Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

30 January 2014

Year of the Horse

Many of you may realise that it is Chinese New Year – the Year of the Horse. It is also the Lunar New Year for Mongolians, known as Tsaagan Sar. So it seemed appropriate for today’s blog to include images of horses that make up part of the Mongolian photographic archive EAP264.

For a nomadic culture, the horse is of paramount importance and it is very hard when thinking of Mongolia, not to visualise herdsmen riding across the Steppes on their sturdy steeds. The rider being almost motionless as the horse travels at great speed.

A Mongolian on horseback with his cattle and the vast sweeping steppe  in the distance.
EAP264/1/8/6/18 A young herdsman tending a herd of cattle on a pasture (location unknown) [1940s]

The only truly wild horse (known as the Przewalski or Takhi breed) can be found in Mongolia and is known for having short legs and averages 13 hands in height.

Four wild horses graze on the grassland steppes.EAP264/1/7/9/62 Takhi - a wild horse grazing on a plain [1930s]

There have also been attempts to rear cross-breeds and the photographs below show what magnificent animals they can be.

Mongolian holds the reins of a horse that is in profile. The horses coat looks like velvet.
EAP264/1/8/6/134 A horse farm raising cross-breed horses, Ulaanbaatar [1930s]

A man holds the reins of a much taller horse.
EAP264/1/8/6/135 A horse farm raising cross-breed horses, Ulaanbaatar [1930s]

The horse is an essential part of the traditional economy for herders. Not only is it the main form of transport (though now often replaced by motorbikes) but it also provides important produce.

A man holds the foal as his wife milks the mare
EAP264/1/8/6/69 A herdsman helping his wife in milking a mare (location unknown) [1940s]

During the summer and autumn months, mares’ milk is fermented to produce the slightly alcoholic drink ‘airag’ - a very popular and refreshing seasonal beverage. It holds a special place in society and is regularly passed around during gatherings, often when songs about horses are sung. It is extremely impolite to refuse a sip of it when offered.

Horse-racing is one of the most popular competitive sports and it is often done during the summer Naadam festivities. The jockeys are boys and girls aged about 8-11, and the distances they cover depends on the age of the horse. Two year old horses will race about 15km while six and seven year olds will race up to 30km.

Young boys on horseback
EAP264/1/3/4/98 A jockey boy-a winning rider near the grandstand in the Naadam field at Yarmag [1951]

It is gruelling for both the horses and the jockeys. The winning jockey is named ‘leader of ten thousand’ (tümmy ekh) and they are offered a bowl of airag, often also sprinkled on the jockey and horse as an act of good luck. For the horse that comes last in the two year old category all is not lost as it has a song sung to it.

Young boy on horseback drinks from a large ceramic bowl presented by an old man.
EAP264/1/3/2/8 The winner-jockey boy tastes airag-fermented mare’s milk at the Naadam festivities [1950]

The horse is the most revered out of all herded animals. This can be seen in the traditional game ‘shagai’ which uses four sheep ankle bones a bit like dice. The way the bones land represents either a camel, goat, sheep or horse.  If the bone lands with the concave sides showing, it represents either a goat or camel and is considered unlucky, if it settles on a convex side it represents a sheep or horse and they are deemed lucky. And of course if you toss ‘four horses’ you will have the best luck of all.

EAP would like to wish you all good fortune during this Year of the Horse.


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