Mongolian horse

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Mongol Horse
A Mongol horse (with trimmed mane) in traditional riding gear
Distinguishing featuresSmall but sturdy build, stamina, hardiness in extreme conditions, genetic variation
Country of originMongolia
Equus ferus caballus
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This article is about the domesticated/feral horse breed. For the Mongolian wild horse, see Przewalski's horse.
Mongol Horse
A Mongol horse (with trimmed mane) in traditional riding gear
Distinguishing featuresSmall but sturdy build, stamina, hardiness in extreme conditions, genetic variation
Country of originMongolia
Equus ferus caballus

The Mongol horse (Mongolian Адуу, aduu: "horse" or mori; or as a herd, ado, or in Northern Khalka, tabun[1]) is the native horse breed of Mongolia. The breed is purported to be largely unchanged since the time of Genghis Khan. Nomads living in the traditional Mongol fashion still hold more than 3 million animals, which outnumber the country's human population.

In Mongolia, the horses live outdoors all year at 30 °C (86 °F) in summer down to −40 °C (−40 °F) in winter, and search for food on their own. The mare's milk is processed into the national beverage airag, and some animals are slaughtered for meat. Other than that, they serve as riding animals, both for the daily work of the nomads and in horse racing.

Mongol horses were a key factor during the 13th century conquest of the Mongol Empire.


A short, stocky Mongol horse grazes by traditional ger tent dwellings.

Mongol horses are of a stocky build, with relatively short but strong legs and a large head. They weigh about 600 lbs.[2] and range in size from 12 to 14 hands (48 to 56 inches, 122 to 142 cm) high and have a cannon bone external circumference of about 8 inches (200 mm). They have a slight resemblance to Przewalski's horse and were once believed to have originated from that subspecies.[3] However, that theory was disproven in 2011. The Przewalski's horse has been conclusively shown not to be an ancestor of any domestic horse, even though the two can hybridize and produce fertile offspring. Of the caballine equines, E. ferus, it is E. ferus ferus, also known as the European wild horse or "tarpan" that shares ancestry with the modern domestic horse.[4]

The mane and tail are very long, and the strands are often used for braiding ropes; the tail hair can be used for violin bows. The hooves are very robust, and very few animals are fitted with horseshoes. Mongolian horses have great stamina: although they have small bodies, they can gallop for 10 km without a break. They have strong, hard hooves. Sometimes, but not always, horses will be branded. If it is done, this usually takes place in the fall.

Horse 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 horse. Specifically, the eastern Hintii and Sukhbaatar steppe provinces are widely considered to produce the fastest horses in the country. Darkhad horses are known for their strength.[5]

A wide variety of horse colorations exists. 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.[5]

Herdsmen breed horses primarily for color and speed, but also for conformation, disposition and lineage.[6] In Mongolia, conformation is not stressed so strongly as it is in Western culture. There are, however, a few traits that are preferred in a horse. When walking, a horse should leave hind footprints that fall upon or outside the forefoot prints. 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 thick fur 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.[5]

A small, shaggy Mongol horse on the steppe. Horses are allowed to roam free, browsing at will.

Giovanni de Carpini was one of the first Westerners to describe Mongol horses, observing, "...[they] are not very great in stature, but exceedingly strong, and maintained with little provender."[7] 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 get 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 will go out to look for them. Once a horse has become familiarized with carrying a rider, it will be calm, friendly, and very reliable.[6]

The horses typically eat nothing but grass and require very little water, a trait useful survival in environments like the Gobi desert. A horse may drink only once a day.[1][8] In the winter, Mongol horses paw up the snow to eat the grass underneath. For water, they eat snow. When the winter snows have set in, nomads searching for new grazing land will move their herds to pastures which were too dry to graze on during summer months. The snow provides a needed source of water for the horses.

