At this point in the trek, I’d been riding this half-wild Mongolian horse for two hours. And for two hours, I’d been fighting his desire, his intense craving, to lunge into an exhilarating gallop, taking me to the edge of what I could do to hang on. A few miles back, myself and the other riders were told to keep our horses at a trot or canter –terms most of us had learned and experienced a only few days ago– and to only allow our horses to gallop once we crossed the ridge just ahead and the trail opened onto a flat grassy plain. There we could go as fast as we dare. And as the leaders of this trek had already discovered, with this horse I wanted very badly to take that dare.
Months previously, I had signed up with National Geographic Adventures for a horse trek across Mongolia. Thomas Kelly, a photographer famous for his images of Asia, and his equally accomplished anthropologist wife Carroll Dunham led the tour. They brought along their teenage sons Liam and Galen and as a family conducted the most satisfying and challenging adventure I would ever take.
Other than a horseback ride on my honeymoon a few decades previously, half-inebriated with Jamaican rum, I hadn’t ridden a horse and, truth be told, I had no desire to do so again. What put the hook in me, however, and brought me here was the romantic desire to be in this place and travel with the descendants of a culture who conquered more of the planet than any group of people before or since. The only thing that stopped the Mongolian army of Genghis Khan and his sons back in the 12th and 13th centuries AD from overwhelming all the peoples of the Earth was the lack of adequate pasturage for their horses. If the Earth was covered in grass back then, our world history would have been entirely different.
When I signed up with Nat Geo, I quickly received an email from the American “Horselady in Charge,” Sarah Lawhorn. I would meet her in Mongolia as she was tasked with ensuring amateur, wannabe adventurers like myself didn’t get trampled, bitten, kicked or fell of a horse. She suggested I get horseback riding lessons, so I did, and that is when I fell in love with horses and riding them. Horses are not dumb animals. Instead they are very intelligent and the smartest ones will intuitively read the rider and compensate for his weaknesses, as my lesson horse Gracie in America did. I learned from Gracie that you weren’t just sitting atop her, but you became part of a new being, an Equus Homo so to speak. I rode her twice a week for three months getting ready for this trip.
Soon after meeting my Mongol horse, I named him Spencer. Mongolians, I found out, don’t name their horses. Ironically, they do name their yaks. Instead horses are referred to by their colors. Well, I couldn’t just call him “brown” but “Spencer” stuck.
Spencer brought me to the ridge and with about every other stride, was briefly testing me with a few steps into a gallop. I pulled on his reins, and did my best to restrain him but after two hours of this effort and because we were almost to the plain, he was on the verge of winning the tug of war.
Finally, we crested the ridge and a large expanse of grey-green grass lay ahead. Spencer was trembling, anticipating the moment I would give him the command to gallop. With just a simple nudge of my boots and he responded immediately. In two strides he was in a gallop and the acceleration was enough to almost peel me off his back. I reached forward to the saddle’s pommel and held on. Soon he settled into a smooth stride and found it is easier to ride a galloping horse than one trotting or cantering.
The length and width of the area was about two miles with a river bordering on the left and mountains on the right. Bisecting it like a dragstrip was a dirt trail. By following this trail, there would be nothing to obstruct us or slow us down. Spencer could give his all and my job was only to hang on. I thought I had this part of the ride comfortably mastered and then I spied Galen ahead sitting on his horse, waiting for me.
I understood immediately from the grin on his face what Galen had planned. He and Sarah knew I loved a thrill but Sarah had warned me to restrain myself, “Don’t get too crazy.” Galen, on the other hand, wanted to see me get that thrill and the teenager in him couldn’t resist. It was obvious his plan was that as I approached he would command his horse to gallop and ride alongside Spencer and me. My horse’s instinct would then be to break into a “competitive gallop.” Sure enough, I approached Galen he let out a yell, booted his horse in the ribs and smacked it with the lead. As Galen’s racing horse met snout to snout with Spencer he detonated beneath me. Instantly he changed from half- to completely-wild horse and the sudden change in speed was almost overwhelming. My hand was clenched around the pummel even harder now with my upper body curled over my fist trying to stay on.
Galen’s horse rushed ahead but Spencer would have none of that. He rocketed forward and passed. Then the other horse bolted ahead again and Spencer responded. Back and forth the two horses challenged the other. The sound of the wind screeching around my helmet, the beating hooves below and my own panting in sync with Spencer’s strides were all I could hear. I distinctly remember thinking to myself: “This is as fast as I ever want to go on horse in the middle of Mongolia.” I was terrified, exhilarated, giddy, and focused on my horse’s movements as I struggled to stay on him. I wanted to stop but then again I wanted to feel this sensation forever, but I didn’t want to fall and break every limb but I thought: “You gotta die of something someday anyway why not here with this horse, die like a man here and now and not in hospice care back in the States years from now a drooling lunatic defecating uncontrollably with family seated nearby praying for a quick death.”
When a horse is galloping like this every second many gallons of air are sucked into its lungs to feed the furnace inside its rib cage and then hot air blasts out its nostrils. Every tissue, cell and chromosome is working to the limits propelling the entire beast forward.
Gallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallopgallop…Spencer felt invincible beneath me as he stayed ahead of Galen’s horse. I felt this could continue for miles and miles when I saw about 50 yards ahead two riders and horses had slowed and stopped. I knew when Spencer glimpsed the others he would decelerate and halt behind them. The most terrifying race of my life would soon end.
I reined in Spencer and as he slowed down he morphed back into a reasonably controllable beast again. The other riders were talking and laughing as we pulled in behind. Galen on his horse appeared alongside to my right. For a few seconds we relaxed, taking a well-deserved rest. The day’s excitement was over and I was safe.
At least for a moment. Directly behind me I heard hoofbeats approaching, except they weren’t slowing down. I turned to my right to look behind and saw three horses galloping in a flying wedge formation, wildly challenging each other, not responding to their rider’s commands to stop. As they approached the lead horse’s rider gradually began to rein in his horse and the others also slowed but it was too late to stop. SMASH! All three horses collided between our horses. Horses and their riders flew sideways like bowling pins. Horses whinnied with eyes wide, snorted and stomped and almost lost balance. Leather saddles groaned and snapped and creaked as they absorbed impacts and shifting loads as rider and horses swayed and staggered. Riders laughed and squealed and laughed again as everyone tried desperately to stay in the saddle.
We had ridden for two hours and ended with a headlong race, survived an intense and comical pileup and no one got hurt. The horses were blowing and trying to cool down, heads weaving and bobbing nervously. One of us noticed the camp, with the white ger mess tent, was just a few hundred yards away near the river. We turned our horses and rode to camp.