Mongolia horse treks: my tips, pictures, and advice to plan your trip
Mongolia horse treks form the highlight of many Mongolia trips. Rugged terrain, few sealed roads, no fences, beautiful scenery all around, covered by a big blue sky. Horse riding in Mongolia brings a feeling of freedom which will stay with you for a long time. Cheap and easy to organize, you can choose anything from a 2 hour ride from a tourist ger camp, to renting or buying your own horse and heading out for a month-long journey. Don't go without reading my advice.
Defining a horse trek
Who to go with?
Mongolian riding style
Riding tips and basics
What to take?
Organizing a Mongolia horse trek
Advice from other travelers
Defining a horse trek
Where do you want to ride? Lake Khovsgol region, Terelj National Park near Ulan Bator, and the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia are scenic, popular destinations. Karakorum in central Mongolia is also a good place to organize a custom Mongolia horse trek. These places have operators equipped to handle tourists, so are the easiest places to organize a trip from. Otherwise, horses are everywhere and you can start wherever you like if you have the time, patience, and a Mongolian-speaker.
Horse riding in Mongolia won't cost you much, it's far cheaper than hiring a vehicle. You can typically rent a horse for $20 a day or less. Allow for renting another pack horse (supports 3 people) if you're going on an overnight ride. A guide will cost you about $20/day also; it's worth asking if the guide speaks English, the many who don't will generally cost you less. If buying a horse, bank on at least $300; it'll likely sell for less than half that when you leave. If you have a (trusted!) local, consider hiding away and have them sell it for you: rich Westerner leaving country tomorrow = bad price.
How much time to spend on a Mongolia horse trek is really up to you. Riding is rewarding but not always comfortable -particularly on the local saddles. If you haven't ridden on long journeys before, and like more of the comforts in life, then be conservative: book a brief ride or an overnight ride -you can always extend or do another ride if you enjoy it. Places like Terelj and the South-West shore of Lake Khovsgol have enough tourist facilities that you could plan to find a warm yurt and even some hot showers each night. This, plus the option of
kicking your feet up and having a break for a day, might encourage some to take a longer trip.
A four day horseback ride is a good amount of time for most tourists, before the saddle sores, heat, and biting flies start to take their toll. But any trip more than 4 days or so will become a real adventure, 12 days can get you to little-visited places such as the Tsagaan Nuur near Khovsgol, and a surprising number of people plan a journey of 2 months or more!
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Guides leading pack horses in Central Mongolia. This was taken in May, the grass had recently thawed and was yet to turn its summer green.
Who to go with?
Many people band together with other travelers on a Mongolia horse trek for some company and to split the cost of a pack horse and guide. Some tourists have a romantic notion about riding off alone into the sunset, but even with a non-English speaking guide, 5 nights of silence around the camp fire might start to feel pretty lonely! You really aren't short of open space in Mongolia, so there is plenty of opportunity to spread out hundreds of meters apart to have your private moments of contemplation/ solitude/ conversion to Buddhism.
If you're not an advanced rider, you should consider a guide essential.
Horse riding in Western Mongolia, by the shores of Khoton Nuur. The western shore of Khoton Nuur is every bit as beautiful as (but much smaller than) Lake Khovsgol, but is far less touristed.
Going alone can be risky if you end up injuring yourself. I'd highly recommend even expert horse riders get a guide for the first week at least. They will help you through the complexities of buying a horse, and teach you the local methods of horseback riding, yurt-visiting etiquette, intricacies of leading another pack horse, how locals tether their horses each night, and how to track, woo, and fetch them when they break free.
Travelers have reported horse thefts in the night; this is far less likely to happen if you have a guide. Theft could potentially leave you stranded in a remote place, and I don't know of many good horse insurance policies. Guides also know the best trails, and where the water is. If you're planning a solo trip in Central Mongolia or the Eastern Steppe (Gobi desert is more camel country, don't think about going it alone there) then finding water each day will be critical: try to follow a river if there is one. Remember: yurts mean drinking wells. Also, if you're not an expert rider, consider taking some lessons back home before you leave on your Mongolia horse trek.
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Keep your rain jacket tied up at the back of your saddle when horse riding in Mongolia, as storms can blow in quickly
Mongolian horses are tough. To survive those winters, they'd have to be! The warriors of Genghis Khan conquered such an empire
partly because their horses could ride further, with less food and water, than other horses. They're quite short compared to other horses, but never call them ponies: it can be insulting
to a Mongolian man to ridicule the size of his horse. Copyright Mongolia-travel-advice.com
Imagine, the same horse blood you're riding on helped lead the Mongols into fierce battle. Unfortunately, such equine bravery can translate into stubbornness as far as the modern-day
tourist is concerned. They're generally a hard-mouthed bunch, and not always inclined to start moving when requested. They're canny and will quickly figure out who's boss: you need to show them from the outset that failure to move will mean a decent kick, and stopping to feed at their leisure will bring a tug on the reins.
