Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Henning Haslund on Mongol Horses

Haslund-500If all Henning Haslund had ever accomplished was to survive an expedition with Sven Hedin, that would have made him notable (Hedin’s expeditions are remarkable for the body count of both men and animals). But he is also one of the “must read” writers for anyone interested in Mongolia.

I’ve only read one so far, “In Secret Mongolia”, but the second one “Men and Gods in Mongolia” is sitting on the shelf waiting for me. I’ll be getting a copy of “Tents in Mongolia”, the third of what is really a series, also.

“In Secret Mongolia” (published in 1934) is the story of Haslund’s participation in a Danish project to establish a farm in northern Mongolia (which lasted from 1923 to 1926). Along the way he meets most of the major characters who were also in Mongolia at the time or hears tales of others, like the Bloody White Baron, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.

He also wrote eloquently and with affection about the Mongols. Absent is the thinly veiled attitude of inherent white superiority present in many other accounts.

Here is Haslund writing about the Mongols and their horses (Note: when Haslund refers to “wild” horses, he is talking about the domestic Mongol horses, which run “wild” when not in use, not the genetically wild takhi/Przewalski’s horse):

herder JM“It is a pleasure to see the Mongols in association with their horses, and to see them on horseback is a joy. If one of the wild or half-wild horses of the herd is to be caught, the Mongol rides on a specially trained catching-horse, holding in his hands an urga, a very long pole with a noose at the end. The catching-horse soon understands which horse his rider wants to get hold of, and follows it until it is cut out of the herd. Then the pursuit goes at a flying gallop over the steppe, until the Mongol gets his lasso over the pursued horse’s neck, when the catching-horse slowly but surely holds back till the wild horse is tired out, and the Mongols hurry up to saddle it. The wild horse is not let go until is has a rider in the saddle, and then it gallops, buckjumps and throws itself on the ground in the attempt to get rid of its rider. But the Mongol sits fast and the horse is soon broken.

herder 4 JM

herder 2 JMSuch horse-breaking is admirable, and the strength, swiftness and elegance of the Mongol surpass those of any ballet dancer. I once saw a Mongol ungirth and throw off the saddle from under him and continue to ride the horse bareback, bucking wildly all the time, till it was broken.

herder 6 JMHorses are the Mongol’s chief investment. He knows nothing of banks and silver does not interest him beyond the quantity that he and his women can use for ornament. But if he has many horses on the steppe, then he is a well-to-do man. Then he sits on a hillock looking out over his wealth, and counts up the many-coloured multitude of splendid animals grazing on the steppe with slim necks and flowing manes, just as a man in the west counts his notes, and when the neighing of the stallions rings bell-like over the grass lands, his eyes shine with greater pride than the ring of minted silver can call forth in us.”

Note: the horse photos in this post were taken by me last year near the Jalman Meadows eco-ger camp run by Nomadic Journeys, who does all my in-country travel arrangements. It is located in the Strictly Protected Area of the Han Hentii Mountains a few hours northeast of Ulaanbaatar. The local family who helps run the camp lives nearby and demonstrates Mongol practices and horsemanship for visitors, including riding a couple of two-year olds for the first time when I was there. They also provide horses for trekking trips.

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