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Heavenly Horses

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Heavenly Horses

keith harmon snow
November 29, 2009

The Emperor Wu-Ti (145-87 b.c.) was the most spectacular horse rustler in history. Because he coveted a few mares and stallions that belonged to an obscure ruler at the end of the known world, he nearly engineered the collapse of China.
--Bruce Chatwin, Heavenly Horses

It was late August in Massachusetts, the end of summer and not yet the beginning of fall, and I departed the Wildcat Sanctuary for Peace leaving some 8000 organic yellow storage onions and far too many eggplants out standing in the fields. I flew my bicycle along with me, and beyond the geographical destination "Mongolia" and an airplane to get there, riding it was the only real plan I had. There was also an assignment for a magazine, about nomads and horses and their disappearing way of life, and the anticipation of experiencing a profound freedom. I flew to Beijing, jumped the Trans-Siberian Railway, and stepped off the train in Ulaan Batar, urban capital of Mongolia.

Mongolia by bike? People warned me that it was bitter cold from September through June. It's an impossible proposition even in summer--no roads, no signs, no people, everywhere you go--get a horse some people advised. So busy was I running the farm stand and managing apprentices all summer that I arrived in Mongolia on August 26th without having read a word about its history, landscapes, wildlife, ecology, politics or people. I prepared for the rugged Mongolian steppe by swimming and biking and working the farm, but I carried with me the usual western ignorance of some far-off place, a lot of romantic ideas about living with nomads, and some healthy fear of the weather and the great Mongolian steppe.

mongolianHorses.jpgWildcat is the land where I grew up, the roots of my appreciation of nature and connection to farm animals, and the source of my nomadism; it is also the little patch of land stolen from the Native Americans by my ancestors. The house at Egesta Farm was built in 1826, but my forebears arrived on the first European ships--pre-1650--and set out to conquer the "wilderness" of the Connecticut River Valley and its surrounding hills. It's always been a small farm. As children in the 4-H program (1970's), our inventory of critters included hundreds of chickens, a couple pigs, a dozen sheep, a few cats, a few ducks, a few beef cattle. Every animal had a name and every package of meat pulled from the freezer had a name written on the wrappings--Bourbon and Brandy the beefers, Hopper the sheep, Helen the pig... For a short time we also kept our cousin's riding horses and once there was a jittery horse rescued from the abuses of the racing industry. These early experiences with animals set the stage for a few months with nomads in Mongolia.

Mongolian culture has for thousands of years revolved around nomadic pastoralism. Nature is central to the nomad's way, and all things revolve around the five snouts: yak, sheep, goat, camel and--snout of all snouts--horse. Pigs and chickens are not un-heard-of, but they are un-herd-able, and so you find them only where nomads have more permanently settled. Mongols sing about land, their mothers, and their horses, and life on the steppe demands continuous adaptation to climatic conditions and the availability of pasture. The steppe is vast, relatively unpopulated, with mountains, lakes, flatlands and valleys that roll on, and on, and on, where--on bike or horse--you can sometimes see where you are going days in advance.

Killing droughts come with the ghang, where summer sunshine scorches grasslands, and the qara zhud, a snowless winter in a waterless desert. Torrential rains bring floods. The caghan zhud is a blizzard of frozen snowy starvation and the tugharai-yin zhud defines another kind of hunger: too many cattle or horses, thousands of hooves ripping apart the land; too many sheep or goats, devouring every last grass. Winter plunges the mercury to minus 35 or minus 40 or colder--the killing temperatures. Whole herds vanish overnight, and with them the livelihoods of whole families.


It is mid-September and a sandstorm is blowing through Sagsai, and Khuangol is coming home. Sagsai is far western Mongolia, on the border of Kazahkstan. Khuangol appears first like a mirage, quivering and rippling in the distance, and later, as the tiny dots shift in the sandy haze, as a horseman galloping a ghostly black horse into the wind. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, he is galloping across the high desert, his robe and the horse's mane and tail flying backwards, his head tucked against wind and sand.

