Mongolia Monday- Choidog, Legendary Mongol Horse Trainer, Has Passed Away

Choidog and Black 18x24" oil on canvasboard

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.

New Painting Debut! “Choidog and Black”

In September of 2008, my husband and I went together to Mongolia. One of the places we stayed at was Arburds Sands ger camp. It turned into one of the most memorable experiences that I’ve had in Mongolia because we were invited to a foal branding. The post on that is here.

I got a lot of great pictures, including some of the family patriarch, Choidog. He is a famous horse trainer who won the national Naadam horse race three times in the 1960s. During socialist times, he and the other herdsmen were only allowed to have 75 horses. Twenty years after the changeover to a parliamentary democracy, he has between 300 and 400. I suspect he thinks that’s just about right, but even by horse-loving Mongol standards, it’s a lot.

I decided recently that I wanted to start painting not just the Mongol horses, but their riders, too. And where better to start than with a man who is now 80 years old, who still rides every day and whose life has been dedicated to horses?

Choidog and Black 18x24" oil on canvasboard

As much as they love their horses, Mongols do not sentimentalize them and don’t give them what we would call “real” names. Choidog is riding his current favorite horse, who is simply called “Khar” or “Black”. Black could take his master 140 km to Ulaanbaatar if necessary, probably without breaking a sweat.

In this painting, Choidog is circling and looking over the horse herd that has been gathered in. Most of the foals are already tied to a picket line, but some of the men are out lassoing the others with urga, a long pole with a loop on the end.

We were told afterward, while sitting in the ger drinking airag with the family and friends, that Choidog had made his boots himself over the previous winter. The toes are upturned, not because it looks cool, but so that when walking (which people like Choidog never do if they can ride), the wearer won’t scuff the earth and damage it. The Mongols learned over a thousand years ago that they had to live with and respect the land in order to survive. Hum….