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A Historical Analysis of Horses Throughout The Mongolian Empire. It was commonly said of the Mongolians that “to see a Mongolian without a horse is like a bird without the wings.” The horse was integral to the success of the Mongolians, and was responsible for the sheer size of the Mongolian empire, which history hails as the largest empire to ever exist. Covering swaths of regions across asia from roughly 1206 to 1270 AD. Led by Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan, the empire rose to power under his command and governance until his death in 1227. The empire would continue to grow as it had under his leadership, and would eventually fracture into four separate factions in 1294, which would be the beginning of the end for the Mongolian empire. To understand who Genghis Khan was and the strength of his mighty empire, though, we have to first look at the genesis of the horse in Mongolian culture.
The Mongolian civilization (separate from the Mongolian empire) was formed in 209 BC, as a part of the Xiongnu Empire. In far more ancient history, the land was inhabited by homo erectus nearly 850,000 years ago. It was not until roughly 40,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic era that modern humans would arrive in the land that would come to be known as Mongolia.
There is no region in the world where horses are more common in day-to-day life than in Mongolia. Often referred to as “the land of the horse,” Mongolia holds the reputation as having the best horsemen on earth. It would be nearly impossible to imagine a Mongolian culture without the horse. It was under the bronze and copper ages that horse-riding nomadism would surface in Mongolia, roaming the countryside on horseback to find new lands.
Genghis Khan, though little is known of him in appearance or the circumstances of his death, was once quoted as saying “It is easy to conquer the world from back of a horse.” The horse was treasured by a Mongolian soldier for countless reasons, including their reliance on the horse for food, drink, transportation, armor, shoes, ornaments, strings for their bows, rope, fire, sports, hunting, spiritual power, and in death, to mount and ride in the afterlife. Khan’s military campaigns were built around the idea of mounted cavalry archers, and the subsections of what he called light and heavy cavalry. Some of Khan’s generals were instructed to perform pursuit maneuvers as though they were wrangling horses, and many captured rulers were punished by Khan by being trampled with herds of horses. Though this will be discussed later in greater detail, the Mongolian breeds of horses are considered very low maintenance for their handlers, and because of this it was far more efficient to maintain a larger army of mounted soldiers. Their exceeding endurance allowed for quicker travel times, and the ability to outrun and outmaneuver any enemy cavalry that stood in their way– not to mention the misfortune of any cavalry that would try to flee from a Mongolian regiment.
In modern Mongolian horse culture, horses are not bathed or fed special foods, like grain or hay. Instead, horses are let out to graze freely. The Mongolians taking a very hands-off approach. In the winter, these horses are forced to dig through the snow to forage. The Mongols believe that nature provides well enough for their horses, and so they should cost little or nothing to raise. As a result, horses are not seen as any sort of a luxury, but rather a convenient necessity to everyday life. Rather than being sheltered in barns, horses are more typically left to roam freely and rest where they please amongst each other. This naturalistic care provides an environment to the horse very similar to that of a wild horse, and as a result the hooves require very little care or protection– these horses are truly living as close to natural as a domestic horse can be.
Along with a convenient lack of hoof care needs, the naturalistic care comes with a downside. In the winter, when food is scarce and hard to come by, the horses become thin and weak. This malnutrition is recognized by the Mongolians as a product of the seasons, and understand that in order to fully utilize the horse they will have to wait until the spring, when it will be better fed. The horse is most typical uses are for travel, towing fields, milking, and butchering.
Being a meat animal in Mongolian culture, the horse provides roughly 40% of its body weight in meat. By this metric, each 600 lb. Mongol horse yields roughly 240 lbs. of meat. In this culture, the meat of a horse is considered to be safer to eat than the meat of any other livestock, despite the fact that butchered horses are more often than not past their prime, old, barren, or perhaps injured. The Mongolians believe that the horse is safer to eat because it is not vulnerable to the same illnesses as other livestock, including a resistance to tuberculosis, or other inflammatory diseases. Unlike American beef culture, the horse is considered its best in old age. It is considered bad practice to slaughter a horse in the summer, and it is encouraged to do it in the fall, when they are their fattest.
Horses are integral to the efficiency of the Mongolians both in agriculture and on the battlefield, both in modern times and days past. It was said that a Mongolian without his pony is only half a Mongol, but with his pony he is as good as two men. Mongolian horsemanship extends from farming, to fighting in the ancient empires, to some of the most intensive races in the world of horse culture. Today, the Mongolian culture continues to stride onward through time on the back of its trusty steed.
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