Mongolian horses are left half wild in the winters; this makes them a bit unpredictable, so be careful when you have a new animal on any Mongolia horse trek. Each horse has its own personality, and once you figure out each other then your relationship will become something deep, meaningful, and mutually rewarding. If you're having serious relationship trouble then your Mongolian guide will be more than happy to provide some counselling; this typically involves taking a stick and slapping the horse so hard it springs off into a gallop -with you holding on for dear life.
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A pack horse on our trip near Khovsgol. Leave fragile objects at home when doing a Mongolia horse trek, as your bag will get bashed against trees and other horses.
Saddles come in two varieties: painful, and excruciating. The painful, Russian saddles effectively involve a thin cushion fixed over a wood and steel frame which sits on the horse's back. More a medieval torture instrument than a seat, the excruciating Mongolian saddles are pure wood, with a leather lining if you're lucky, and often have a decorated steel bevel just to rub into the inside of your thigh. I'd find it unthinkable to do a Mongolia horse trek on one of these. Unless you have a butt lined with titanium like a Mongolian, stick with the Russian variety -no foreigner is expected to do otherwise.
I've found the uncomfortable Russian saddles to be the only bad thing about Mongolia horse treks. People say that after 3 days of horse riding you'll become accustomed and the pain will abate… but in my experience it just gets worse every day. Those considering a serious journey should consider taking a saddle from home; I'm not aware of anywhere you can buy western saddles in UB. For me, I love long horse rides, I don't want to cart my own saddle around, and the discomfort is well worth putting up with.
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Mongolian riding style is quite similar to the style of the American West -not surprising, as both were developed for handling stock and riding over long distances. Neck reins are held with the poor hand only, leaving the good hand free to carry a rope, whip, or bow as the case may be. You gently pull the reins the side you want to go, the reins will pressure the horse's neck on the opposite side and away he'll turn.
Mongolians also don't post (rise) to the trot ('jog', to Americans), they stay seated which is easier riding long distances. Mongolians are willing
to work -and hit- their horses so hard it makes some Westerners squirm; horses are deeply loved but are seen as utilities to be worked and driven, not simply cute animals for novelty rides. That's just the way it is. On the bright side, the mere act of breaking off a tree branch or carrying along a stick on a Mongolia horse trek will see a slow horse speed up without you even having to use it (or you might find you have to use it hard to get the horse to do anything for you).
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Me, expertly swimming my terrified horse across a raging, bottomless torrent
Riding tips and basics
Most Mongolians start in the saddle before they can barely walk. I've seen toddlers lead a horse up to a ger or post, climb up and onto the horse, and then go cantering off bareback without a care in the world. Against such effortless mastery, you'll likely look a complete buffoon and attract the odd laugh when horseback riding in Mongolia, just maintain a good sense of humour and enjoy yourself. I am not an expert, but have spent a fair bit of time on horseback over the years. Following the below tips should stand you in good stead when horse riding in Mongolia; you might even get laughed at less:
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- Not all horses are created equal. When you see a bunch of horses together, try to compare their size, muscles, and how many teeth they have left (if you can see them). Weak, old horses have starved ribs, few teeth, a skinny chest, and are more docile for beginner riders, but are often more stubborn and are usually slower. Each horse has a different 'action' while they jog, some are much smoother than others. You will spend a lot of time jogging on a Mongolia horse trek, so the action makes a huge difference after a lot of time bouncing around in the saddle. I always pick the bigger horses, as they tend to have a less bumpy action.
- Approach a horse from the left side and start chatting away to put it at ease. They can see you coming this way. Don't approach a Mongolian horse from the right and never
approach a horse from the rear. Consider the area beside and behind a horse's rear legs a no-go zone.
- Try to lead the horse so you're on higher ground than the horse before you mount. Stroke it's neck and talk to it to build rapport. Have your guide hold the horse still if you're not
confident. Grab onto the front grip of the saddle (i.e. a pommel on a Western saddle) before putting the front of your left foot in the stirrup. Put the weight on your left leg as much as you can, swing up, and take your foot over into the right stirrup.
- Relax! A horse can sense it if you're tense. Enjoy it.
- Be gentle on the reins. But do give a short, sharper pull if the horse is obviously ignoring you.
- The horse will quickly test out what it can and can't get away with. Suddenly stopping to feed is a common one. Don't get violent, but make sure you don't let ignored commands slip.
- The word choo! is the one thing every tourist learns, it means 'get going', or 'faster'! The horse will start walking if stationary, from there you keep saying it when you want to 'shift up a gear' to jog/ lope/ gallop.
- Always keep your heels down. Try to point your toes outwards rather than inwards, as this helps your legs grip onto the saddle. Don't put your feet further into the stirrups than the front ball. You don't have to post when the horse is jogging, but do put more weight onto the stirrups than on the saddle, and try to rock naturally with the horse's motion.
- If you're in trouble because your horse starts cantering or galloping too fast, but ignores you pulling back hard on the reins, try to pull it into a deepening turn at the same time as pulling back. Lean in for the turn. The horse will spin into a bit of a circle, but is more likely to stop and slow for you.
