The Mongolian horse is the breed we most often associate with Mongolia, where the people have been famous for their horsemanship since history began. As one of the oldest surviving horse breeds in the world, Mongolian horses feature the largest genetic variety among all the Chinese horse breeds, representing an original nature less affected by human-induced selection. It is also evident that many other breeds descend from Mongolian horses. In China, the horses used by Genghis Khan (1162–1227) are mainly found in Inner Mongolia.
In spite of their diminutive body size, having an on-average withers height of just 12 to 13 hands (122 to 132 cm), they are not ponies as their body build, traditional uses and overall physiology still grant them the title of horses. The breed has a short, muscular neck, compact and stocky body, large head and stout legs. It is found in a wide variety of colours and patterns. The long mane and tail of the animal can be used to produce braiding ropes and violin bows, which have a worldwide reputation.
In China, the sturdy and unpretentious steppe horses are kept by their owners to roam free outdoors, where in Inner Mongolia the summer can reach 25°C and winter fall to -30°C, and are given no hay or other extra feed at any time of the year. The stallions in winter protect their harems and young offspring from wolves. Primarily employed for riding and carting, the horses are also used for their meat and for the production of airag, a fermented horse milk, which is an important staple for the Mongolian people who have few vegetables in their diet.
These small horses are evocative of force, strength and spirit beyond their pony-size physique. A Mongolian horse can carry about one-third of its body weight, while four can haul a load of 2,000 kg for 50 to 60 kilometres a day. Among the “five treasures” – horses, camels, cattle, sheep and goats – that Mongolian nomads typically possess, the horse is the real jewel of their livestock. Horses and the Mongolians alike grow up with a strong affinity for each other. A Mongolian folk saying has it that if a drunk or injured owner gets onto the back of a Mongolian horse, it will take him home.
On the racecourse, Mongolian horses will try their best – and even die from exhaustion for their owner’s glory. Mongolians never shout at their horses or strike them on their heads. They always also carry brushes or sweat-scrapers with them to be able to groom their proudly owned quadruped friends.
During Genghis Khan’s extensive conquests, Mongolian horses played a substantial role. The horses’ unparalleled vitality and endurance in inhospitable conditions facilitated the long-haul campaigns from Asia to Europe. Their forage requirements were minimal as they subsisted on grass, reducing the baggage burden and military budget of the Mongol cavalry. On top of this, most military mounts were mares, which competed less in the herd and in return caused fewer problems.
Although the breed has created miracles during its history, it does not perform particularly well in modern-day equestrian pursuits. However, it still maintains an exalted position in the hearts of the Mongolian people.
Having in antiquity conquered the world with Genghis Khan, the gallant chargers now face the biggest challenge in their history as a consequence of the environmental and economic upheaval in Inner Mongolia.
In the late 1980s, when desertification and land degradation became acute, every pastoral family was allocated a small piece of land which was demarcated by wire fences. Since then, the horses’ traditional roaming areas have been drastically affected: their freedom to meet and mate with horses in other herds, to find safe and sheltered places during natural disasters like blizzards, to choose the grass they want to eat, among other important issues, has been denied them. Mongolian horses have lived free since history began, confining them to small pens is against their instincts. Not only has the mining boom in their traditional grazing lands created huge ecological problems, but the introduction and recent extension of the prohibition on horse grazing challenge the native horse’s existence.
Mongolian herders have ended up keeping fewer horses and travelling more by motorized vehicle. Back in 1987, Inner Mongolia had 1.9 million horses. Following grassland degradation and privatization, the number began to decrease drastically. In more recent years, the provincial government and investors have been actively developing breeding, especially for the racing and tourism industries, such that the situation has now improved, with the animal population reaching 638,000 heads in 2018. However, the number of Mongolian horses remains low. The breed currently accounts for only a fraction of the province’s total.
Claiming that horses are their life, elderly herders are lamenting their substantially shrinking herds and the deteriorating living environment.
Today, Mongolian horses are being developed as a cultural and tourism symbol while desertification reportedly has been slightly stemmed.