Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Muck Bucket List - Mongolia Odds and Ends

I mentioned in the comments of my original post that it was the very horse only readers digest version of my trip because I wanted to try and cover as much ground as possible.

But as soon as I posted it I realized there was a TON of stuff I forgot or wished I could have put in, so here are a couple odds and ends that I thought I might share :)

1. Airag
The most typical alcoholic drink in Mongolia isn't something you'd find even in Wegmans' specialty booze section. It's fermented mares milk.

For posterity, our bus.
Apparently mare's milk is great for fermenting. It has tons of sugar in it, which is a key ingredient in the process. They typically milk the mare, put the milk in canvas bags and hang it around the outside wall or ceiling of the ger (yurt in Western terms) for it to ferment.

At the Naadam Festival there were people going around picking empty bottles out of trashcans, filling them with airag from a metal container in some kind of wagon and turning around and selling it to people wandering around the festival.

One of our day trips took us to Karakorum, an epic capital that Marco Polo wrote about in his diaries of his travels on the Silk Road. Unfortunately Mongolians were pretty bloodthirsty savage people so at one point or another the city was razed to the ground. Now there's a monastery there filled with different gold Buddhas.

While we were there our guide managed to procure some airag and naturally I had to try some.

Our guide Toya casually drinking airag.
I'm not sure what I was expecting but it was the most disgusting thing I've ever had the misfortune of putting in my mouth. Our guide drank it casually like it was regular milk. She said they even give it to kids, and that Mongolian men ride from house to house drinking with people.

It tasted like liquified feta cheese. Or sour milk. Not just sour milk but milk that had been left out while you went on vacation for a month. And maybe the sun streamed in the window and shined on it. It was all I could do to not spit it out all over but I thought that would be horribly rude. So, uh, I'm glad I tried it because I needed to say I did, but holy crap.

2. The color blue
Shamanism isn't as popular in Mongolia as it used to be. Communism kind of ruined everything, what with it's godlessness necessitating the murder of almost every religious person in the country. Mongolia was Communist until the early 80's, and when I was there it still had some sketchy commie leanings (for instance, the 'Revolution Party' was actually the Communist party in disguise).

Anyway, even though most of the country is non-religious now they still hold on to a few of the more superstitious and popular traditions. Blue, and the sky, are very holy things to traditional Mongolian shamanism. Birds are considered sacred to the point where pigeons (yes pigeons) are considered a sacred bird and are encouraged to land and poop all over everything in a monastery. It's because they're grey, which is a color of peace. Still seemed odd when we went to see a thirty foot gold Buddha that was covered in bird crap.

For luck, people had tons of these cheap scarves the same blue you'd see in the sky on a bright, sharp, sunny, cloudless day. It's considered good luck to hang them on the top of your ger or on your front door. I actually have one I bought from Karakorum that is still on my front door.

The doors painted 'the right blue'

A scarf at a monastery
It's also popular and common to tie the scarves on young horses that you hope will be fast one day, as it's said the scarves will help the foal become as fast as the wind itself.

The two in the back have scarves on them.
Maybe I should try it with Runkle??

Note the scarf tied on the prize pony.
3. Naadam Opening Ceremony
Before the wrestling started on the first day of the Naadam Festival, the opening ceremony told the story of Chinggis (Mongolian for Ghengis) Khan.

Apparently Chinggis' mother flew down to him and his brothers from the top of a mountain to stop their infighting.

It's a bird, it's a plane...

... no, it's my mom!!
She handed him a bundle of arrows lashed together and told him to break them. He was unable to, because tied together they were stronger than they would be apart. It was a metaphor for her kids getting along instead of battling and feuding each other. And to think, my mom just put my sister and me in time out...

Friendship arrows
I think Chinggis and his brothers were happy and working together for a couple decades or so, at which point either they or their sons tried to murder each other and burn each other's cities to the ground. God his mom must've been pissed.

Mongolia also had the most impressive drill team I've ever seen in my life. Hundreds of horses went into creating the opening ceremony.

A peace time banner.
The banners are made from the hair of palomino horses. These are the peace time banners. In times of war the banners are made from black horse hair. Fun fact: apparently Chinggis' favorite color of horse was palomino. Palominos are really popular in Mongolia, and it was cute when my riding buddy was trying to explain the color to me because they don't have a word for it, or at least a translation. He pointed out a chestnut horse and said it looked like that but 'a little bit different' and with white mane and tail.

