Heirs of Genghis Khan ride the steppes again

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IN MONGOLIA, where horses outnumber people, the skills of a good horseman demand respect. So when Tsengal set out to train a stallion for this summer's traditional Naadam festival, he embarked upon the enterprise with the determination of a Mongol warrior.

Naadam is one of the world's great sporting spectacles, as Mongolians ride in from far-flung provinces for a weekend of horse-racing, wrestling and archery on the grasslands outside the capital, Ulan Bator.

By dawn on the first day, the total number of horses on the dusty plain is in the tens of thousands. In the early-morning light, as men in Mongolian del tunics herd the animals down to the river for water, it is as if Genghis Khan's army is on the move again.

This year, Tsengal, 40, brought 11 horses to Naadam, but the main hope was for the 25km stallion race. Hundreds of horses compete in each event, ridden by children, some as young as four years old. The horses gallop out across the grasslands to a marker, and then back to the finish.

It is not without risk; at least six horses have just died in this year's Naadam.

"I'M A truck driver, but my hobby is training horses," said Tsengal, sitting in his circular ger tent wearing a rich purple tunic and a leather hat. Most years he competes at Naadam, journeying the 45 miles from his home in the province of Tuv, where his extended family keeps 100 horses and 500 livestock.

"It is really tiring, because for one month the person and the horse are really close, like a sportsman and trainer," he said.

In the first few days, the horse is taken from the herd and ridden around the tent. Day by day, he goes longer distances.

"We ride the horse with a thick blanket on, so the dusty sweat comes out, and we clean it off. The number of times needed to sweat the horse depends on the age and the weight. Some horses need twice a day, others five or six times." The Sunday before the race, Tsengal's horses ran well in a local race. "Not all horses can do big competitions. It depends on the shape and condition of the horse, and the eyesight. The distance between the two back legs should be wide, and the nostrils big, so he can have big breaths, and the hoof shape is special. Maybe to ordinary people, the horse is ugly."

The jockey was also in final training. Tsengal's 12-year-old nephew, Gariderdene, was riding the stallion.

"We prepare kids to ride from an early age. From when they start walking, they start riding on a baby goat, sheep or calf. At four years old, they ride a quiet horse. Then they graduate to a stronger horse," said Tsengal.

ON MONDAY, Tsengal and his brother-in-law packed a small ger and prepared for the journey to Ulan Bator. His wife and other relatives were staying behind to look after the animals.

"Before 1990, I worked for a state skin-processing factory, delivering the skins to the factory." When the Communist system collapsed after 70 years as a Soviet satellite, most small state factories went bankrupt, and people like Tsengal lost their jobs. "I am still a driver, but now I have my own truck and work my own time," he said.

THE 45-MILE journey started at a gentle pace. "We travelled over several days so as not to tire the horses or disrupt the final training. We brought the tent and food by car, but the horses came by foot.

"This year I found out that some families came to Naadam from up to 500 miles away. This is the biggest horse competition in Mongolia. So the first 50 horses finishing are the really fast ones."

On the first night they pitched camp after just 20 miles. "We rode the horses hard for only a third of a mile, so they didn't get stiff."

THE NEXT day brought the group another 20 miles on, to a quiet site a few miles from the Naadam plain.

"We camped here for two nights, because there are so many horses and people at Naadam that the horses cannot sleep. The horses were still a little bit fat, so I let them go and sweat and cleaned them. I did not ride them.

"The older horses are used to horse-racing, and the younger ones follow them, so they don't run away. Stallions usually have harems, but on the road we just take one female for them so that the male horse does not run off.

"Usually the horses eat during the night time and get full. If people then ride them, they shit. We did this a few times here to make them go to the toilet. You can see the difference between a horse that is prepared for racing, their stomachs are much smaller."

THURSDAY BROUGHT the last long run for Tsengal's horses before the big day. A 10-mile race gave him an idea of likely performance.

"I thought the stallion would be a good horse, I had no doubts. The other horses I felt had not had enough time for training."

The young jockey started to get pre-race jitters. "Yes, he's been really nervous. But he has been riding in Naadam for four years, since he was eight," said Tsengal.

THE HORSES wake after a good sleep. The party travelled the final few miles to the Naadam site, and met up with relatives from Ulan Bator. The relatives brought a large ger for everyone to sleep in.

"I registered the horses and got numbers for the riders. Friday night, we did not sleep all night. We had to feed the horses and ride them around to shit. But we also had to watch the horses. There were too many horses around, and sometimes people swap or steal the horses. We had to be careful. We had to watch they did not run away and mix with others."

SATURDAY - the big day. "At 4am, we took the horses to drink water down by the river. Then let the horses sleep. It is traditional to make the horse good-looking, by decorating the mane and tail." And a ladle of airak (fermented mare's milk) on the horse's flank brings good luck.

At 8am, Tsengal took his stallion and young rider to the start, where more than 500 stallions were lined up to race. On the way, the mounted horses all circled a small rotunda three times, singing to soothe the horses.

Once the race started, Tsengal returned to his ger for a quick breakfast. Then down to the finishing line, and a tense wait.

"It's a really difficult feeling. Everybody, when they come, wishes their horse wins. But that's not really important. There are so many horses and kids, you just want the horse and the kid to come back safely. The horses are really clever animals, they never step on the kids if they fall off."

Tsengal's stallion and nephew rode without mishap - in 22nd place. It was Tsengal's best-ever position. "It's a tremendous result," he said, with a face-splitting grin. "I'm really pleased."

The vodka flowed that afternoon in the ger.

And any reward for the brave young jockey? "I will give him a really fast horse," promised Tsengal.

Teresa Poole