Iron steeds of the steppe

By Alexis Hooi ( China Daily ) Updated: 2015-08-22 08:14:19

Iron steeds of the steppe

The Mongolian horse is a perfect product of its habitat, the only breed tough enough to survive and thrive in the harsh grassland environment throughout the year. [Bao Yin/China Daily]

At the back of Mengke Gangbateer's traditional Mongolian tent-like ger home, a postcard-sized, framed photo takes pride of place atop the family cabinet.

In the black-and-white image, Mengke, a member of the ethnic Mongolian group in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, is 5 years old. He sits on a horse outside the ger, wearing a big smile.

"It was my first time on the horse, something we considered an important part of our lives. That horse has been gone a long time, but we have had a lot more like it. Many people say they detect a similar smile whenever I get into the saddle."

Mengke, 52, is one of the many herdsmen in the region who continue to rely on the indigenous Mongolian horse in their daily lives.

The horse's size - small compared with other breeds such as the Thoroughbreds seen in derbys and American Quarter Horses that cowboys ride - belies its legendary stamina and ability to thrive on the grassland.

The Mongolian horse is famed for being able to travel 100 km a day 10 days at a stretch, resting at night. The feisty quadrupeds need minimal water and can survive on the land without additional feed, digging up and kicking back snow and ice to get to the grass underneath.

It was these traits that helped the hordes of Genghis Khan and his successors carve out one of history's largest land empires in the 13th and 14th centuries. Historical records show that the mounts were perfect for battle. Their speed and agility characterized the outflanking tactics of the Mongolian light cavalry. The steeds' smallness meant the warriors could jump on and off them easily. The cavalrymen relied on their horses' ability to traverse the great distances of the steppe to spring multi-pronged attacks.

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