I’m going to have to once again interrupt my current series to share some news and the accompanying memories-
I got word last week that Choidog, the subject of my painting “Choidog and Black”, which is currently in a national invitational American Academy of Equine Art show in Lexington, Kentucky, passed away in late March. He was about 80 years old and was healthy until the very end. Choidog was one of the legends of Mongolian horse training, having won the national Naadam race three times.
I first encountered him on a fall 2008 trip to Mongolia when my husband and I stayed at Arburd Sands ger camp, which is operated by one of his sons and daughters-in-law. We were invited to his ger by them for the family’s annual foal branding. It was a magical afternoon, which you can read about here. He was every inch the proud Mongol horseman and we knew that we were in the presence of someone special.
At the ger camp, there was a book, “Horse People”, by Mattias Klum. One chapter was about Choidog and his family. I glanced through it, only casually interested, since my focus at the time was almost exclusively on wildlife.
Last July, on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition, I had the opportunity to see him again, as his ger happened to be only a kilometer or so from Arburd Sands ger camp, where I was staying for one night on the way to a nature reserve. He didn’t have much to say to me and directed almost all his conversation to my male guide, but that was fine because it let me just sit and quietly watch him as he lay at ease on the bed opposite.
This time, I searched out the “Horse People” book at the ger camp and read, really read, the chapter about Choidog.
Later in the trip, I was visiting a young horse trainer and his wife at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. Once again I was in a ger sitting on the floor drinking suutei tsai (milk tea) while a conversation went on around me since I don’t speak much Mongolian yet. I noticed a magazine tucked up between the roof felt and a support pole. There was a photo of a man on the cover and it looked like, even from across the ger, Choidog. I finally had the Mongol scientist I was with ask about it. The young man took it down and handed it to me saying “You have sharp eyes”. It was a much younger Choidog and the magazine, which was for and about Mongol horse trainers, had a feature article on him with photos from the Naadam races he had won in the 1960s.
When I got home, I found a copy of “Horse People” on Alibris. One passage that struck me was Choidog saying that “In Communist times each family could only own 75 horses. The rest went to the state. Now we can own herds of 300-400, if we can manage it. There’s no limit. In communist times it was strange for someone to have his own herd.” This was in about 2002.
I was told, at the time we were there in 2008, that he had between three and four hundred horses. When I mentioned this to the young horse trainer at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, his eyes got rather wide and he remarked that that was a lot of horses.
The chapter ends with this passage: “He can mount his ‘favorite black’ stallion and thunder off into the unending pastures, just to feed his heart. “To run on horseback in the morning is high exhilaration.” he says, eyes shining. “It is to feel alive, completely awake.” ”
I hope your heart is well-fed, Choidog. Bayartai.