Khuangol rides a horse with no name. It is a skinny horse, not yet old, and Khuangol personifies the effortless rider of nomadic legends. His bleary but fierce little horse is his lifeline. The eagle, Balapan, clutches the thick glove on Khuangol's arm with her killing talons, but arm and eagle rest on a crutch anchored to the saddle. In the chaos of wind and galloping horse, Balapan--riding blind--jerks forward and backward, flapping and tucking her wings, again and again. Everyone--horse, man, eagle--leans into the gale.

"Mongolian horse is strongest horse," Khuangol says, dismounting his horse, later. He speaks Kazakh. No nomad would describe his horse as black, though it appears very black to me. You see a black horse, but some herders will call it 'green horse'. And some pure white horses are called 'brown horse'.

"The most interesting thing about Mongol horses is coloring," he says. Khuangol's black horse is prime breeding stock passed down from his grandfather. He will ride it until it is 20 years old. "It is tori," he says, 'brown horse'. This is the mystery of the complex Mongol horse-naming system and folk taxonomy of Mongol herder culture.

The folk taxonomy of Mongolia, as everywhere, is under attack from globalization and the economies of commodification, sound-bite advertising and permanent warfare. Languages in Mongolia are going extinct, and with them the vast knowledge and the universe of meaning of the small-scale herder culture.

The taxonomy of the nomadic language allows nomads to talk easily but precisely about where they have been, where the herds are going, or where the neighbors are migrating. The naming of the landscape is based on spiritual and religious beliefs. Nomads believe that spirits inhabit the waters, the mountain peaks, the natural springs and ridges. One must not cross a mountain pass without leaving an offering. The folk taxonomy of the language and culture revolves around the subtlest of clues available to the high-plains horsemen in their daily quest for survival.

Riders are everywhere on the steppe. Lone gunmen with small-caliber-one-shot rifles, gunning for wolf and marmot, driving herds of four-legged ungulates like plagues of locusts or clouds that blanket entire slopes of mountains. You see nomads seated cross-legged on the ground, rolling or snuffing tobacco, horse hanging ready, herd foraging off into the vast nothingness. You see them surveying the vastness through an old monocular, Russian-made, a pewter eyepiece with green patina, worn smooth from years of coddling, a cherished hand-me-down rolled up in an oily cloth, tucked inside their robes beside an old snuff bottle.

Everywhere I stop and commune with nomads as curious about me as I am about them. I carry with me smoked sausages and chunks of goat cheese, easily packed into my panniers when passing through towns, easily shared. My life became a series of profound moments of joy in the simple ritual of sharing a slice of meat and comparing knives with the weathered and unassuming nomads whose paths I cross. We sit on the windswept steppe, on the slopes of mountains, on patches of desert or next to gushing streams. I am overfilled with emotion just hanging out with these people, without a common spoken language or the need for words. Their sense of self and their precarious existence immerses the nomads' being in the moment and the energy of that beingness infects me.

Yet modern culture threatens.  (See: keith harmon snow, Goldman Prizewinner Shoots Up Foreign Mining Firms: Western Deceptions and the Extinction of the Nomads.) 

Trash is increasingly visible in the "middle of nowhere"--a euphemism for a place we don't know or understand--and most every ger, no matter how seemingly remote, has some curiosity of modern civilization, some element of the iconography of western material waste culture: a white plastic Barbie doll or the Price is Right game shows or U.S. military propaganda beamed by satellite dish into the ger, or a cheap, plastic pistol that goes "Pop!" once or twice and then breaks. Coca Cola, Snickers and other junk foods are everywhere.

Capitalism arrived in Mongolia circa 1990 and the people saw more than sixty years of communist propaganda dissolve into capitalist propaganda overnight. Now they are seeing the reality of capitalism.


