Sabine takes guests on horse riding adventures in Mongolia. They trek into wild landscapes and beautiful grasslands that have been the home of nomadic herders for millennia. She had a passion for horses since childhood. Yet horse riding had been an unattainable tenet for her until she came to Mongolia. Pretty soon after arrival, she got on horseback, using the opportunities of working with rural livestock herders in the vast countryside. Mongolian horses don’t need clinics to learn stepping over logs and crossing creeks. In navigating wilderness terrain they are skilled like wild animals. At the same time, they are of great character, responsive and easy-going in their conduct with riders.
Author: Sabine Schmidt
Horse Riding in Mongolia – The Land of the Blue Sky
For a decade now, I have been fortunate to take guests on horse riding adventures in Mongolia, into some of the wildest landscapes and through beautiful grasslands that have been the home of nomadic herders for millennia.
A little over twenty years ago I arrived in Mongolia on a two year contract with a national park and community development project in the country’s far South, in the Gobi desert. This was after years of working in Antarctica for the protection of the last wild continent, and while my husband was in the interior desert of Oman as the field manager of a wildlife project. After our Antarctic time, we had spent several years in New Zealand, photographing a primeval forest to help save it from destruction.
I’ve had a passion for horses since childhood. Yet horse riding had been an unattainable tenet for me until I came to Mongolia. Pretty soon upon arrival, I got on horseback, using the opportunities of working with rural livestock herders in the vast countryside. I remember the sometimes worried looks on the horsemen’s faces whose horse I had mounted. Looking back today I think I was pretty lucky that this initiation to horse riding went well.
Wilderness Explorations on Horseback
It was a natural progression that I would soon explore the wilderness landscapes of Mongolia on horseback. With my husband, who grew up riding horses in the United States and bought our first horse in Mongolia soon after he arrived in the country, I spent summers out in the backcountry, traveling light and fast. I cannot think of a better training for horseback expeditions. We would sometimes go with just our two saddle horses for a few days, but for our longer excursions deeper into the Khentii Mountains we’d have a packhorse or two.
This is when we laid the foundation of what are now: Stone Horse Expeditions. We would run into border guards, stationed along the Mongolian-Russian border, park rangers, and sometimes – poachers. They all got to know us and our horses. They became used to the fact two now familiar foreigners were exploring on horseback year after year. In the early encounters they would ask where is your guide, but soon they knew we were no beginners in wilderness travel. We learned the lay of the land, found the route to the high pass, crossed rivers and bogs, and camped at secluded places.
Mongolian Horses – Amazing Companions in the Backcountry
We moved fast in these days, our Mongolian horses showing their amazing stamina, strength and instincts for this kind of back country travel. After all, they grow up roaming free in their natural environment and natural to their species, in a herd. Mongolian horses don’t need clinics to learn stepping over logs and crossing creeks. In navigating wilderness terrain they are skilled like wild animals. At the same time, they are of great character, responsive and easy-going in their conduct with riders. As foals they get used to humans early as their mothers are being milked and little kids ride the young horses thus acquiring their horseback skills and feel for horses.
Two Young Grulla Horses
We did our most extensive explorations with two young grulla horses, brothers who were born on the steppes of the Southern reaches of the Khentii province. Hailing from the grasslands, the mountains and dense forests of the Northern Khentii were new to them, but they learnt fast from our older bay horses how to cross fast rivers and rocky passes. In even terrain, they would fall into a trot, steady and smooth, and would keep it up for hours by their own choice. It was an amazing way of moving across these landscapes, it still is.
The two Greys became the back bone of our equine expedition team. Now in their late twenties, they are still going strong. When not under saddle, they jog along, often leading the team of pack and saddle horses. They know the trails, shortcuts, river crossings and each and every spot where we have ever stopped to rest or camp.
The Bond with My Horse
Anybody who has had an equine companion for many years will be able to relate to the appreciation and respect I have for my grulla “Good Boy” who has carried me into the wild back country of Mongolia for two decades now. I have witnessed his extraordinary memory when we returned to an area after eight years and he insisted on breaking off the trail into dense brush, which turned out to be a short cut to the trail that we were headed for. And he has never missed to check out a little depression in the forest that in many seasons is the only source of water on the high pass.
When leading treks while rivers are running high, I saddle Good Boy, knowing his strength, steadiness and good instinct to cross fast flowing rivers in flood. He is tall and strong, and fearless, with a distinctly Roman nose, a feature to which in Mongolia great endurance is attributed. Good Boy is a serious guy, not cuddly, and he used to be what is called “dogshin” in Mongolian language – that is wild, untamed, unruly. He always had a strong mind, and along with his brother he was easily spooked as a youngster. Just for a split second, he would, in unison with his brother, make a sudden move reacting to a smell, sound or sight near the trail. This is understandable survival behavior in country where wolves are common and other predators occur.
