chamois balm, paw-paw ointment, even vaseline can help enormously and minimise friction
Dry off: If you know you’re a sweaty kinda person, talcum powder can help minimise ummm… stickiness. Baby powder & even athletes foot spray can do the job nicely.
Extra padding: If you’re more used to riding a road-bike than a horse - Just bring your cycling shorts. The extra padding can provide exactly the same comfort it does in the other saddle.
WHERE ARE THE BEST PLACES TO RIDE IN MONGOLIA:
Now you just need to know where the best spots to ride in Mongolia are. If you are looking to a book a tour, any that include the following locations will give you the opportunity to ride off into the sunset, feeling every bit the wandering nomad:
Naimun Nuur National Park: To the West of UB, this region is in the province of Ovorkhangai, in the Khangai ranges. Mountainous, lush, criss-crossed by rivers, streams & waterfalls, riding here allows you to test your skills across many different terrains. You can also help the nomads herd up their yaks & goats which graze across the rocky foot-hills.
Khovsgol: This region is in the far North of Mongolia, bordering Siberia. Riding around the pristine Lake Khovsgol (frozen from October to June) will allow for spectacular views & plenty of flat land to fly over on horseback.
Khan Khentil National Park: The lands to the East of UB, birthplace of Ghengis, and are most likely to resemble your imagination of Mongolia. Open, flat, endless grasslands, perfect for crossing on by horse.
Horse-riding is the heart and soul of Mongolian culture, connecting nomad to nomad for millennia. The word in Mongolian for walking also means ‘poor’, such is the importance of the reliable steed. The peoples of the Eurasian steppe used horses to harass northern China (leading to the creation of the Great Wall), to invade ancient Rome, and 800 years later Genghis Khan conquered 1/6 of the planet from the back of his little ponies.
In short, there is no more authentic way to get to grips with what it is really like to survive and thrive on the steppe than being on the back of a Mongolian mount.
Saddle up my friend. You’re in for one hell of a ride.
As always, leave us a comment with any questions or concerns. We’re happy to help where we can!
We’re always writing more travel advice & guides for places we’ve visited, for more on Mongolia, have a little browse below:
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