Big mining corporations from China, Russia, Canada and the US are forcing more and more nomads off the land and into the sprawling poverty of ger cities. Mining and logging have dried up or poisoned whole rivers and spawned an aggressive response from herder communities that, in turn, has been met with paramilitary violence and illegal western "legal" action in the courts. The mining companies' lawyers, sent into Mongolia, have been writing the laws. These are companies like Ivanhoe Mines, now in control of more than 90,000 sq. kms of copper, gold and coal concessions in Mongolia, run and owned by Robert Freidland--Toxic Bob--a known associate of William Jefferson Clinton. The same companies are plundering Mongolia as the Congo, as everywhere, and in both places Western mining works in league with so-called non-government "conservation" and "development" organizations--NGO's like World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and the Asia Foundation--mostly to "protect the environment" from competition--in the Mongolian case against China, Korea and Russia. These NGO's and other US government and corporate connected interests have helped engineer the national elections, also for the benefit of western capitalism. The poverty in cities takes many forms. Homelessness, over-crowding, squatting. The urban poor--former nomads, herdless and homeless--have been robbing graves in Ulan Bator of sacred artifacts buried with the ancestors: skulls and skeletons spill out of crumbling wood caskets pried open and ransacked. Communities of herders that have stood up, peacefully and unarmed, for their environmental and human rights--clean air, clean water, clean pastures--have been met with paramilitary violence.

It is the herders that have been labeled as terrorists by these western NGO's and by the government. Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a herder who won the Goldman Environmental Prize for standing up to mining ( http://www.goldmanprize.org/node/606 ), is part of a river's protection movement that was publicly denounced for "terrorist" tactics by the Asia Foundation: Munkhbayar filed suit against the Asia Foundation, and lost. Meanwhile, heavy metal pollution has caused birth defects and still born deaths in animals and humans in mining areas in northern Mongolia, and the Asia Foundation has denied this.



The steppe is the nomads' "middle of everywhere" and the center of every thing. You will horsemen riding five in stride, like high plains drifters of the wild American cowboy genre, like a posse.  And everywhere you see a horse, or two, saddled, standing solemnly, a little bleary, worse for wear and tear, hitched to a post or to an old Russian truck, reins hanging down, beside every nomad's ger, or dotting some vast expanse, but ready to ride on demand. These Mongolian steeds are no ponies. They are fiery, spirited equine beasts, less than half tamed, all hellfire and brimstone.

"Mongolian horse is like tank," Khuangol says. He reveres the wild and unpredictable Mongolian horse. "Never go near the tail." He hands you the reins. "Mount only from the left. Many times I have been kicked by horse."

Khuangol is returning from a festival where Mongols and Kazakhs display and demonstrate horsemanship and huntsmanship. But before Khuangol arrives home the white wind will die and the sand will fall back to earth, and then a blinding sun will shine, and then clouds will obscure the mountains, and then it will snow, and always there is that wind whipping over the steppe. Khuangol is long in coming. It is not only that the plains stretch into forever, they do, but also that the weather changes quickly here.

The eagle festival is a tourist event that helps to revive and validate a disappearing culture. But the contradictions are obvious and stark. More and more tourists come and impact the land, corrupt and expropriate the culture, throw money around with arrogance and ignorance and all the western privileges--as they fly by in fancy four-wheel SUVs, completely disconnected from their selves and the land.

This year, Khuangol's eagle Balapan caught the wolf in a show hunt for tourists. It was a sorry looking wolf, and a sorry looking show. The terrified wolf--its jaws bound with leather, its tail tucked between its legs, its back lacerated by eagles' talons--is rescued and recycled year after year. But Balapan is no show eagle: she exudes the untamable energies of freedom and steel.

Khuangol is a birkitshi, an eagle hunter. Balapan is his hunting eagle. They hunt rabbit, fox, marmot, ground squirrel, wolf and wild cat. He is single, thirty-one years old. His parents have arranged his marriage. She is 25. She waits for him in Sagsai.

Khuangol makes his own clothes and horse tack out of skins and furs. Every year he gets, say, 20 fox, 30 rabbit...a handful of buck-toothed marmots. He sells enough to eke a bit of joy and prosperity out of a mean and lovely land. It is never easy. His house is an adobe-like shack with a wood stove, a fenced yard and a table where guests gather and chat and share stories. There is no evidence of vegetables anywhere here, and by mid-September it is freezing.