Good Boy is Taking Care of Me
Despite his independent spirit and raw instincts, I know I can rely on him. The best example of this was when I rode with a leg injury for five days, when unbeknownst to me a kick by another horse had fractured my fibula. He calmed right down, as he sensed I was hurting. It happened so that him and I had to do a bit of scouting on that trip, round up horses and other chores of a horse guide. I never forget how he acted then, careful and responsible, and carrying me home safely.
Nowadays, I ride him alternating with a younger grulla to give him time off on our expeditions, but I still rely on his presence when I lead horse treks today. Still, he gives all he has and what I ask for when we are moving along with pack and saddle horses who look to the greys as old hands to follow. He still plays wild sometimes when he’s been running along for a day and it’s time to get on the picket line for the night in camp. After a while of playing catch with our horsemen to show who he is, he eventually agrees to come in. Or I go and get him, quietly.
Wilderness Horse Riding in Mongolia
There is another dimension to being with horses in the wild. Despite their conditioning to be with humans, these horses have retained their own wildness, and they share it with us. A wilderness experience is always good for our senses, spirit and body. But with horses who still have all the instincts of the wild but also the learned sense of human-horse connection, the wilderness experience is a deeper one even. Not to mention that it would be immeasurably harder to travel across the terrain we cover on our expeditions if not on horseback.
There is also a soothing way to the horses being around camp in the evening as they fill their bellies on the good mountain pastures before they are turned in. And it’s a very comforting sound to hear them munching grass near the tent at night. Knowing that all is well if they are there and calmly grazing.
Wilderness trekking with pack and saddle horses is much more than riding a horse. Its traveling with a herd, and witnessing all the equine behavior that comes with it and the antics of a bunch of geldings as they move along, playing games with each other on the move, or challenging others in rank. For many guests who are well versed horse riders it’s still a whole new experience of horseback travel as they watch the herd’s interactions. Last but not least, it’s a faithful dog, or two, who make our trek complete. Something very special happens when humans, equines and canines travel together, it must take us way back to our ancient memories.
Our young Mongolian wranglers ride and handle the horses with the ease that comes to them naturally, having grown up with horses and other livestock. The kind of riding on these horse treks is a bit different than the lessons learned in a formal riding school. The feel for the horse and its gaits, and for moving with him in balance, come down to the same. But here, there is probably more true partnership. The horse doesn’t need to perform moves the rider fancies. Sure, the rider is in control and assertive, but the horse is not micro-managed.
The horse carries us through terrain that would be rated as extreme in other places, and into breathtaking scenery. Surefooted and experienced, he knows how to navigate these challenges. Back on the trail and in the grasslands however, with a bit of feel, give yourself to the rhythm of his movements, his effortless trot, and feel like flying together. Be clear and trusting, and he will respond and give you his best.
The Horse in Mongolia
Life in Mongolia is deeply connected to and shaped by the horse. The horse is essential in the daily life of nomadic herders, as a symbol of status for the owner of a large herd, and for the trainer of race horses. And in spiritual life, the notion of Khiimori, the spirit – or wind horse, signifies the soul and inner strength of a human.
When exploring Gorkhi Terelj National Park on our horse treks, we pass bronze age burial sites, where women and men and their horses were laid to rest. These “khirigsuur” sites can be found all over the country. The placing of heads of respected horses, adorned with a blue silk cloth, in special places is still practiced commonly.
Horse racing is one of the three “manly” sports, though young girls are also jockeys in these amazing races. Young children are the riders for their light weight in these races of more than 20 miles for the adult stallions. A horse’s ranking still counts even if making the finish line without its rider. While still an amazing feat, the races have been made safer for the young jockeys, who nowadays wear helmets and vests, and mostly ride in saddles.
Stone Horse Expedition Horses
Our herd currently counts 34 head, including some retired old timers who are enjoying their retirement with special privileges like unlimited access to the huge hay pile in winter. They have well deserved it.
The Stone Horses as we call them have the best of both worlds. They graze free in their home valley from where we start our treks. But unlike most horses in the country, they get plenty of winter feed. The daily routine in winter starts with oat and bran breakfast, upon which the herd goes out to graze. Returning by afternoon, hay is waiting for them in the corral where they spend the night.