Yup. Palomino.

Just a couple palominos.
Okay, more than a couple.

4. I rode a camel for the first time.
They had the two hump camels. Apparently mine was naughty. He tried to run off with me. Of course I'd fly thousands of miles away and get a naughty camel who tried to kill me.

He also had flaccid humps; the rest of my group never let me live that down.

I wonder if the other camels made fun...


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Unofficial Blog Hop: Who's Your Baby Daddy

I was really into Emma's post about her horse's baby daddy(s) so I'm turning it into an unofficial blog hop.

I didn't used to know jack shit about Thoroughbred bloodlines. I knew most race horse turned sport horse TBs had Mr. Prospector, Bold Ruler, or maybe Native Dancer. Because almost all Thoroughbreds have one (or all three) of those guys back somewhere.

This meant nothing to me.
But when I started horse shopping I started to learn. I picked up which horses had bloodlines that held up and grew into nice adults even if they were awkward three or four year olds, who had nice conformations and were successful racehorses. And then there's Runkle, whose purchase solidified when I realized he was by my favorite stud.

Yes It's True
I've known two horses now sired by him and honestly, even the first horse totally sold me enough that it made Runkle's purchase even easier. Since then I've combed the internet for more of his babies, trying to figure out a way I could fit more horses into a one horse budget.

Two isn't a huge sample size but the two I've known have been trainable, workmanlike, sweet, and athletic horses. They're that magical unicorn with talent to keep anyone interested for life but easy going enough that an amateur won't die trying to retrain them.

Plus can we just talk about the fact that Runkle's a dead ringer for his father? Guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

The tree

The apple

Runkle's 'half brother' (in quotes because it's only true in the human sense) belonged to my trainer. And while he wasn't the same color he had the same sweet face, amazing personality and work ethic.

The original, just grey and slightly longer in the back
Unfortunately he passed away very unexpectedly, which is a real shame. I don't doubt that he'd be going intermediate by now if he hadn't. He could jump like you wouldn't believe and was such a nice, sweet guy who always gave 110%.

Exhibit A: Jumpies
Also both of them get kind of ridiculous work anxiety. It's uncanny. You're a horse, what do you have to be anxious about?? Calm down and go eat some damn hay.

On the bottom line, Runkle's damsire is sire to a pretty famous racehorse. Maybe you've heard of her, her name's Zenyatta :P I feel like the dam side of the equation doesn't get looked at a whole lot. Probably because when a mare only has ten foals or so you can't gather a lot of data and make as many assumptions about their progeny.

If they were people she'd be his... great aunt?
Now that I'm entrenched in the steeplechase world I'm learning more about popular 'chase bloodlines. I'm paying extra attention, because these horses are usually sturdier than the average flat horse, are brave as hell, and come out of the womb jumping. When I go to races and see a horse with brilliant jumping form and balanced gallop I file away their name to research later.

Similarly, when I see a horse I like that someone's competing or has just bought I look into who their bloodlines are because it'll increase the likelihood that I can find something similar. Sure at the end of the day, I need to like the horse in front of me. But you can't deny genetics. We're each a product of our parents and it's not something that can be ignored!

There's Runkle trying to be a hurdle horse! His jockey is wearing light blue
I was going to be cute and ask a question like "oh tell me who your horses' parents are" but really... if you have a nice talented TB just comment with their race name so I can go stalk them and look for a twin to call my own.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Muck Bucket List - Mongolia

When I was a kid I had a set of VHS tapes about horses. Well, okay I had about fifty million VHS tapes about horses, but this one set in particular I watched in a pretty endless loop.

It was about horses around the world, covering topics from the Spanish Riding School to German dressage training. But the last tape was about Mongolia.

I watched that Mongolia tape so many times I swear the film inside was going to wear out. It featured the Naadam Festival which includes trials in the three 'manly' sports: archery, wrestling, and horse racing. The horse racing portion was over 15km or more depending on the age of the horse, and the jockeys were all kids. Kids my age! It always stuck with me.

Kid in training
I didn't study abroad when I was in college so naturally, after I graduated I went to Mongolia for a month. You know, like ya do.