"We don't often send our eagles after wolf," Khuangol says. "Wolf and wild cat are very dangerous. Owl and eagle are enemies. Owl catches eagle with claws in the back of the head when eagle sleeps at night. Eagle catches owl sleeping by day."

Khuangol wears an elegant del, the knee-length Mongolian national gown bound at the waist by a brightly colored sash, and horse and rider have all the standard nomad accoutrements, plus some eagle extras. Bridle, reins, stirrups, saddle. There is a horsewhip made of wood and leather. A hood that covers the eagle's eyes. An animal carcass--dried dead rabbit--pulled behind the horse to retrieve the eagle. Khuangol's glove is made from the skin of an elk. A coiled up lasso, handmade, rawhide, hangs from the saddle.


"We believe that eagle is the strongest and most holy animal in the world," Khuangol says. He loves his eagles. He says his horse will sense bad energy long before he does. "Horse will feel it first. But when I am with eagle, I feel myself very strong and I don't believe bad things will happen. When eagle is present in a place, all other spirits are driven away."

"My arm gets very tired holding eagle," Khuangol admits, "even with baldahk." His baldahk crutch is crafted from the antlers of the endangered Ibex goat of the Altai range. Draped over the horse, Pony Express style, are leather saddlebags. Slung over these is the furry carcass of a wild cat caught by Balapan when Khuangol flew her in the mountains. It's an Asiatic lynx, lacerated at the neck, dripping blood.


In my journal, another day, I write: CLIMBED THROUGH THIS PASS SINGING. It is a rainy day by a rushing river. There are eagles soaring above and the scree of the crumbling mountains washed down to the river was threatening the trail.  Herders passed by in silence, me bundled up and biking in a downpour and pondering the miserable fog. And then the sky cleared and a posse of herders on horseback pulled their caravan of two-humped camels through.

The Bactrian camels were packed with chairs and tables, some former camp being moved to winter pastures, and the nomads offered me some aruul, and airag, and moved on. Mare's milk is a staple of Mongol culture: the cream is skimmed and dried to produce a hard cheese-like food, aruul, and the milk is fermented into airag and sipped around the wood stove hearth at the center of the ger. The pleasure of chewing on the hard aruul grew on me in direct proportion to my skinniness, but I took little airag.

The milking of mare's, goats, yaks and sheep occurs at first light, before the nomads set off to find pasture. The women lead the work, bundling the animals together on tethers and milking them on little wooden stools (the men are nearby and often help). They collect the milk in old tin pails, and you see the by-products hanging from the walls of the ger, stored in sheep's stomachs and hand-made leather satchels. The animals seem to know what needs to be done and coorperate to help the nomads do it.

Climbing a mountain pass under a hot midday sun I am entreated to stop by an old woman and son heading downhill on their Russian motorcycle. They gesture and smile and beseech me to stop, and the woman sits us down in the middle of the trail--it is not a "road"--overhanging a cliff, and from a hand woven satchel of elegantly embroidered cloth she unpacks airag and cheese and the hard, sweet biscuits you will come to cherish. If you are smart you carry some locally made blackberry currents, to spread on these, everywhere you go. We share hand signals and I pass the phrase-book around while the man smokes a Mongol pipe and scans the valley with his monocular. The old woman has no teeth, is about eighty with back bent double by years of labor. When the sun passes behind a cloud she shivers and looks to the sky and as suddenly stands up, packs up her cheeses and drink, and then kisses me smack on the lips. She mutters a prayer, never looks back, and with a smile on her face they are gone.


Once upon a time, horses were something to be hunted, and horsemeat remains a popular staple in Inner and Outer Mongolia. Indeed, horse-rustling also proliferates: branded horses are easily disappeared into canned food. But the invention of stirrups freed riders' hands for superior warfare by bow and arrow. Their horses were fast, sturdy survivors of the hostile steppe. Then as now, only the fittest survive, and they are bred for fitness. They pierced the mountain shields. They penetrated the Great Walls. They came. They slew. They trussed up their loot and were gone.