In spring time we chose a day for veterinary check. Two of the most experienced vets in the country are the family doctors of the Stone Horse herd. They clip hooves and check and float teeth when needed. A vitamin shot and de-wormer paste given in the oat bran mash complete the procedure. Until expeditions start in mid-June, the horses still have some time to get ready for their job, enjoying the new grass as it comes up. They are in top shape once the first trip goes, and the exercise and mountain pastures out in the park keep them fit and healthy through the season.
Safety and Comfort for Riders and Horses – Lightweight Western Trail Riding Saddles
A few years into horse riding in Mongolia, I became intrigued by the design and function of saddles. And since I enjoy working with my hands, I went to saddle making school. Lucky to have one-on-one instruction at Sierra Saddlery School in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I learnt building classic Western saddles. Having set up my own saddlery workshop a couple years later, I set out to design our signature lightweight Western style trail riding saddles. Today, all our guest riding saddles are Stone Horse Saddles from my workshop. I never forgot the emphasis that my saddle instructor placed on building a good seat as the foundation of balanced riding. Our saddles are all outfitted with endurance stirrups with padded treads and safety cages.
Wilderness Preservation – Riding with a Purpose
When we travel on our routes in the Khentii Wilderness and in the cultural landscapes of Gorkhi Terelj National Park we have stories to tell of our early explorations, of the people we met and traveled with and of the natural environment and the impacts we have seen on it under a changing climate. As a company now, and before as professionals in conservation, we have worked with the rangers and staff of the parks to help protect their landscapes, wildlife, their intrinsic values and their watershed function. For years, we have been running one trek per season dedicated to conservation – our Wilderness Conservation Adventure, awarded in 2017 with the Energy Globe Award for Mongolia.
As much as we seek to contribute with our treks to the preservation of the natural landscapes we travel in and depend on, we wish to share with our guests the experience of wilderness. It may take a few days when guests arrive fresh out of their corporate jobs before they realize where they are and how good it feels. They relax into the quiet of a scenic camp site and the starry sky. They bond with their horse and go with the flow on the trail. Its meditative, and its all they need. If we can give people the experience that they are connected to nature, that is something of lasting impact. If we understand we are one with nature, it is not a question anymore whether we need to protect all life, the land and planet we depend on.
Stone Horse Expeditions in Mongolia’s Wilderness and Cultural Landscapes
Horse Riding Treks with Stone Horse explore two of Mongolia’s premier parks – the Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area and the adjacent Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The Khan Khentii area is the largest roadless area in the country and among the largest wilderness areas in Asia. It is protected for its biodiversity and landscape values. It acts as the catchment area of the capital city’s water supply, and for its historic and spiritual values. Deep in the boreal forest here are the overgrown ruins of a large temple complex that once was the center of buddhism in Mongolia.
It was in the Khentii that young Temujiin grew up. Later, having united the Mongol tribes, was declared Genghis Khan at the Blue Lake. He would have followed some of the same trails down the valley of the sacred Tuul River and across the mountain routes that are still used by horsemen and treks today.
Stone Horse Expeditions explore the Khentii Mountains on 14 day treks. Available are the Khentii Mountains Horse Riding Expedition and the Wilderness Conservation Adventure. These horseback tours travel through Gorkhi Terelj National Park into the Khentii mountains.
Gorkhi Terelj National Park
Gorkhi Terelj National Park is a cultural landscape, used by nomadic livestock herders. Its scenery in forest steppe is that of undulating grasslands. Wide open valleys and high ridges crowned by towering granite rock formations are the hallmark of these beautiful park. Autumn time treks have the extra benefit for guests to witness the return of nomad families and their livestock to the camp sites to prepare for winter in the park. It is then that we encounter more of their herds. We see free roaming horses in the grasslands, and yak herds in higher elevations.
Low Impact Back Country Travel and Commitment to Conservation and Community
Stone Horse Expedition treks are supported by pack horses only, no vehicles. This enables us to reach remote and scenic campsites, way off the beaten track. We serve nutritious meals, and accommodate vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and other individual dietary needs. As members of Travelers Against Plastic (TAP), Stone Horse Expeditions are committed to reducing/avoiding single use plastic. Stone Horse treks start in our herd’s home valley, a bit over an hour drive from Ulaanbaatar city. In the Darkhid Valley, we have worked for over a decade with the local families on ecological restoration and watershed protection. Riding guests can experience a home stay with herders before setting out on the trek. They can also come for day riding in the area.
Join a horse riding adventure in Mongolia!
If you have any further questions, feel free to contact Stone Horse Expeditions.
Still here? Do want to hear more about horse riding in Mongolia? Then check out all the other amazing stories on our website about discovering Mongolia on horseback.