During the winter and early spring, horses lose approximately 30% of their body weight.[9] 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. There is little herdsmen can do to save their herds in such scenarios. In the bitter winter of 2009 - 2010, 188,270 Mongol horses perished.[10]

Mongolians say that fat horses have "grass in their belly" while lean horses have "water in their belly." Herdsman prefer to make long journeys during seasons when horses are well fed so as to spare tired or thin animals from exertion.[6] A typical Mongolian herd consists of 15 - 50 horses. There is one stallion, who is tasked with leading the herd, siring foals, and defending the herd against wolves. Some stallions are allowed to manage herds of up to 70 animals, though these are considered exceptional individuals. The rest of the herd is composed of a mixture of mares and geldings. Since the mares are used for foals and milking, they are not often used for work; this is job of the geldings. There are special horses within each herd used for roping, racing, beauty, or distance riding. A herdsman may own one or several herds of horses, each headed by its own stallion.[5]

Despite their life in semi-feral conditions, most horses live to be 20 – 40 years old.

The split between Przewalskii's horse and E. ferus caballus is estimated to have occurred 120,000– 240,000 years ago, long before domestication.[4] However, the Mongolian horse is theorized to be the founding stock for many other horse breeds in Asia, including the Tuvinian, Akhaltekin, Yunan, Japanese and Cheju.[3] A comparison of Mongol horses, Japanese horses, and Arab Anglo/Thoroughbred horses found that Mongol horses had the highest genetic diversity, with a heterozygosity ranging from 0.75 to 0.77.[11] Compared to low heterozygosity values for Thoroughbreds (0.461), Arabians (0.478) and the bottlenecked Przewalski's horse (0.474), the genetic diversity of the Mongol horses is exceptional.[12]

It is believed that the horse was first domesticated somewhere in the Eurasian Steppe. There has never been a time where all the horses in Mongolia were all domesticated at once; rather, wild and domesticated horses coexisted and interbred, so that there is no longer any verifiably "true" wild blood in the Mongol horses of today. However, although not considered true wild horses in the same sense as the Przewalski's horse, there still continue to be feral Mongolian horses that browse the steppe alongside their semi-feral domesticated kin. Unlike the Mustangs that roam the West in America, which some categorize as a non-native species, feral Mongol horses are simply living the place they have always lived for hundreds of thousands of years in the same manner that their ancestors lived. Occasionally the nomads will capture these horses to add to their herds.

Cultural context[edit]

The mane of the horse at right has been trimmed save for a patch near the withers. The horse at left is being used for racing in the annual Naadam festival, and its forelock has been put up into a topknot.

Compared to Western methods, Mongolians take a very "hands off" approach to horse care. Horses are not fed special foods like grain or hay. Rather, they are simply allowed to graze freely on the steppe, digging through the snow to find forage in the winter. Because nature provides so well for the Mongol horse, they cost little to nothing to raise. As such, horses are not an expensive luxury item as in Western culture, but a practical necessity of everyday life. Herdsmen regard their horses as both a form of wealth and a source of the daily necessities: transportation, food and drink.

In Mongolia, barns, pastures and stables are the exception, not the rule. Horses are generally allowed to roam free; if they are needed, they may be tied up temporarily. The hitching post used for this purpose differs from the usual Western conception of a bar placed across two posts. Such creations are wood intensive, and on the steppe trees are rare. Instead, the horses may be tied to a single wooden pole or a large boulder. 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 farriers are basically nonexistent. Despite the lack of attention, Mongol horses have hard, strong hooves and seldom experience foot problems.

Mane trimming varies by region. Stallions are always left untrimmed; a long, thick mane is considered a sign of strength. Geldings, however, are clipped. Sometimes the mane of a horse will be clipped short except for one patch near the withers. Mongolians save the cut off mane of the horse for spiritual reasons. Both tail and mane hair can also be made into various spiritual and utilitarian products, i.e. spirit banners or rope. Manes are always left long in the winter to keep the horse warm. The sole grooming tool used is a brush. The tail is generally left unclipped. When a horse is gelded, the very tip of the tail may be cut off.

During races, the forelock is put in a topknot that stands up from the horse's head. Among the Darkhad ethnic group, the forelock is cut short and the bridle path is left unclipped. For race horses, the owner will also have a wooden sweat scraper to clean off the horse after a race. Horses are not bathed.

