It is not possible to imagine Mongolian history without horses, and I think it is not possible to view the future of Mongolia without horses as well. Mongolia is not Mongolia without horses.
- J. Tserendeleg, president of the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment
Mongolia is synonymous with horses. Przewalski’s horse, the last wild horse species on earth, is native to Mongolia. Genghis Khan’s great Mongol empire of the 13th century was won by exploiting the military potential of horse cavalry. Even today, Mongolians are known as some of the finest horsemen in the world.
There are deep ecological and historical reasons for Mongolians’ love affair with the horse. The steppe country north of China – too cold and dry for settled agriculture, but blessed with endless grazing lands – has been home to a succession of nomadic horse cultures for over two thousand years
Fittingly then, Naadam, in both the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China and independent, democratic Mongolia to the north, is all about horses. A horse parade kicks off the festival’s opening ceremony, and each day there are formal equestrian shows and horse races. Apart from the formal events, plenty of people just take the opportunity to ride across the green pastures surrounding the festival.
It’s not all pageantry though. Horses have always been serious business in Mongolia – they were and remain vital to the pastoral economy of the steppes, and horses were the basis of the Mongols’ military prowess. Horse-racing, like the wrestling and archery competitions at Naadam, historically provided an opportunity to combine martial training with a bit of fun.
On the grasslands, horse races are a bit different from the Melbourne Cup. Traditionally, races were run across the steppes; today, they are held on a track, but the race distances are still long by Western standards – 2500, 5000 and 10,000 metres at Naadam in Inner Mongolia, and up to 30 kilometres in independent Mongolia. Because the races are intended to test the speed and endurance of the horses rather than the skill of the riders, most of the jockeys are children between 8 and 15 years old.
With such long races, and perhaps helped by the young age of the riders, horse injuries aren’t that uncommon. We saw one horse get confused during a race and crash into the railing separating onlookers from the track, while another horse was too dazed to move out of the way of oncoming riders and got hit from behind. Fortunately, both horses were able to walk themselves to safety.