If you have a sense of adventure and love interacting with animals, you may want to see Mongolia on horseback.
As an avid rider and animal lover who has always dreamt of racing across the Mongolian steppes, having the opportunity to do a three-day riding camp in Mongolia's Gorkhii Terelj National Park last summer was a childhood dream come true.
I signed up with Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel, that gave me such an exhilarating experience that I have been replaying the scenes from the experience in my head. I will return.
Here are the reasons:
1. Mongolia is one of the best places for riding
Most of the country's varied landscape is made for horse riding. In the north lie hills flushed with larch and pine forests that give off the scent of Christmas in fall.
The Gobi desert has endless stretches of powdery sand while in the far west of the country, you can find the Altai Nuruu mountains which rise up to 4,300m above sea level.
Closer to Ulaanbaatar you will find grasslands, pine forests and green vistas - all in the Gorhkii Terelj which has enough land to cover even for a 10-day riding trip.
2. Experience unbridled freedom while riding
If you are based in Singapore like me, you will know exactly why the feeling of racing across wide expanse of land unconstrained by fences is such a rare and treasured one. There are not that many spaces in the world where you could ride and race for miles without seeing a barrier or fence. Your horse gets to run free for as far as the eye can see, while your heart swells with the joy of feeling the wind in your hair and the frosty Mongolian air and warm sun on your face.
3. Riding in Mongolia is very safe if you use the right operator
While one may feel there's cause for concern when a horse is allowed to run free and unfettered with you on it, I have never felt safer riding at speed in any other places. Though there are a few horse riding operators in Mongolia, Stone Horse is one of the most reputable ones for knowing their horses well and taking good care of them. Husband-and-wife team Keith Swenson and Sabine Schimdt treat their horses with kindness.
During winter, Mongolian horses are usually half starved because of a lack of vegetation in winter. But Keith and Sabine make sure that their horses are still given a good hay ration throughout the bleak months when there's hardly any tourist asking for rides, i.e. no income. Sabine is also a skilled saddle maker who has improvised their saddles such that they are both comfortable and safe for both horse and rider. Stone Horse also knows their horses very well and are able to match the horse's temperament with a rider's ability very accurately, so say yours truly from her personal experience. They make sure their guides are not only adept horsemen but are responsible and take no chances with riders' safety. Hundag, a young man who works as a riding guide with Stone Horse during his university vacations, assessed my riding skills and only allowed me to canter and gallop, when he was assured I was confident enough.
Warm Mongolian hosts and the fiercest yet friendliest ger guard
During my three-day riding camp, we would go back to our base camp on the outskirts of the national park where Mongolian couple Yadmaa and Davansuren who work with Stone Horse to host ger stays, have their summer ger.
One of the kindest couples I have ever met while overseas, they made the effort to understand my painfully translated Mongolian (from Google Translate) and did their best to satisfy the dietary requirements (read: wheat-free) their guest even had though it meant extra work for Davansuren who had to make special food for me as the Mongolians use a lot of wheat flour for noodles, dumpling or bread in their staple diet.
Even their guard dog, Stinky who didn't smell bad despite the name, made sure I felt safe. The Mongolian mastiff-mix stood guard outside my ger every night and only asked to be rewarded with belly rubs and ear scratches. Yadmaa assured me that Stinky is actually fierce when it comes to dealing with strangers and wolves, apparently still a danger to livestock as they would lurk around a ger camp after sunset to catch a stray goat.
It doesn't hurt to travel in a responsible way
The opportunity to travel to a remote destination and to experience freedom from the back of a horse is already a privilege for me. Throw in an opportunity to do good for the environment and the experience becomes even more invaluable.
A member of International Ecotourism Society, Stone Horse is determined to leave little carbon foot print in its trips. Besides working with the local community to preserve the environment, they also put together a Wilderness Conservation itinerary on a yearly basis where they work with authorities in the Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area to improve wilderness conservation and visitor management. Stone Horse's actions speak volumes of their commitment and responsibility towards the environment and enable riders to enjoy the gifts of Mother Nature with a clear conscience.
Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel offers set-date departures for eight to 10 day trips, and also shorter, more flexible riding trips in Gorkhii Terelj National Park where you get to do a ger-stay with a Mongolian family.
Is experience required to ride in Mongolia?
While Swenson stresses that one needs not be a champion rider or very experienced rider, he advises that it'd be better for a complete novice to get some horse experience prior to going on the tour. Besides the fact that one needs to be physically fit, have lots of stamina and be game for the rigours of camping, one needs to be comfortable on a horse - Some complete noobs are not prepared that this animal has a mind of its own and doesn't always do the rider's bidding. When a rider is fearful of his mount, the experience will be testy for both.
The writer's experience was sponsored by Stone Horse Mongolia.