In Mongolia, horses are a fairly cheap commodity. At present, a good Mongol horse can be purchased for $140; a merely decent one for $100, and a race horse for $800 – $1000.[8] In 1934 Henning Haslund reported seeing endless herds that stretched out as far as he could see. One man of his acquaintance owned no less than 14,000 horses.[13]

Riding and Training[edit]

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 horse to shield their body from enemy arrows, while simultaneously holding their bow under the horse's chin and returning fire, all at full gallop. In 1934, Haslund described how a herdsman breaking in a semi-wild horse was able to ungirth and unsaddle his horse as it bucked underneath him. He wrote, "It is a pleasure to see the Mongols in association with their horses, and to see them on horseback is a joy. ...[T]he strength, swiftness and elegance of a Mongol surpass that of any ballet dancer."[13] This same skill in horsemanship held true in antiquity. Giovanni de Carpini, a Franciscan monk who visited Mongolia during the 1240s, observed that "their children begin as soon as they are two or three years old to ride and manage horses and to gallop on them, and they are given bows to suit their stature and are taught to shoot; they are extremely agile and also intrepid. Young girls and women ride and gallop on horseback with agility like men."[14] As in the Middle Ages, the education of a modern Mongolian horseman begins in childhood. Parents will place their child on a horse and hold them there before the child can even hang on without assistance. By age 10, children can ride in races and are learning to make their own tack.

Carpini noted that the Mongols did not use spurs (these were unknown in Central Asia at that time); they did, however use a short whip. This whip had a leather loop at the end; when the rider was not using it, he would let it hang from his wrist so that he could have his hands free to perform tasks, e.g. archery.[15] It was taboo to use the whip as a prop or to touch an arrow to the whip; such crimes were punishable by death. It was also punishable by death to strike a horse with a bridle.[16] Haslund noted that as of 1934, it was considered a crime to strike a horse with a whip in areas in front of the stirrup.[17]

Mongolian cultural norms encourage the humane treatment of horses. After spending years in the country, Haslund could not recall even one instance of seeing a horse mistreated. Indeed, he found that Mongols who had been to China and observed their use of horses typically came back "filled with righteous wrath and indignation over the heavy loads and cruel treatment that human beings there deal out to their animals."[18] In Genghis Khan's time, there were strict rules dictating 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."[19]

Mongolian tack differs from Western tack in being made almost completely of raw hide[8] and using knots[20] 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; hobbles in particular are about half the weight of their Western counterparts.[8] The Mongol pack saddle can be adjusted to fit yaks and bactrian camels.[8]

The modern Mongolian riding saddle is very tall, with a wooden frame and several decorated metal disks that stand out from the sides. It has a high pommel and cantle, and is placed upon a felt saddlecloth to protect the horse's back. The horse's thick coat also provides a barrier that helps prevent saddle sores. In the Middle Ages, the Mongols used a different style of saddle, the chief difference being that the cantle flattened out in the rear rather than rising to a peak like the cantle of a modern Mongolian saddle. This allowed the rider greater freedom of movement; with a minimal saddle, a mounted archer could more readily swivel his torso to shoot arrows towards the rear.[15]

The Mongolian saddle, showing short stirrups, high pommel and cantle, and distinctive metal discs.

The Mongolian saddle, both medieval and modern, has short stirrups rather like those used by modern race horses.[15] 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.[15] Riders will frequently stand in the stirrups while riding.[21]

The design of the Mongolian saddle allows only marginal control of the gait. In most situations, the horse will decide the gait on its own, while the rider is occupied with other tasks such as herding cattle. Very often, a Mongol horse will choose to canter. The occasional Mongol horse will have an ambling gait, which is to say that it will lift both its left hooves at one time, then both its right hooves at one time, etc. Such horses are called joroo, and is said that they "glide as if though on ice, so smoothly that one can trot along on one holding a full cup and not spill any of the contents."[21] The Mongols, who ride hundreds of miles on horseback across the roadless steppe, place a high value on horses with a smooth gait.