This young boy led his horse to a 44 gallon drum, climbed on, and went loping off bareback. Impressive!
What to take
As a first step, ensure you read my what to pack page to cover off general clothes and gear for your trip. Added to this, there are a few specialised items you may want to consider for a Mongolia horse trek:
- A Western saddle and tackle would make a Mongolia horse trek a lot more comfortable. These are obviously very bulky items and would be out of the question for most.
But those on a lengthy, dedicated Mongolia horse trek should seriously consider it.
- Mongolians wear their long, woolen Dels when riding for a reason: it offers an extra layer of padding between the saddle and your backside. Consider buying or loaning one once you're in the country.
- Over time, stirrups can rub away at your shoes and laces. An 8-day Mongolia horse trek I did last year did a fair bit of aesthetic damage to my pair of Merrel low-cut hiking boots by rubbing on the laces and stitching. They still worked after I re-laced them, but looked a lot worse for wear.
If horse riding is going to form a significant part of your Mongolia trip, consider taking some elastic-sided leather boots, such as Australian-made Blundstones or Rossi's. The stirrups won't damage them as there's no stitching up top, and all riders should ideally have a heeled shoes like these so your feet don't slip too far into the stirrups. Importantly, the elastic side is designed to slip off -which ensures you won't get dragged across the steppe by the stirrup if you're unlucky enough to have a bad fall.
These boots can pass for semi-dressy leather shoes if going out at night in cosmopolitan Ulan Bator; they are not adequate for serious hiking, but they have a padded rubber sole so are comfortable enough to walk quite a few kilometres each day. I took a pair on my last trip and wore them far more than I wore my hiking boots.
- Nobody in Mongolia wears riding helmets, so safety's important to you then you should bring your own from home. On my last trip, a girl had a fall; she landed her head on a rock and had to go home. It will attract a fair bit of curiosity from the locals, but it's probably not a bad idea. Me, i usually just do as the Romans do, and ride slowly if the ground's covered in rocks or marmot holes.
Horse riding in the Altai mountains. Our horse guide and pack horse crossing a white, glacial river.
- A friend of mine who goes dirt-biking told me they all wear spandex shorts under their pants to prevent chaffing once their clothes get muddy. These can be invaluable once it starts raining, as wet pants make for really bad saddle rub. I took some on my last horseback ride and was glad I did so. (Please note I advocate wearing spandex under other pants, rather than as external clothing. When in the Altai mountains I saw a Dutchman riding a camel wearing a bright-orange, skin-tight cycling outfit! It was disturbing.).
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People on overnight Mongolia horse treks need a soft bag which can be tied to a pack horse. Most travellers end up simply strapping on their backpacks. Don't take anything you won't need; secure unnecessary items in store room at the ride starting point or, better yet, at your hotel in UB.
- If you're going to take your backpack on the ride, ensure you take a number of strong garbage bags from home. These can pack small and can serve to separate food from your clothes (you don't want sticky sauces or grains leaking into your
bag) and act as a rain cover for your whole backpack if you don't have one in-built.
In my experience, your backpack will suffer a bit of wear and tear on a Mongolia horse trek, and by the end of a decent trip your bag's rain cover will have a few tears in it and won't look the same ever again.
Some might like the look of having a backpack that's aged 10 years in a week: it might give you some 'cred' with the other hipsters, along with your beaded jewelry, tattoos and Thai fisherman pants! As an alternative, empty wheat or grain sacks are available everywhere in Mongolia. On my next Mongolia horse trek I intend to leave the backpack behind and take my belongings in grain sacks lined with garbage bags (preferably 2 or 4, so they counterweight each other), that way I'll be able to keep food and clothes separate, and avoid further damage to my long-suffering backpack.
If you are an advanced rider, make sure you ask your tour operator to convey to the guides that you want a good horse: if you're a confident rider, it can be frustrating to be stuck with some old nag for a week.
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This old horse has seen better days. Note the Russian saddle: a cushion lying across a wood and steel frame.
Organizing a Mongolia Horse Trek can be difficult to do directly unless you're in the country. Most of the Mongolia horse trek operators live in isolated areas and it's difficult to contact them before you arrive (e.g. modern communications in Khatgal and Terelj are disruptive and unreliable at best). Furthermore, many of them don't actually speak English.
In my experience, your best bet if you want to organisze a Mongolia horse trek remotely is to go through a reputable tourist operator in Ulan Bator, or a Kazakh tour operator if you want to go way out West and do your Mongolia horse trek in the spectacular Altai mountains.
A company like Bek Travel
can organize a professional and well-priced tour to Central Mongolia, including (cheaper) group tours as well as custom tours if you want to go with your own group. They also can get you to some more remote areas, such as an all-inclusive 12-day horseback ride to the Reindeer people (Tsataan) in the rugged and remote areas north west of Lake Khovsgol
You can send an inquiry to them using the form below.
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