If you have read my 6 Reasons Why Mongolia is the Ultimate horse Riding Destination article hopefully you are inspired about riding in Mongolia. In this article I want to share some tips and advice that I have gleaned over the years, from the horses and saddles, to who should go, when and where to ride.
I learned to ride in Mongolia, starting in the summer of 2000 when I was helping to build Nature’s Door Ger Camp at Lake Hovsgol. Since then I’ve led many rides into the wilds of northern Mongolia and have gained more than a few insights, in fact I am still learning and looking forward to future trips to delve more into Mongolian horsemanship and horse culture.
I’ve said this before but whatever you do, never, ever call a Mongolian horse a pony within earshot of a Mongolian. Mongols are very proud of their horses. While the horses are relatively short and stocky in stature, they are renowned for their hardiness and endurance. They spend the winters foraging for themselves, and fighting off wolves, they are usually the last of the livestock to receive any hay. They are tough, and they are horses not ponies. The horses are kept in small family groups, each with a stallion, this natural herd structure allows them to better fend for themselves. But it means they are not schooled or molly-coddled like a western horse so riders need to appreciate a few differences to the horses and riding style they are used to.
Like all horses they each have their own individual characters from the lazy stubborn plodders to the crazed ex-racehorse that only goes full tilt. The ideal horse is what the herders call a nomhun mor which loosely translates as a steady forward going horse, that wants to go, but that will respond to leg and rein. This is where it pays to ride with herders that have experience with western riders as they’ll pick out a horse to match our abilities. There’s nothing more frustrating for an experienced rider to be given a horse that would be better off giving donkey rides along Blackpool beach.
Mongolian horses are always approached and mounted from their left side. These horses are neck reined, and the tethering rope is left attached to the bridle. You can rein with one hand, leaving the other hand to free to keep the tether rope out of the way – using the rope end to give the horse some encouragement if necessary. Unshod, their hooves wear naturally; on longer rides they might start to get sore feet if the terrain is rocky or the daily distances are not well paced – one of the many reasons to go with seasoned guides and to listen to the local horsemen.
The traditional Mongolian saddle is made of wood, with a very high pommel and cantle. It has scant padding and the saddle is adorned with two ornate silver studs on each side of the seat. Allegedly these were ordered by Chinggis Khan to encourage his warriors to stand in the saddle. Coupled with very short stirrups these saddles make for extremely torturous riding for anyone but a Mongol literally born to ride.
As even Mongolians sometimes apparently find these saddles too uncomfortable, and also to accommodate tourists, they have a second kind of saddle that they call a Russian saddle, oros emeel, as it is based on a Russian cavalry saddle. The saddle tree comprises two wooden boards connected with iron bars at cantle and pommel. This is then strung with raw hide over which is placed a leather cushion stuffed with wool. In the end it turns out quite different from an actual Russian cavalry saddle, which you do sometimes see in Mongolia.
The herders own saddles are often quite ‘make do and mend’ with little padding and short stirrups, so the better riding outfitters usually make and provide their own saddles, and fit them with long stirrup leathers. Typically the saddles have two girths, sometimes three: the third can be used as a crupper or a breast strap according to the terrain. Over my years of riding in Mongolia I found my own made-to-order Russian saddles to be comfortable for both rider and horse, suitable for the riding and terrain we cover, and they have been tested on 500 km rides.
One outfitter, Stone Horse Expeditions, use Western Saddles specifically made for Mongolian horses. English saddles tend not to work so well on the small Mongolian horses, especially if badly sized they can slip forward over the withers, or cause sores on the horses shorter backs.
It’s worth knowing that the Russian saddles don’t have the kind of hooked stirrup bar that can release the stirrup leather if you were being dragged. Some outfitters supply safety stirrups or you could bring your own. If riding with the traditional Mongolian stirrup irons make sure to wear appropriate boots, and don’t jam your foot too far in, at the first sign of trouble the first thing you need to do is get your feet out of the stirrups to avoid being dragged if you fall. You can also use the Russian or German riding boots popular with Mongolians that might be able to pull off if you had a foot stuck in the stirrup; these can be found in most markets.
You could literally ride almost anywhere in Mongolia and until a few years ago you would still see herders on horseback in downtown Ulaanbaatar. For multi-day rides, expeditions or tours, the central steppes and northern forested mountain regions are the typical riding destinations. Gorkhii Terelj National Park, just a short drive from Ulaanbaatar is a great place for both day rides and longer rides into the backcountry. The parkland landscapes of larch woodland and grassy hills studded with rock outcrops offer great riding terrain and fantastic views. Heading deeper into the wilds from Gorkhii Terelj takes you into the Khan Khentii Special Protected Area for a genuine wilderness experience.
The central steppes from Ulaanbaatar to the Arhangai mountains are the place to explore the wide-open grasslands and nomadic culture. Arhangai is famous for its airag, a fermented slightly alcoholic and effervescent beverage made made from mare’s milk. The Hovsgol region of northern Mongolia offers adventurous riding through the mountains and taiga forests bordering Siberia: rides here combine the nomadic experiences visiting herders at the summer camps or out cutting hay for the winter with travel though stunning wilderness. Some of the terrain can be challenging on horseback so it pays to go with guides that know the better horse routes and which trails are best left to trekking on foot. For a unique experience go to the Ikh Nart Plateau in the East Gobi for horseback safari style day rides where you can ride among wild Argali sheep and Ibex.
Theres something about Mongolia that inspires people who have never ridden before to suddenly decide they want to get on a horse and ride into the sunset. Likewise Mongolia inspires accomplished riders who want to experience one of the world’s great horse cultures and enjoy long-distance riding though landscapes unconstrained by roads or fences.
We wouldn’t say Mongolia isn’t the place to get on a horse for the first time but it helps to have some experience and not to bite off more than you can chew. At least get some lessons before going, go with a seasoned guide, don’t be over-ambitious, and start with shorter supervised rides. Some rides are best left to confident riders with plenty of experience. Even horse people should appreciate that the riding will be a little different and they also need to appreciate that while Mongolians love their horses they certainly don’t pamper them.
On a multi-day ride go with the flow and listen to the locals, remember that campsites will be dictated by availability of water and grazing for the horses, which can mean shorter or longer days than expected. To be fair to the horses if you think you might be on the heavy side have a chat with the outfitter or guide before signing up, some outfitters impose a weight limit around 90 kg but might suggest arranging a spare mount for riders over that limit.
The riding season in Mongolia runs from mid-June through September. By spring Mongolian horses are often half-starved from the winter, and the grass only begins to grow in May or later in the northern regions. It generally takes until the middle of June for the horses to regain condition, and riding them sooner can easily exhaust the horses. The exception would be riding with outfitters such as Stone Horse Expeditions who feed their horses a generous hay ration throughout the winter, but they still need to wait until there is sufficient fresh grass out on the trail or carry extra feed. In September the nights will be turning cold, but the autumn can be a wonderful time to ride when the larch trees turn golden. By October we’d suggest shorter rides, extra blankets and tents equipped with wood stoves.
That’s some of the essentials of horse riding in Mongolia – what is harder to express is the feeling or the essence of the experience. Imagine yourself sat around a campfire after a good days ride, resting on your saddle, wolves howling in the distance and your Mongolian guides singing haunting songs. It is something you’ll not soon forget.