I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Was this really a good idea? Or would I regret this later? Or worse, even come out injured? It was a brisk but clear and sunny morning and I was standing next to “our” horses that would carry us across Northern Mongolia over the next seven days. And there were many of them. Ten in total. Six for us to ride on (Christian, myself, our tour guide Ashley, our cook Segi and our two horse guides Jagaa and Galaa) plus four pack horses. The horses looked restless, pacing back and forth in the realm of their ropes. Not very comforting that they were also kicking at each other once in a while! I hadn’t realized what “half wild” meant. Had that even been mentioned in the brochure when we booked the trip? I guess it must have been. My thoughts were interrupted as Jagaa, the main horse guide, called for me. It was time to get up on my horse.
Several months ago, when Christian and I started to plan our big trip, we both had a few “must dos” on our personal wish lists. One activity on mine was a multi-day horse back trek in Mongolia. I was excited by the thought of traveling through the least densely populated place on earth – on a horse and only with a tent. That sounded like the ultimate sense of freedom and adventure (and something to do before we would have kids). I found a great option. A French tour company, called Randocheval, offered a 20-day Mongolia trip: two horse back treks (one seven days, one five days) in different parts of the country with ger camp stays, hiking and monastery visits in between. The only catch: the description said “for experienced riders only”. I felt a bit unsure. I had some horse back riding experience from three day-long trips I did over the course of the last 10 years. Christian was a bit more experienced than I was. However, the classification “experienced rider” would be a bold exaggeration for both of us. I dropped the tour operator a line and got back good news. As long as we were both healthy, physically fit and had been on horses before we should be fine!
So here we were at Lake Kovsghol (in Northern Mongolia very close to the Russian boarder) and I was wondering if my enthusiasm and romanticism of a horse trek had gotten the better of me when booking this trip. Ashley, our tour guide, gave us a few quick instructions. Well, three to be exact. #1: always approach the horses from the left hand side (otherwise they might freak out), #2: say “choo” if you want the horse to go faster (and do so loudly conveying control), #3: never let go of your reigns. Really, that was everything I needed to know? What should I say if I wanted the horse to stop? But there was no more time for questions. Jagaa helped me get up (from the left side) onto my new buddy for the next week. So far so good. My horse seemed to be fairly calm. Then another thought crossed my mind: “Horses can feel if you are nervous”. Isn’t that what people always tell you? Great. My horse was probably already working out a grandiose master plan on how to play me. I kept telling myself “this feels good”, “I can do this”, hoping to convey confidence. Suddenly my horse started moving, following the horse guides and the pack horses up onto our first hill. Off we were on our trip!
Over the next two days I grew closer with my horse as we were walking and trotting along the lake over open meadows, passing through dense woods and seemingly endless valleys. Christian and I decided that our horses needed names. He named his “Pferdeknoedel” one of the first words he learned in German (the meaning is similar to “horse poo”). I baptized mine “Clumsy”. It kept tripping over stones, roots and there-like. It seems that horses can’t really see very well which is kind of scary to be honest. And Clumsy seemed to have a higher incidence rate of tripping than the rest of the pack which freaked me out at times (it feels like your horse might fall and you with it). Day 3 was a highlight, in more ways than one. In the morning Segi, Ashley, Christian and I took off, leaving the pack horses behind and cantered (kind of like a slow gallop) through a broad valley. It was a beautiful feeling (first time I cantered!) and it felt like I had made a big jump in my horse back riding skills. Just before lunchtime we were crossing a swamp with a small stream of water. I was on guard as our horses seemed easily scared by water (and anything unexpected that might be in it). I was right behind Segi’s horse, trying to make Clumsy cross the stream slowly. And then it happened. Segi’s horse got spooked and jumped back. Seeing this, Clumsy lost it. He made a leap forward, overtaking Segi’s horse. Then kicked both his back legs back before he jumped up in the air with his front legs up. It felt like riding a very aggressive bull. I was scared to death. Everything happened in slow motion (or so I believed, as according to Christian the whole episode probably didn’t take longer than six seconds). And I only had one thought in my head: “Don’t fall of the horse”. I was so afraid that I might break a bone or even have something worse happen to me… My dad got thrown of a horse when he was young and broke his collar bone. Even though he had been an experienced rider he’s never gotten back onto a horse after that. I must have somehow internalized that story. With my right hand I held onto my saddle as strongly as I could. After a few seconds I must have realized that I also still had the reigns in my left hand. In a moment of clarity I pulled back the reigns as strongly as I could and just screamed “brrr” and “stop” (that’s what riders say in Austria to stop a horse; stopping a horse in Mongolian hadn’t been part of the intro for this trip). The horse was still wild. After a couple of seconds it calmed down and stopped. I was in shock. I couldn’t move and was just sitting there until Jagaa arrived and got a hold of the reigns. I stumbled off the horse and realized how much I was trembling. But, I had not fallen off. Somehow my survival instinct had kept me on that horse. Everything was ok. It felt like a miracle.
The afternoon and next morning were interesting. We continued the trek. There would have really not been any other option, plus, getting back up on the horse immediately seemed like the best way to get over this incident. Jagaa and Galaa were impressed that I had managed to stay on the horse and manage to calm it down. So the good news was that I had been able to deal with the situation despite my limited horse back riding skills. The bad news: what if it would happen again? I must admit that I lost trust in Clumsy. What would freak him out next? A fly on a random meadow? So I decided to exert more control. I was alert every single second, held the reigns tight, kept scanning the ground for any stone or hole that might trip him up and steered him around it. It was exhausting and not very much fun. Clumsy didn’t like it much either. Neither did Christian as I turned into a tense and somewhat unhappy companion. So what should I do given we still had three full days ahead of us? The more I thought about it the more I realized that being on guard every second wouldn’t change much. What had happened was serious and I learnt from it but one can’t really foresee such incidences. Plus, I had shown that I at least have a chance of dealing with such a situations. So that made me feel a little bit better. Secondly, the incident had nothing to do with my horse in particular. Mongolian horses are half wild so they are by nature a bit more uncontrollable. So I tried to change my mindset and relax my rules of “controlling” the horse the next morning. It worked. Clumsy was much more calm and I was able again to enjoy the experience and take in the wonderful scenery.
Reflecting on our time in Mongolia, I’m really glad that we chose to do the trip. The incident was dangerous and rattled me. That said, we achieved what we had envisioned when we set out to do this trip. We got our fair dose of adventure. We had a true feeling of freedom. And I also took my horse back riding skills to the next level. In the second leg of our horse riding trip around the Amarbayasgalant Monastery we actually spent most of our time cantering and galloping! That said, I wouldn’t call myself an “experienced” rider quite yet 🙂