Mongolian horsemen are required to learn everything necessary to care for a horse. This is because they do not typically employ outside experts such as trainers, farriers or veterinarians and must do everything themselves. For particularly difficult problems, the local elders may be called in or even an outside vet if one can be found. Materials such as books on horse training or medical care are uncommon and seldom used. Informally is passed down orally from parent to child.

Though Mongolian horse are small, they are used to carry quite large, heavy riders. This ability is due in part to the rider habit of frequently switching off horses so as not to overtax any particular animal. However, Mongol horses are also very strong. A Darkhad horse weighing only 250 kg. can carry a load of 300 kg—the equivalent of carrying another horse on its back. When pulling a cart, a team of four Mongol horses can draw a load of 4400 lbs for 50–60 km a day.[22]

Horses are usually not ridden until they are three years old; a two year old horse may be broken with a particularly light rider so as to avoid back problems. The breaking process is quite simple: the rider simply gets on and lets the horse run until it is exhausted. Then the horse is taught to respond to the pull of the reins. In Khuvsgul, the horses may be worked in round pens. This practice is not common in the rest of Mongolia however; wood is too scarce to be wasted on fencing.[5]

Since individual horses are ridden relatively infrequently, they become nearly wild and must be broken anew each time they are used. A herdsman must first catch the horse he wants; to do this, he mounts a special catch-horse which has been trained for the purpose. Carrying an urga, a lasso attached to a long pole, he chases after the horse he wants and loops the urga around its neck. The catch-horse helps the herdsmen pull back on the looped horse until it grows tired and stops running. At this point another rider will come up and put a saddle on it and mount. The horse will run and buck until it recalls its earlier training and allows itself to be ridden.[13]


A 1918 census of Mongolian animals found that there were 1,500,000 horses.[23] The exact origins of the Mongolian breed are hard to determine. Horseback riding has been documented with the nomads of the central Asian steppes 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.[24][25]

Recently breeders have begun importing expensive foreign race horse breeds like Arabians and Thoroughbreds with the goal of breeding them to native stock to produce faster horses. Unfortunately, these relatively fragile breeds are unable to survive on the steppe like Mongolian horses can; if left to their own devices, such horses inevitably freeze to death or starve. For this reason, breeders have focused on created crossbreeds between foreign horses and native Mongolian stock. The ultimate goal is to produce a race horse that has 1/4 foreign blood and 3/4 Mongolian blood; it is believed that this proportion will a.) create a horse hardy enough to survive in Mongolia and b.) combine the Mongolian horse's stamina and endurance with foreign speed to produce a new breed with the best qualities of both.[6]

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, it has been suggested that 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. A foreign stallion can impregnate ten native mares and produce ten crossed foals, but a foreign mare can only be impregnated by a native stallion once and produce one crossed foal.[6]

Among ordinary herders, breeding is simply a part of life. There are no breeding registries, but an average herdsman can list his mares' predecessors from memory up to seven generations. Bloodlines are reckoned through the mare's line rather than the stallion's. This is because the stallion is always drawn from outside the family herd, sometimes from a great distance, and his bloodline is therefore harder to track than that of the mares. In some areas herdsmen will get a new stallion every three years to prevent him from inbreeding with his three-year old daughters. Not that this practice is universal; in other areas the stallion stays with the same herd until he gets old. It is believed that he knows not to sire foals with his own offspring.[6]

Herdsmen have long been interested in crossing their horses with the now endangered Przewalski's Horse, which is considered particularly swift, but were unable to catch them with their lasso poles.[26]


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.[27]

Northern Europe and Iceland[edit]

Genetic analyses have revealed links between the Mongolian horse and breeds in Iceland, Scandinavia, Central Europe and the British Isles.[28][29] 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. The Icelandic horse 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.

As warhorses[edit]

Mongol cavalrymen shooting recurved bows likely strung with horse skin.