The Xiongnu was a confederation of nomadic tribes that ruled the vast nothingness north of China fourteen centuries before Chingis Khaan. They swept over the steppes from Irkutsk to Kashgar to Corea. They occupied forest and tundra and desert wilderness. Their power lay in their horses. They gallop like the wind, wrote the Imperial scribe, with the power of a mountain avalanche. They were a permanent scourge on the Imperial joy and a perpetual Imperial headache. And, worst of all, they infected the Imperial whim with the outrageous notion of an interconnected fortress, a Great Wall.


"An ocean of grass extends westward from Manchuria to the Hungarian plain," wrote author Bruce Chatwin in Heavenly Horses. "Over its undulating horizons, mounted nomads moved their flocks in a restless search for food... They were squat men, glued from childhood to their horses, their faces as red as their leather boots... but they did have an idea, terrifying in its simplicity, of an All Powerful Something in a Bright Blue Sky. They called on it to justify all their actions."

Crossing the mountain shields you find the sacred ovoos--cairns built stone by stone by passing pilgrims--erected to honor and appease the spirit world. Prayer flags are emblazoned with the Khii-mori, an ancient ornamental motif of the 'heavenly horse' and an allegory for the human soul. Symbolizing the energy of life, the sacred fire, enthusiasm, this 'wind horse' mediates the worlds of spirits and humans.

Khii-mori represents human soul energy, the forces of balance between father sky, Tengri, and mother earth, Eje, and it signifies the inner struggle of good over evil. Horse is a healing force and the spirit guide leading the dead to the ancestor's abode. The sacred snout and magical mount, horse was the favored ritual sacrifice, impaled on a mast and offered up to Tengri--that All Powerful Something in the Bright Blue Sky.

An old Mongolian legend tells of a foal born with eight legs and eagle wings. This was the spiritual child of a shaman woman named Chichek, a magical and heavenly horse that appears in Chichek's dream and carries her away from the purgatory of an evil Khan.


It is late September in Arkhangay, and I am herding Gumbolt's yaks. This is the altar namar--the golden autumn when vegetation withers and turns the lands a golden hue--and Arkhangay is the wild jewel of Central Mongolia.

Gumbolt drives the yaks over the crest of the mountain, down a vertical slope of loose scree and across highway A1002--a paved road, rare in Mongolia. The yaks bellow complaints, look backwards, stampede ahead. Gumbolt gallops his horse down the steep slope and up the other side. Then he stops to watch me.

Nomads everywhere test my horsemanship. It is a point of honor and humor. A nomad's animals are attuned to their master's cues--clicks and whistles and yelps and other things I don't understand--and these ponies can be embarrassingly unresponsive. They are infuriating, stubborn beasts. Yanking the reins is pointless. Bouncing in these wood and steel saddles only hurts your crotch. Meanwhile, the horse yawns; beating them with the whip does nothing; the nomads point and guffaw.

Gumbolt keeps a ger with his younger sister Pooray. His brother Dawachoo keeps a ger nearby. Together they shepherd the family stock--herds that blanket the hillside. You count more than 1000 fat-tail sheep, but nomads never discuss numbers. Animals and herds are intertwined with government regulations, subsidies and incentives, and it is all a matter--a personal matter--of poverty or wealth. Their ger caps a hilltop and you can see the distant herders and their herds for miles around.

Every nook and cranny of a nomad's landscape is committed to memory and every geographical feature has some spiritual meaning. Nomads survive by knowing nature: the season, the moss growing on a tree, the excavations of a marmot's burrow. They can detect the inclination of a slope under their horse through the balance organs of their ears. Their sense of orientation relies on natural clues and the use of all of the senses. They interpret the moans and groans and squeaks and snarls of the earth beneath their feet--the texture--to tell them the conditions of the land and the availability of fodder. The precise locations of herders, many miles distant, are known and communicated through mental mapping systems, binoculars, and gossip. These nomads never get lost.

