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He looks so innocent here… (more photos)

Well. That can’t have been good for the eggs.

Dave

All the guide books tell you that Mongolian horse are half wild. What they don’t tell you is that the other half is equal parts crazy and paranoid. I found this out, literally, the hard way.

By the time we left Gaaj’s ger camp on a brilliant, windy afternoon, I had a developed a to-do list and a not-to-do list relating to the stocky mongol ponies. Never approach a Mongolian horse quickly. Never appraoch a Mongolian horse from its right hand side, or from behind. Don’t wear riding clothes that flap in the wind or that krinkle loudly. Don’t make sudden moves, shout, or whistle sharply. Basically, as you’re approaching a Mongolian horse, whatever you’re thinking about doing, you probably shouldn’t.

And may I now specifically include on this list “don’t wave a badminton racket in a Mongolian horse’s face.”

***

Somehow Gaaj and his quiet brother Tenjin had managed to load all of our gear onto only 3 pack horses. We therefore rode out of his camp totalling 6 riders and 9 ponies. Our chagrin at the size of our loads only grew when we saw that Gaaj and Tenjin didn’t even need a pack horse for their own small camping kit, but simply slung it over the back of their saddles.

I was mounted on a big white gelding who had a strong trot; liked to lead the other horses, but was otherwise undistinguishable. Like all geldings, his mane was shorn short, leaving him looking like he had a long boot brush growing from the back of his neck. I was still trying to think of a name for him 15 minutes out of camp. Our group ambled along the broad, wide valley in which Gaaj’s camp was situated, crossing a series of shallow, dry river gullies. The first couple of gullies were rocky, the next few were lined with soft grass.

On my back, I carried a small day pack, out of the top of which protruded our fishing rod and the case holding our badminton rackets. The rod and rackets were wrapped in a little plastic sheath which flapped noisily in the strong headwind. Thinking of my aforementioned lists, I worried about the effect of the flapping on my horses psyche. To rectify the situation, I then did something completely idiotic.

Still sitting astride my horse, and with all the brainpower of your average Mongolian horsefly, I casually slung the back pack down off my right shoulder to tuck in the plastic. As I did so, the badminton racket handles passed right over the peripheral vision of my horse’s right eye.

I now feel lucky that this didn’t cost me my life.

My horse immediately whinnied, jumped to its left and then bolted into a full gallop, sending the rest of the horses into a similar frenzy. At Steppe Riders I had let my horse break into something just over a trot for a minute or two. But otherwise, I’d never been on a truly galloping horse before. Now, the real power of these animals was on full, frightening display beneath me.

I had had the reins gripped relatively loosely in my left hand when the bolt ocurred. Now, as the horse pounded away beneath me, I willed my right hand to release its reflexive grip on the pommel and help me to choke up further on the reins. I pulled with all I could, but the big white was truly spooked and was charging headlong for home – and right for the dry river gullies we’d just crossed.

The first gully, he took in one leap, shaking me badly as we hit the other side of the shallow trench. In my peripheral vision, I could see its grassy bottom rushing by below me in a green blur. The second grassy gully was wider – this one he took in two bounds. But as we emerged on the other side, I could feel the old wooden and leather saddle loosening underneath me. I could see the next gully coming on fast.

Unlike the first two, it was full of rocks.

My horse was not stopping, my saddle was not staying on and I did not want to fall on those stones at 40 km/h. As the saddle came looser under me, I jumped.

The saddle broke apart at the same time and came off the horse’s back shortly thereafter in a cloud of dust. I hit the turf on my back (I’d dropped my back pack just before the horse had bolted) and skidded a dozen feet or so before coming to a quiet, breathless halt.