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. The Khan's army, weapons, war tack and military tactics were built around the idea of mounted calvary archers, and to a lesser extent light and heavy calvary. In the Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan is recorded as urging his general Subutai to pursue his enemies as though they were wild horses with a catch-pole loop around their neck.[30] Captured enemy rulers were sometimes trampled to death by horses.[31]

As a war vehicle, the Mongol horse compared favorably with other breeds in use at the time. Mongol horses needed little water[8] and did not need to be fed daily rations of grain, as many European breeds did. Their ability to forage beneath the snow and find their own fodder allowed the Mongols freedom to operate without long supply trains, a factor which was key to their military success. Mongol horses were bred to survive in harsh conditions, making it possible for the Mongols to mount successful winter campaigns against Russia. The excellent long distance endurance of the Mongol horse allowed warriors to outlast enemy calvary during battle; the same endurance granted the Mongols a communications advantage across their widely spread out fronts, since messages had to be conveyed by horse. 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. However, this drawback was compensated for by the fact that it was typically required to carry less weight than other cavalry horses.

It is said that a Mongol warrior's horse would come at his whistle and follow him around, doglike. Each warrior would bring a small herd of horses with him (3 - 5 being average, but up to 20) as remounts. They would alternate horses so that they always rode a fresh horse.[32] Giovanni de Carpini noted that after a Mongol warrior had ridden a particular horse, the man would not ride it again for three or four days.[33]

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.[32]

The Mongol armies did not have long supply trains; instead, they and their horses lived off the land and the people who dwelt there. It was important to find good grazing for their herds of remounts, or failing that, to capture enemy foodstuff. During an attack on a city, the cry, "Feed the horses!" indicated that soldiers were to pillage and slaughter the inhabitants.[31] Genghis Khan warned Subutai to be careful to conserve his horses' strength on long campaigns, warning that it would do no good to spare them after they were already used up.[34]

Mongolian horses have long been used for hunting, which was viewed as both a sport, a means of livelihood, and as training for military ventures. Animals like gazelles were taken with bow and arrow from the backs of horses, while other game was rounded up by mounted riders.[35] To the Mongols, the tactics used in hunting game from horseback were little different from those used in hunting enemy cavalry on horseback. Armies would also hunt for food while on the march, an activity which could wear out the horses. Genghis Khan, concerned that his soldiers would use up the strength of their horses before reaching the battlefield, instructed general Subutai that he should set limits on the amount of hunting his men did.[36]

The Mongols used many tools meant specifically to attack mounted riders. The spear used by warriors had a hook at the end which was used for dehorsing opponents and snagging the legs of enemies' horses. They also used whistling arrows to frighten horses of the enemy. Mongols had no qualms about shooting the mounts out from under other cavalrymen; there was even a particular type of arrow especially designed for the purpose.[37] For this reason, horses of well-to-do individuals wore armored with iron or hardened leather plates called lamellae.[37] The armor was a full body covering with five distinct pieces that shielded the head, neck, body and hindquarters.

The Mongols preferred to use a whip to urge their horses on during battle, while their European opponents preferred spurs. The whip provided them with a tactical advantage because it was more safe and effective than spurs: a whip can be felt through armor and does not harm the horse, whereas spurs cannot be felt through armor and injure the horse.[37]

Spiritual beliefs[edit]

It is believed that the spirit of a stallion resides within his mane; thus, a long, thick mane is considered a mark of a strong animal. The mane of a stallion is never cut, though the manes of geldings are. After a stallion dies, the owner may save the mane. The first foal of the year will also have a blue scarf tied around its neck; this foal is believed to represent the strength of the year's crop of foals.

