Horsemanship Around the World: Learning from Herders in the Mongolian Steppe

I hear galloping hooves behind me, and immediately feel my horse stiffen, ready to run. The goat leather reins bite into my hands as my horse’s head flings up, leaning his body forward, begging me to let him go. Quickening his step, his hooves crunch into the steppe grass underneath.

Glancing over my shoulder, I lock eyes with the galloping herdsmen, Ganerdene, in a challenge of a race. I know there is little chance of me winning — he knows the steppe like the back of his hand. It doesn’t help that he’s on a race horse we had nicknamed “The Dragon”. I take the challenge anyway.

After softening my hands slightly, my horse immediately launches forward, breathing a sigh of relief that I had finally come around. We bolt forward right as Ganerdene reaches us. Looking over, he yells something to me. I don’t speak Mongolian, but I can understand what he’s saying: faster.

Feeling such power and drive as I did from my horse in this race is a feeling I will never forget.
Photo by Erik Cooper.

With every galloping step, my grin seems to stretch wider and wider. I don’t dare look down, scared to realize how quickly the ground is flying by us. I keep my eyes trained forward, scanning for marmot holes as I take moments to enjoy the view where the snow capped mountains intermingle with the clouds.

I see a flutter of Ganerdene’s green deel as he attempts to cut me and my horse off. Swerving out of the way, we lose some ground on him, so I hunker down lower and feel my horse kick into yet another gear as we race through the Land of the Blue Sky.

* * *

Getting to Mongolia has always felt like a far-fetched dream. With its rich history and continued emphasis on the horse, I’ve always wanted to go visit.

However, making the trip around the world to a country where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language seemed daunting. As a way to attempt to satisfy my curiosity of the country, I found and thoroughly scrolled through Erik Cooper’s Instagram.

Erik has lived primarily in Mongolia for the last ten years, after he first completed the Mongol Derby in 2012. Since then, he has worked for the Derby, while also leading trips to visit the families with which he’s grown close. In a trek that is wildly adventurous, and filled with new challenges and friendships, you see the country in a completely unique way, surrounded by families and friends living and experiencing life in the steppe. He has trips to visit his friends in Reindeerland, but also with the Eagle Hunters of Mongolia.

Our friend and adventure leader, Erik Cooper.
Photo by Dulguunsuren Sergelen

I casually had connected with Erik over Instagram years ago. He always encouraged me to come, but life always seemed too busy to take on such an overwhelming trip.

Until this past fall, when I was finishing a job and planning to move back home to kick off my business. I was feeling happy and confident, but in need of a next big challenge — something that really pushed me out of my comfort zone, something that would show myself that I was capable and competent.

I took the plunge, and got on the flight to Ulaanbaatar.

* * *

Reaching our horse-herding friends was no easy feat, requiring 15 hours of off-roading adventure in our Russian furgon. As we bounced and zig-zagged around streams, rocks, herds of sheep, and across mountains, those struggling with car sickness clung to their anti-motion sickness support. For those just needing to pass the time, the trip was accompanied by a fantastic playlist, thanks to Erik and the group.

Finally arriving at horse camp, we were welcomed with warm salt milk tea and snacks in the ger. With a long standing relationship with the family, Erik was greeted by the herder boys with hugs, tackles, and grins that radiated warmth and love. We all felt very quickly at home, experiencing the hospitality and generosity of feeding and providing for any traveler that comes their way.

Immediately welcomed into gers and teepees we came across, we were able to connect with new friends across Mongolia.
Photo by Lizzy Peck.

After refueling ourselves with snacks and drinks, it was time to work: we had to catch our horses for our departure to Reindeerland the following day.

With the horses living free range on the steppe, this is no easy task. Hopping on a motorcycle, the herders tracked down and herded the group back, pushing them into a corral next to their ger. The horses are smart, quick, and feral, and so it took multiple drives to get a group together. Once collected, we all took turns attempting to lasso the ones that would be joining us.

Watching the herder boys work was mesmerizing. Not only did they have a killer sense of direction, somehow always knowing where the herd was, or where an escaped pack horse wandered off to later in the trip, but they had a flawless feel of the horses, and an intuition of the horses’ energy, that comes from growing up surrounded by and working with such a spirited animal.

One of the awesome herders that accompanied us on the trip, Gantomor, helped us catch some of our rides.
Photo by Erik Cooper.

The fierceness of the horses still shone through in the process of corralling and lassoing them, but once they were caught and haltered, they were quite calm. It was incredible to see such spirit in the body that was controlled just enough to work with their herders, but not enough to completely tame them.

Soon, I would understand and appreciate that the horses still maintain their feral spirit, as we had to face terrain and weather that wouldn’t have been passable with any other horse.

I look back on the mountains we climbed, slopes we slid down, glaciers we crossed, and the rocky path along the way with disbelief — it’s hard to even describe the twists and turns taken, but even more impossible to describe the ease in which the horses and herders followed the path. The horses, bringing their natural understanding and spunk to the table, navigated the terrain with no problem, pushing through shoulder-high water and bogs, never taking one wrong step.

I quickly learned it was best to trust the horse underneath me – the feral horse that showed his impressive rear when first lassoed, and attempted to bolt past the others multiple times. It was hard to let go of the feeling of control I desperately tried to cling to, but as soon as I was able to let go of my own fear and inexperienced instincts, I immediately felt the depth of knowledge and confidence my horse had to share with me.

Building a partnership with my horse over the few weeks we were together gave me the strength and ability to navigate a new country and difficult terrain. I couldn’t have done this without him.
Photo by Erik Cooper.

I have never ridden a horse with that much self awareness, power, spirit, and desire to absolutely go. Despite their small size, Mongolian horses are strong, fierce, and entirely capable.

From the first time I swung onto my horse’s back (which was filled with nerves and uncertainty on my part) to our final, free gallop together across the steppe, I developed a trust in my horse to get me home safely, no matter the speed at which we were traveling. Feeling that kind of partnership and connection between two entirely individual beings with their own spirit, their own freedoms, and their own abilities meant more than I can express.

My horse didn’t have to work with me. He didn’t have to win that race against Ganerdene, and he certainly didn’t have to let me ride him. His spirit and fierceness gives him the ability to survive and thrive in a harsh environment. But his natural curiosity and willing attitude allows humans to work with him to achieve goals through transportation and work. Without this feral, yet kind horse, how would this terrain have been navigated?

The working partnership between the herders and their horses opened my eyes to the absolute importance of keeping a horse’s spirit and fire alive in the training process. Although a majority of horses won’t ever see the terrain and life that Mongolian horses face daily, the spirit of the horse can bring an instinct and ferocity to a jump course, a dressage test, or a trail ride across a new area. It emphasizes the partnership between two individuals, instead of a robotic sense of obedience that skims the surface of what the horses we connect with can provide the partnership we so deeply value.

Inspired by the horses’ spirit and fire, I felt myself growing confidence in my own self, capabilities, wants, and needs. Being connected to a horse that is so sure of himself forced me to be grounded in my own self.
Photo by Erik Cooper.

I reflect on this trip feeling entirely inspired, alive, and happy. My curiosity is unparalleled to anything I’ve felt before, and I’m itching to get back to answer my ever expanding questions. Learning from Mongolian herders and horses has opened my eyes to a new energy and approach to my work that I’m encouraged to continue diving into.