There are a few things that make Mongolia ideal for the most epic kind of horseback riding. There are no fences, and just one main paved road through the country. We would drive this one road and the bus driver would make a right at some inconspicuous landmark. I asked him once how he knew how to turn and he said the hill looked like a camel so he knew to turn at the next powerline pole. Those are some Dwight Schrute level directions.

Turn left if you hear the bees.
It didn't take long for us to run into horses. This country has horses absolutely everywhere. Seriously, you couldn't escape them. Everybody rode. Everyone owned one. I was in heaven.

Our first stop on the trip was the Hustai National Preserve, where local Mongolian biologists or ecologists or really smart ologists work with Dutch scientists to reintroduce Przewalski horses into the wild. Locally, they are known as takhi. Also the gift shop at the preserve was wall to wall horses.

We spent an hour watching a presentation from one of the scientists located on site. I wish I had asked him to email it to me, it was that fascinating. It went through repopulation statistics, even comparing them to US wild horse populations. Every horse on the reserve could be sponsored, and when you sponsored them you could name them. And damned if that guy didn't know every horse's name. He had what looked like stock photos on his presentation but weren't, and he went on to rattle off the name of each horse.

Forget the fact that they all kinda look the same...

The biggest problem with the reintroduction is wolves. Wild horses in the US have ten times the survival rate of the Przewalski horses, bcause US horses don't really have any natural predators (besides the BLM trying to keep their numbers down and starving to death when the BLM fails. Oh sorry I tripped over my soapbox there excuse me).

After the presentation we all piled back into the bus to drive around and look for the little buggers. There are lots of pictures in this entry so I didn't make them all too big, so feel free to click to enbiggen.

I'm not sure if it was a mixture of jetlag or what but I got really weirdly emotional when we found them. I think what they're doing there is really good and important, if for no other reason than it just feels right to have these animals back out on the steppes. It didn't hurt that we ran into one herd that had a foal with them.

The next horsie specific stop on the trip was an actual horse nirvana called Jalman meadows. Yeah in between we went into the capital of Ulaanbatar and went to the great dunes of the Gobi Desert but there were limited horses there.

I mean, I did find some.

There were camels tho.

Camels yawning is the stuff of nightmares.
I digress. At Jalman Meadows I made friends with the horse master's apprentice, who was only a couple years younger than me at the time. We went on a half day trail ride together and I think I learned more about Mongolian culture, politics, and language in that four hours than the whole rest of the month long trip.

Enjay holds our horses while I peed... in the middle of a field.

Gers at Jalman Meadows
And by language I mean I made him teach me common Mongolian curse words and of course the only one I remember is the one he told me was the worst and made me promise eight times I would never actually use it.

The riding was sublime. There were no fences or gates. The footing was perfect everywhere. All the roads were dirt. He picked two of the fastest horses and we spent the ride either deep in conversation or galloping like wild maniacs. I adored it. Plus the horses had cute names, based on how they looked/acted.

'Small Grey'

'Lazy Brown'

My mount for the day, 'Brown and White Spotted'
Finally it was time to head back into the capital for the Naadam Festival. The biggest draw for most people was the wrestling. Being good at wrestling in Mongolia is as big as NFL football players are here. Women are actually allowed to compete in everything except the wrestling, so there was a good mix in the archery and horse racing disciplines.

This is the victory dance.

But who cares about that. Where are the horses??? We got to go watch the end of the seven year old race and let me tell you, the kids that do this are bold and look like they were born on the back of a horse.

Casual af

The next day I was watching some wrestling with my roommate. It was so rainy I decided to head back to the hotel on my own to try and warm up and find some semblance of dry. It took ages to try and plow my way through the crowds surrounding the wrestling stadium, especially because they were preparing to do the racing awards ceremony. At one point I was stuck in total gridlock and as the crowd started to part in front of me I could see why; the winners of the race were trying to make it to the stadium and everyone was touching them.

Hundreds of hands were reaching out from the mass of people to brush against the pony's flank or rider's leg. Apparently it's enormously good luck or something? I felt kind of bad for the seven or eight year old kid, totally overwhelmed on the horse's back, but it was really something to be up close to them.

Somehow no one got kicked.

This horse was one of the wrestling prizes.

The Great Ghengis Khan surveys his country

I rode the little brown one

A Mongolian trail ride!!

So basically, if you're obsessed with horses, you should go to a country that was built on the back of one. Plus the beer was insanely cheap, it was $2 for a proper English pint. I highly recommend.