A family may have a sacred horse among their herd, which is signified by a blue scarf tied around the neck. The horse is generally never ridden, though on rare occasions the head of the household may do so. Historically, horses were sacrificed on special occasions; it is recorded that 40 horses were sacrificed at the funeral of Genghis Khan.[38] When a Mongol warrior died, his horse would be killed and buried with him.[39] In 1253, William of Rubruk observed the scene of a recent funeral where the skins of sixteen horses had been hung up on long poles, with four skins pointing towards each corner of the compass. There was also kumis (mare's milk) for the deceased to drink.[40]

Mare's milk was used in a variety of religious ceremonies. In "The Secret History of the Mongols," it is recorded that Genghis Khan sprinkled mare's milk on the ground as a way to honor a mountain for protecting him. Before battle, the Mongols would sprinkle mare's milk on the ground to ensure victory. Sprinkled milk was also used for purification; envoys to the Khan were required to pass between two fires while being sprinkled with mare's milk to cleanse them of evil devices and witchcraft. William of Rubruck noted in 1253 that, "If he [a Mongol master of the house] were to drink [liquor while] seated on a horse, he first before he drinks pours a little on the neck or the mane of the horse."[40] Even in modern times, Mongol horses may be blessed with a sprinkling of mare's milk before a race.[41]

When a favorite horse dies, the owner may dispose of the remains in several ways. To show respect, they may take the horse's skull and place it on an oovo, a pile of rocks used in the shamanic religion. Others believe that when a horse is killed for food, its skull should be left in the field because of the sanctity of the horse. It is considered disrespectful for a horse's skull or hooves to be stepped upon; for this reason, such remains may be hung from a tree.

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.

Horses in Myth, Song and Folklore[edit]

Like many cultures, the Mongols have tales of magical horses. In one story, a Mongolian Robin Hood figure stole livestock from the rich and gave them to the poor. One day he was being pursued by lawmen on horseback, and he came to a river his horse could not cross. It looked like he would soon be caught, but seeing a mountain in the distance, he prayed to it for help and his horse rose from the ground and flew over the river to the top of the mountain.[42]

One legend revolves around the invention of the horsehead fiddle, a favorite Mongolian instrument. In this tale, a shepherd named Namjil the Cuckoo received the gift of a flying horse; he would mount it at night and fly to meet his beloved. A jealous woman had the horse’s wings cut off, so that the horse fell from the air and died. The grieving shepherd made a horsehead fiddle from the now-wingless horse's skin and tail hair, and used it to play poignant songs about his horse.[43]

Another legend about the origin of the horsehead fiddle claims that it was invented by a boy named Sükhe (or Suho). After a wicked lord slew the boy's prized white horse, the horse's spirit came to Sükhe in a dream and instructed him to make an instrument from the horse's body, so the two could still be together and neither would be lonely. So the first horsehead fiddle was assembled, with horse bones as its neck, horsehair strings, horse skin covering its wooden soundbox, and its scroll carved into the shape of a horse head.

Horses are common characters in Mongolian folklore. The frequently recurring motif of the young foal who becomes separated from his family and must make his way in the world alone is a type of story that has been described as endemic to Mongolian culture.[44] The horse also figures prominently in song. In 1934, Haslund wrote, "Of forty-two Mongolian songs which I noted down in my years in Mongolia no less than seventeen are about horses. They have titles like: 'The little black with velvet back,' 'The dun with lively ears,' and they are all full of touching evidences of the Mongol's love for his horses."[45]


Child racing at the Naadam festival. The horse's forelock is put up into a topknot in the traditional race style.

Horse racing is one of the "Three Manly Arts." 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 are still going strong.

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 (say) an 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 is become the province of the elite.

Racing horses with a child in the saddle will run in full gallop over 35 km at a time. They are trained to keep running even after losing their riders. In such a case, they need to be stopped in the finish zone by aides waiting there especially for that purpose. 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.[26]

Cultural context[edit]

Horses are greatly cherished in Mongolian culture, particularly among the nomads, because horses are very useful to people's daily lives and livelihood. Horse racing is the second most popular event in Mongolia, after traditional wrestling. There is a traditional saying in Mongolian: "A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without the wings." Genghis Khan himself is reputed to have said: "It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse."

