The Good Memory of Horses amazes Trail Riders in Mongolia

Fun Jobs in the Outdoors of Mongolia’s National Parks

DSCN2233In my last blog I mentioned that everybody, – guests, our own team and our horses – returned happy and healthy from all the Stone Horse Expeditions in 2013, and with good memories…. Of course there is some speculation as far as the memory of horses is concerned.

They don’t talk about it, and they don’t give reviews on tripadvisor, but it does seem as if they have a genuinely good time most of the time out there – in great meadows of wildflowers, as a herd of 15 – 20 horses, with ample time for grazing allowed during the days and throughout the nights, and with rest days at particularly good spots!

Also, there are always a few spare horses, so there’s a bit of a roster and one or two off-duty horses run along without rider or pack; they travel with the herd, but do their own little side excursions for extra snacks, hanging back a bit or running ahead at their discretion – within reason. And unless these off-duty team mates are very young or new to the herd, they will always move along with the rest of the group with no supervision needed – by a rider or by other horses, like “Ulaanbaatar”, our red packhorse who takes it upon himself to enforce herd unity. So being with these guys (our horses) seems like being with a bunch of boys having a good time on a job in the great outdoors.

 Natural Lifestyle for Horses in Mongolia

Mongolian horses still have a life that is more akin to that of their wild ancestors. While being well accustomed to interaction with humans, they roam free and live in herds – finding good grazing and dealing with predators, seasonal weather and extreme climate events such as snowstorms. Life in a herd for sure is beneficial for their emotional well being and the challenges they face must exercise their mental skills including that of preserving vital information. In such an environment, the memory of horses must be good in order to live the life they do.

As far as their memories are concerned, we have seen many instances of our horses displaying very good recollection over the years.  This is quite obvious when it comes to trails and shortcuts, and most importantly – nice rest stops and camp sites! It may have been years ago that we stopped for lunch at a particular spot, but whenever we pass by there on one of our horseback expeditions, one or more of the horses will turn off the track and head for this place.

 Camp Sites in Horse Heaven in Mongolia

Favorite campsites are of course indelibly marked in our traveling horses’ minds. These are areas like the upper valley of the Dzuun Bayn Gol River in Terelj National Park – big open areas to see potential predators from afar, with high grass and a great variety of wild forage plants, with exposure to a nice breeze to keep insects at bay, with trees to rub on and stand under at mid-day, and with little creeks running through the meadows. After returning from the back country of the Khan Khentie wilderness and having carried riders and packs over the high pass below Altan Ulgii Mountain arriving at these meadows is for them a horse heaven. They will never forget it and tend to make a beeline for it when we come out of the upper valley from the pass.

 Horse Sense to Find Water on Trail Rides in Mongolia

DSCN1252Many years ago, when we were traversing the pass in hot summer weather, we found a little pond with water a little off the trail in the pine forest. The horses had a good drink from it before we continued down the other side. When coming over the pass this year, I waited – and sure enough, my horse, Good Boy, turns off the track and checks this little watering hole. Unfortunately, there was no water in it. The last couple of days had been cold and the ground was already frozen on the pass, so surface water was not replenishing the little pond.

Of course horses have a keen sense of smell to detect water. I have witnessed this when on a summer day trip and my horse suddenly HAD to get off the trail and turn into thick brush – to get a drink from a very small swampy spot amongst the bushes where we had never stopped before. That time, he had smelled the water, but up on the pass, he finds that little water hole from memory every time, even if it is empty. There are other such sites along the trails we ride too, small puddles that are often filled with water and he will always check these when we come by there.

The Navigation Skills of Experienced Expedition Horses in Mongolia

Speaking of the high pass crossing, another incident comes to my mind. Many summers ago, we were making our way across a big valley to enter the side valley where a track leads to this pass. This is in wild country and there are several valleys below the pass that look similar, their bottoms filled with dense elder brush that transitions to larch and pine forest on the mountain sides. We were traversing thick brush and we stopped for a moment to determine which valley to head for and getting a map out to do so. While we were pondering the route, our pack horse, Fish, who had been in the rear, comes walking past us and heads straight and very determined for one of the valleys. We put the map away figuring he knew where he was going. He was spot on and lead the way with great confidence.

“Fish” is named after his brand that resembles a fish symbol. He had been with us on the early explorations when we found many of the routes we ride today on our Stone Horse Expeditions including that one over the pass. And he knew which way to go, no map needed! This small horse is a real multi-talent, a seasoned traveler and medicine horse too. He was my saddle horse in our early years in Mongolia when we explored the park areas of Gorkhi Terelj and the Khan Khentii.

On other trips he would want to head for the shortest route home, over a high pass, instead of following the more scenic route we usually take home. He seems to have all the passes memorized and knows how to get home fast!

This great horse served as trail horse for young and inexperienced riders, giving them confidence and sometimes making lasting changes to his rider’s outlook on life. He’s survived three wolf attacks, some of which he probably suffered because he does like to snooze.. He is semi-retired now, and enjoys special privileges in the Darkhid Valley, such as advanced access to hay in winter.

Around the Darkhid valley area, where the Stone Horse Expedition herd is at home and from where our riding tours leave, there are some places where my horse gets pretty tense, every time we ride past it, all these years. And I think that he has some bad memories, such as an encounter with a predator, or some other scare.

Horse-Ideas of Equine Tourism – Horses Going on a Trip..

On our tours in the Gorkhi Terelj National Park and the Khan Khentie Mountains in Mongolia we witness daily how our horses act on their good memories. This year, when we stopped with guests at a monument among picturesque rock formations in the park where a MIG fighter jet crashed in the 1980ies, our packhorses decided to go ahead and make their way down the valley on their own. And surely, they were on their way towards the next campsite, down at the Tuul River. We wouldn’t let them get too far ahead though, as they may head for home…

One early morning this year, from a campsite below the high pass, part of the horse team decided just that. While the pack horses were being prepared, the rest of the team took the opportunity to go off for a drink at the creek. While there, with none of us watching them, they got in their mind to head up the trail towards the pass without us. Amazing how fast they can go with hobbles on! But one lost hobble gave them away and we caught up with the keen expeditioners before they started their ascent. I cannot prove this, but I imagine they had that nice big meadow campsite on the other side of the pass, in the great grasslands of Gorkhi Terelj National Park, in mind when they set out.

The good memories of horses can also cause some unwanted extra efforts on our side. This year, two new arrivals to the Stone Horse herd decided to head for their former home while many of their new team mates were out on an expedition. The Mongolian herder who is entrusted with keeping our horses in the valley, tracked them down soon and delivered them back to the Darkhid valley.

Natural Lifestyle in Mongolia Makes Great Trail Horses

DSCN2268Of course it should not be a surprise – why would horses, and other animals, not have an excellent memory?  Horses evolved over millions of years and in the wild where remembering locations, weather, other creatures and their habits, and many plant species is a prerequisite for survival, on the short term individually and long term as a species. Our guests often do comment on how easygoing and responsive our horses are, and are surprised about the capacity and resourcefulness of these horses, be they pack or saddle horses, while on their jobs on the trail. Living in a herd and having a lifestyle more like the natural horse life, keeps their bodies and minds active and fit it seems.

To spend time with horses, and to get to know your horse and watch him in his element, the grasslands and forest steppes of Mongolia, book a trip with Stone Horse Expeditions

Stone Horse Expedition horse riding tours are great experiences in eco tourism

See videos of  2013 Riding Adventures – “Autumn Riding in Mongolia”“Horse Trek in the Gorkhi Terelj National Park”

and  “Deep Wilderness Expedition into the Khan Khentii Mountains”

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