Some people like to imagine that they have a guardian angel. I know I do, because after a quick mental check, I realized that, besides an aching back that would make the next few night’s sleeping on the ground a truely sadistic pleasure, I was okay. I got up slowly and could see my horse was already back at Gaaj’s ger camp, with the pack horse carrying my and Janine’s backpacks close behind. I scanned the horizon from back the way I’d just galloped and could see Janine’s red coat in the distance. Thankfully, she and it sat atop a relatively placid looking horse. Beside her, Dave’s white 16 year old gelding circled anxiously. About 500 m further off, I could see Val slowly leading her 4 year old grey back towards them. I leanred later that all of them had bolted, Val’s most aggressively. Janine had been able to rein hers in after turning it sharply. Dave had a similar story. But Val’s young male had taken her on a pounding ride that she had only barely been able to stop after a full minute of running. Thankfully, no one besides me had had to pay a physical price for my foolishness.

Our shedule was shot to hell though. Saddles were broken, two of the packhorses had thrown their luggage, scattering it all over the plain, and our guides were now galloping off to round up our thoroughly spooked mounts.

Some of living in the UK must have rubbed off on Dave, a South African by birth. As he stood looking at one of our tossed grocery bags, a wry smile came over his face. In a dry, understated tone characteristic of the English, he drawled, “Well. That can’t have been good for the eggs.”

My upper back throbbed, but I laughed, partly at the joke but mostly in relief. I was glad no one was hurt.

***

2 hours later, we resumed our trip. I literally got back on the horse, though not the one that threw me. The newly minted “Throwy” was instead ridden by Gaaj, who held the reins so tight and close that his fist was invisible, buried in Throwy’s mane. Notwithstanding having an expert rider for the rest of the day, Throwy did his best to unseat Gaaj as well, evidently deciding that no one should ride him.

We rode for 3 hours more, gradually leaving the broad valley and climbing into pine-forested hills. At the top of a low pass, we circled a traditional log cairn, or “ovoo”, bedecked with deep blue scarves. It was a moment of calm and magic after a day of excitement and no small amount of fear.

Descending the pass, we camped in a forested valley among giant pines. Tejin and Gaaj cooked up rice over an open fire while we set up our camp and tried to figure out which vegetables were our bulkiest and would therefore be eaten first (cabbage easily won – 4 heads!? what were we thinking). After dinner and dishes, finished hurriedly in the twilight, I eased into my sleeping bag gingerly, my back cringing with every unfamiliar movement and strange lump in the ground.

It had been a hell of a first day.

***

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Morning, day 2. Seemed nice enough to me. What could possibly go wrong?

The sun shone brightly through the pines the next morning. I was grateful – my back was stiff but not completely seized.

We rode up and out of the forested valley and onto a high ridge overlooking it. The grasses were a warm gold in the slanting light of early morning. We’d just gained the top of the ridge and were feeling in good spirits when Throwy reared surprisingly and for no apparent reason, causing the whole herd to bolt once more. My new mount, a young fluffy headed brown I’d called Pompadour, headed straight for a copse of pines with low hanging branches.

I managed to push through the arms of the first tree and keep a hold of Pompadour’s reins. But as I emerged from it, I saw that the branches of the upcoming one were even sturdier. I shifted all my weight behind the saddle and pulled the reins hard to the right. Pompadour stopped, huffing and snorting, just in time.

I looked back. Everyone had their riding horses under control, but one pack horse had thrown his load and bolted to God only knew where. We tied our horses up while Gaaj and Tenjin took off after him.

It took anothe 1.5 hours to get everything back on the rails. Once we were moving, Gaaj set a steady pace for several hours, down off the ridge and into a broad river valley specled with gers, horses, cattle and goats. Despite our delays, we’d managed about 20 km and now had a little time to enjoy camp – perfectly situated on a level green embankment beside the main river.

As we dismounted, I heard dave say resignedly to Val’s offer to trade saddles with him the next day, “No, the other saddle hurts my balls just as badly.”

I started to laugh, but instead broke into a gasp when my feet hit the ground. My legs cramped so badly they wouldn’t hold my weight. I sank to the ground and lay there laughing. Janine had managed to grab onto her dappled white’s saddle to avoid a similar fate. Dave and Val were wincing similarly.

It seemed that even staying in the saddle on these horses came at a price.

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Riverside camp for days 2 and 3. But that’s another story…

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