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.[46] A nomad with many horses is considered wealthy. Mongol people individually have favorite horses. Each family member has his or her own horse, and some family members value their favorite horses by saving them from working under a lot of pressure. However, Mongolians do not give their horses names; rather, they identify them by their color, markings, scars, and brands. There are over 500 words in the Mongolian language describing the traits of horses. In Mongolian literature and folklore, this rich vocabulary leads to constructions that seem wordy in English, i.e. a Mongol writer may say, "He rode a 3 year old dun mare with a black stripe down its back" rather than "he rode a horse."

Horses are generally considered the province of men, although women also have extensive knowledge of horsemanship. Men do the herding, racing and make the tack. Traditionally, men[21] or less commonly women also milk the mares.[5]

Members of the Darkhad ethnic group ride their stallions only once a year, on three special days during the winter.[5] A newly wedded couple will be given a gift of horses by the parents on both the husband and wife's sides. Each family will give the couple 10 - 15 horses apiece and two stallions so that they can start up their own herd. The extra stallion is sold or traded away.


A mare being milked in Suusamyr, Kyrgyzstan

Mongolian horses are valued for their milk, meat and hair. William of Rubruck described the historical milking process as follows: "They stretch a long rope on the ground fixed to two stakes stuck in the ground, and to this rope they tie toward the third hour the colts of the mares they want to milk. Then the mothers stand near their foal, and allow themselves to be quietly milked; and if one be too wild, then a man takes the colt and brings it to her, allowing it to suck a little; then he takes it away and the milker takes its place."[40] Much the same procedure is still used today. 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.[47] The milk is used to make the ubiquitous fermented drinks of Mongolia, airag and kumis. One particular variety of "black" kumis, caracosmos, was made entirely from the milk of black mares; this was reserved for the aristocracy.[40] William of Rubruck reported that Batu Khan had the milk of three thousand mares collected and sent to his court on a daily basis.[40] In large herds, the gentlest animals are the preferred milk horses. Milk is also boiled and dried into hard white chunks that can be stored and eaten on journeys.

Horse meat sausage

Horses are considered meat animals in Mongolia. Each 600 lb. Mongol horse yields about 240 lbs. of meat.[2] The horse in question may be an old, injured or unneeded animal, such as a stallion who has lived past his prime. The meat of horses is considered to be safer to eat than the meat of other livestock. As one Mongolian explained, "Because the horse does not get diseases that other livestock become sick of, [sic] such as tuberculosis and other inflammation diseases, its meat and milk are considered to be clean.” William of Rubruck reported that the Mongols used the intestines of the horses to make sausages.

They would also use the leather from the rear part of the horse's hide to make shoes.[40] Horse skin was used for making the bowstring of the Mongols' infamous composite bow. The skin of horses was preferred over that of other animals because it was said to keep its flexibility despite the frigid temperatures of the steppe.[48] Mongol warriors also wore armor made from horse leather soaked in horse urine.[31]

The horse's hair can be used for a number of products. Horsehair ties are part of the traditional Mongolian tent dwelling.[5] The hair can also be used to make rope; it is considered better than leather in wet conditions, because water can be easily shaken out of a horsehair rope but not a leather one. One traditional rope-making technique called for a combination of one third horse hair to two thirds wool.[40]

Tail hair was also used in the creation of musical instruments. The traditional Mongolian horsehead fiddle has two strings made of horse hair. The "male" string is made from 136 tail hairs from a stallion, while the "female" string is made from 105 tail hairs from a mare. The bow is also made of horse hair coated with resin.

Due to the spiritual significance of a horse's mane, black and white mane hair was used to make spirit banners (tugs). Black hair indicated a war tug and white hairs a peace tug. The black hair was taken from bay horses.[21] Warriors wore a peaked helmet with a plume of horsehair on top.[49]

Since there is little wood on the steppe, dry horse dung is gathered as fuel for fire.