Gumbolt and Pooray invite me inside for goat's milk tea and fermented mare's milk. They speak in tongues that encode space and package topographic information and they have a rich repertoire for describing things. You are welcomed in horse terms: "Have you ridden well?" And you are duly departed: "Ride in peace." Outhouse or no outhouse, men "go to see one's horse" and women "go to see one's mare."

"Mori-tai means that we are happy," Pooray explains, "but the translation is 'we have horses' and 'we are riding horses.' Mori-gui means that we are unhappy, translated, 'we have no horses' and 'we are not riding horses'." Pooray, you notice, is mori-gui--and her sorrow is not about horses.


There are more than 300 horse descriptors. Gumbolt calls his no name steed 'zeerd horse.' It is no proper name, but the color of steppe gazelles, a tawny brown, like Gobi dunes, with black mane and black tail. Being unfamiliar with the hierarchical nomenclature, you might come to the following wrong conclusions.

Aleg is a mixed brown, black and white horse. Heer is one with black mane, black tail and reddish dark brown body, the color of the land. Hoorin hatsan is a brown horse with a white stripe on its head. Har horse is midnight black. Hongor moor is yellowish and herr moor a reddish horse. Oroq sinqula is a gray horse with a black stripe over its back. Bandang alag moor is a reddish horse with white patches on back or shoulder or all four legs. Sattar herr moor is a reddish horse with a white mark--the most prized--on its head.

Horse color naming fuses colors and features and descriptions are based on things like age, lineage, body color, stripes and spots, sex, fertility, speed, stamina and temperament. Gumbolt uses a single word to specify a brown looking horse running in a herd of hundreds. It is the foal of a dead mare, one year old, male horse with tawny brown body hair, white legs, black ears, born in the late spring, a good riding horse, sensitive to people, might be gelded but even if not gelded it will not be allowed to mate.

Gumbolt encapsulates such specifics in a single word and Dawachoo jumps on a saddled horse and catches the targeted horse with his pole-lasso. Trained from one or two years old, these horses are half-wild, rotated between pasture and saddle to balance rest and diet, and the taste of freedom must be broken out of them again and again. Dawachoo plays cowboy atop this bucking bronco, and the rodeo lasts an hour.

As the sun sets, Gumbolt and Pooray invite you to sleep on the floor of their ger. Dinner is boiled marmot. Served cold. You spot these empty eye sockets and buck-teeth looking back at you from the aluminum pot. Best marmot you ever ate.

Everyone is in bed when Pooray, in her frumpy pink nightgown, crosses the ger to whisper you a question. Pooray is unmarried. She spends her days milking yaks and making cheese and trimming goats' hooves and squirting iodine on animals' wounds. She is thirty-one, and worried. "Am I in the right place," she asks, her eyes imploring you to be honest, "to find my husband?"

Every few months, Pooray and Gumbolt pack up their ger and move to follow seasonal pasture.  

The wind of the altar namar blows furiously outside. Slipping out to 'go to see your horse', stepping over the sleeping mastiff, you watch stars sparkle and shoot over an endless steppe, only exceeded in its vastness by the infinite sky.

These nomads live in the moment, attuned to a sensitive awareness of what is. They offer you a rare and wild wisdom. The landscape is like that too: there's something fresh about it. Dogs bark. Yaks bellow. Goats climb on the ger, under the moon. You sleep and wake to the dull thunder of herds of sheep spooked by the panic of a single ewe, ten thousand hooves running this way, then that way, like waves rolling along the shore, drifting in and out of your consciousness, all night long, and forever.

If you believe in magic and old legends, like the nomads do, then you must always be honesty, and be goodness, and be love. You have to do the work. If you do, perhaps the heavenly horses will visit you in a dream. Perhaps they will carry you away from this earthly suffering. Perhaps they will guide you toward nirvana. Old horses never die here, but they don't last forever. They wander over the steppe. Their bodies give out, but their souls never do. You see the skeletons on the land.


Written by: Keith Harmon Snow

Photography Credits: Keith Harmon Snow


1 Comment

bulgan | October 6, 2013 11:09 PM

So touching, so deep story of horses and nomads. thanks

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