Introduction by Caroline Baldock
Prue Robinson is an artist and mother of two she started her travels once the children were grown up. Prue travelled to Tibet where she fell in love with the remoteness and grandeur of the landscape. She then became interested in its neighbours and Mongolia was next on the list. She visited Mongolia the following year. Thus began long lasting relationship with this stunning country and the resulting articles on its horses, landscape and people.
She wanted to return to Mongolia, and to be able to enjoy the vast open spaces, not so much as a tourist but with some sort of involvement in mind. Prue looked into ways of incorporating voluntary work with traveling. The organization she found arranged for volunteers to be part of the program set up to reintroduce the Przewalski horses into their natural habitat. As Prue has ridden for most of her life she also took the opportunity, whilst on this sabbatical, to join a group riding domestic horses through the famous Steppe country.
Przewalski Horses by Prue Robinson
In 2005, I spent three weeks as a volunteer at Hustai Nuruu National Park in Mongolia where Przewalski horses (or Takhi or Spirit the Mongolians call them) have been reintroduced to their natural habitat.
Przewalski horses existed across Europe during the Ice Age. Cave paintings found in La Combarelles in the Dordogne show a wild horse of a heavy type with an upright mane very similar to the Przewalski.
They were constantly displaced by man moving further east into Central Asia but due to being hunted and eaten by Turks and Kazakhs the numbers diminished with only a few sightings reported in the 19th century.
Lieutenant Przewalski, with the Russian army, was the first to make an official statement in 1881 and from 1900 some of the horses were taken to Moscow, Germany, New York and Woburn Park – but most died. By the 1960s they were extinct in the wild. Breeding programmes in North America, Holland and Germany help ensure that the rare genetic material has survived and these horses are being seen again in Mongolia. The centre at Hustai was begun with Dutch money around 11 years ago, but it also relies on volunteer’s financial and practical contributions.
Description of the Horses
These horses are small with a heavy head; 12-14 hands and each has unusual markings with stripes on the legs, a dorsal stripe along the backs and a small mane which is erect. They have never been domesticated. The indication is that from many different sources equus has developed many types and breeds of horse and the Przewalski is but one which had not someone noticed them would have died out completely, as have so many other species. They have 66 chromosomes two more than domestic horses.
Our Daily Routine
The routine was to leave the camp at 6am, in the dark, equipped with rucksack, field glasses, thermometer, chart, packed lunch and water.
I would locate ‘my harem’ on lower ground, near to the streams and enjoying the lush grass and I was unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road to begin the day’s work. Each harem would have one stallion, with several mares, foals and juveniles. There was one bachelor harem consisting of around 15 young louts who would tear around (kicking lager cans about and being thorough nuisances) until each was mature enough to set up his own harem, whereupon he would steal a young mare or two from an established harem.
I recorded temperatures from 17 to 28 degrees and the harem would normally travel slowly, grazing or merely standing still, but all the while making for higher ground where it would be cooler as the day progressed and they could rest.
Despite following the same harem, I began at a different point each day and took a new route as the Takhi headed for the craggy heights. Often of course the harem I was following would elude me. They would just take off, for whatever reason, and I would be left galloping and stumbling after them, puffing and panting up steep slopes and over boulders. Space is very deceptive and when I thought that the horses had just disappeared into a small valley with a grassy incline beyond, in fact there would be a series of valleys covering absolutely miles which I couldn’t see until I was upon them!
Sometimes whilst I was ploughing up and down the hills endeavouring to catch up she would suddenly come upon the harem far closer than was comfortable and in fact I was once challenged by a stallion that was a little unnerving! On occasions one harem might encroach into the private space of another harem. I thought they seemed to be pretty good-natured about this – there would be a bit of posturing by the stallions, squealing and biting and halfhearted kicks, but that would be the extent of it.
Mongolia’s vast landscape of valleys, rolling green mountains, huge plains and massive slab rock formations is an awesome setting for the wild horse. They melt into the landscape hardly to be seen, their soft colours blend into the natural vegetation. Their smallness is set against one of the last natural untrammeled wildernesses left to us.
It is fitting that they are now living again in their homeland of the steppes to play out Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory a role they very nearly failed to complete, but hopefully this time they will be protected from the intrusion of man into their natural and stunningly beautiful world.
Copyright © Prue Robinson 2009