Famous Horses[edit]

Perhaps due to the Mongolian habit of not naming their horses, there are few widely known individuals of the breed. One exception to this rule is Arvagarkheer, an 18th century race horse who beat over 1,000 other horses in a race. The city of Arvaikheer was named after him, and he has a painted statue with a blue scarf tied around the neck in Arvaikheer valley.[42]

When Vice President Biden visited Mongolia, he was given a Mongol horse as a gift. He named it "Celtic" and tied two ceremonial knots in the blue silk scarf around the horse's neck. This spooked the horse and it reared, and was led off.[50]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ a b Retrieved 2014-08-25.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ a b Udina, I. G. "Computer Analysis of D-loop Mitochondrial DNA Variation in Asian Horse Breeds".
  4. ^ a b Kefena, E.; Mekasha, Y.; Han, J. L.; Rosenbom, S.; Haile, A.; Dessie, T.; Beja-Pereira, A. (2012). "Discordances between morphological systematics and molecular taxonomy in the stem line of equids: A review of the case of taxonomy of genus Equus". Livestock Science 143 (2–3): 105. doi:10.1016/j.livsci.2011.09.017.  edit
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  7. ^ The Texts and Versions of John de Plano Carpini and William de Rubruquis: As ... - Richard Hakluyt, Giovanni (da Pian del Carpine, Archbishop of Antivari), Willem van Ruysbroeck - Google Books. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
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  10. ^ "Severe winter kills two million livestock". Montsame News Agency, Ulaanbaatar. 2010-02-11. Retrieved 2010-02-14.
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  13. ^ a b c Haslund, Henning. In Secret Mongolia, p. 111.
  14. ^ Carpini, quoted in Dawson, C. A Mission to Asia, p. 18.
  15. ^ a b c d Swietoslawski, W. A confrontation between two worlds: the arms and armor of Central European and Mongol forces in the first half of the Thirteenth century.
  16. ^ Hoang, Michel. Genghis Khan. New Amsterdam Books, 1991.
  17. ^ Haslund, Henning. In Secret Mongolia, p. 112.
  18. ^ Haslund, Henning. In Secret Mongolia, p. 113.
  19. ^ Khan, Paul. Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Genghis Khan, p. 108.
  20. ^ Retrieved 2014-08-25.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  21. ^ Cite error: The named reference Digital1991 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  22. ^ Cheng. P. (1984) Livestock breeds of China. Animal Production and Health Paper 46 (E, F, S). Publ. by FAO, Rome, 217 pp.
  23. ^ Haslund, Henning. In Secret Mongolia, p. 110.
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  25. ^ "Microsatellite Variation in Japanese and Asian Horses and Their Phylogenetic Relationship Using a European Horse Outgroup". Retrieved 2014-08-08. 
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  27. ^ The Horse in Japan, 1615-1912 (gallery guide to exhibition, September 20 – November 12, 2010). Berea, KY: Berea College Art Gallery. Accessed August 2014.
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  29. ^ "Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  30. ^ Cleaves. The Secret History of the Mongols, p. 133.
  31. ^ a b c Jeffrey Hays. "Mongol Army: Tactics, Weapons, Revenge And Terror". Facts and Details. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  32. ^ a b Retrieved 2014-08-25.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  33. ^ Carpini, G. Ystoria Mongalorum
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  36. ^ Cleaves. The Secret History of the Mongols, p. 134.
  37. ^ a b c Swietoslawski, W. A confrontation between two worlds: the arms and armor of Central European and Mongol forces in the first half of the Thirteenth century.
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  40. ^ a b c d e f g "William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  41. ^ MongolPeace (2010-05-28). "Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts 5/5". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  42. ^ a b "My Life in Mongolia". WordPress. January 10, 2009. Retrieved 2014-08-08. 
  43. ^ "Tale #3 – The Legend of Khokhoo Namjil | Telling all kinds of tales". 2010-04-18. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  44. ^ "Tale #42 – The Two Good Horses | Telling all kinds of tales". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  45. ^ Haslund, Henning. In Secret Mongolia, p. 112.
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  49. ^ "Ancient Mongolian Weaponry - Armor". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  50. ^ "Biden Receives Mongolian Horse, Names It ‘Celtic’ - ABC News". 2011-08-22. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 

External links[edit]