Rumble of hoofbeats, rattle of bones
Last updated 9/27/2016 at Noon
I don't think I've ever been on a horse more nimble than that little bay.
He cantered through knee-high grass on a slope, striding over hundreds of ground-squirrel and marmot holes before I even spotted them. Smart, too. Unshod, he slowed to a trot to pick his way through tricky ground. When the hills were steep or rocky footing unavoidable, he walked to switchback down or pick his way. And hardy. That day we were on the move for about seven hours, maybe 50 km, most of that trotting and cantering, and climbed two monstrously steep, muddy hills, with only a few short rests.
These traits are typical of Mongolian horses. But this one was atypical in three respects: he was not skinny (I didn't say he was fat). He was sporting a Western saddle. And he was named... Jerry.
He's one of about 25 head that belong to Keith Swenson and Sabine Schmidt, owners and guides of Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel, who provide riding adventures in Mongolia. For the last few years, Sabine has spent a few winter months in Bend building Western saddles and preparing for horse-packing season. One of Keith's best friends lives in Bend, and his sister in Eugene. Oregon is another home for the couple.
I went along for three days of a 12-day packtrip they and their Mongolian crew (who also choose to ride in Western saddles over saddles traditionally used in Mongolia) guided for six guests through the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area, in the mountains northeast of Mongolia's capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Only three because beyond that point, no roads intersect their planned wilderness route, and I was to fly back to the U.S. before their trip ended.
We started from their base in the Darkhid Valley, trotting upstream along braids of the Terelj River. The grass was thick, and the horses grabbed bites eagerly. In my years of guiding, I never let horses eat while a rider was mounted, as it often led to a misstep and fall. Keith told us that we are to let our horses eat and drink as they choose to; we would be riding fast and hard; the horses need all the food they can get. Turns out, none lag and I didn't see any of them stumble for grabbing a bite. And the packhorses were free; they had no intention of leaving or lagging; all trotted and cantered together for long distances.
The terrain alternated between waterways lined with willows, alder and birch, to dense forests of larch, to expansive green meadows - the steppe. The meadows of grasses and forbs with flowers under every step, rolled on and on - sweeping curves that turned out to be further and steeper than they looked. And yet the distance slipped easily into the past under the stride of the horses.
Every so often, Jerry decided to change his position in the group. At first I apologized to the other riders as Jerry veered out to run ahead and cut in front of someone. The other horses did it, too, and we had to laugh. Soon I just let Jerry navigate on his own; he knew the terrain and his buddies much better than I did. Turns out, he usually placed himself just behind or ahead of another little bay who is Jerry's spittin' image. That's Ben. They're bosom buddies.
Instead of names, horses in Mongolia tend to be identified by color. A horse-centric culture, many Mongolian words exist for the various colors. Some in this herd: Blackie, Brownie, New Brownie. Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero) is a bright sorrel. Blue Roan. Little Dirty Face. Big Dirty Face. Occasionally, one is called Nergui, which means "No Name." And sometimes children are named Nergui.
One river crossing a few years ago, Keith watched Blue Roan, loaded with packs, slip and go down in high water. He almost rolled, but made it to a shallows and stood there shaking. Scared. Big Dirty Face, also packing that trip, had been watching, too. As Keith was deciding at what moment to ride back out into the current for the roan, Big Dirty Face waded out to Blue Roan and guided him to the bank.
Keith and Sabine have huge respect and love for their horses. Like most horses in Mongolia, when not with their humans the horses roam free, grazing on the grass and herbs of high-country pastures. Half wild. And their wildness enables them to face predators and withstand harsh Mongolian winters. Being in a herd, unconfined, living more like their ancestors did, also gives them a healthier mindset.
Sabine and Keith rode their favorites, Sabine in the maiden voyage of a saddle she made for herself. Their horses are "sarul grey," what we call grulla, and have a roman nose; seems those characteristics turn out a horse of tremendous stamina even by Mongolian standards.
More than the stamina and willingness, though, Sabine and Keith treasure the connection that these horses have to the earth. To the wilderness and their place in it. And horses have some way of sharing this connection with their human companions.
Most especially, Keith and Sabine love the freedom of being in the wildlands of Mongolia. Vast landscapes. Challenging riding. Self-reliance. Navigable only by foot. No fences. In many ways, it resembles North America 200 years ago.
While we packed camp, Keith pointed out well-ensconced lichen-covered rocks forming a rim around a slumped pile and several other small rock piles. Purposely placed, about 2,500 years ago. A burial ground. The smaller piles often cover horse heads, as sometimes the deceased's horses would be sent with him.
As the rumble of hooves perhaps rattled the bones in the graves, Keith wondered if "the horse culture to whom the graves belong would appreciate the sound of hoof beats overhead, stirring their hearts for their beloved creatures... It's what I would like over my own grave."
We moved on, riding further into this adventure.