Grey is pretty much it for the color scheme: bare rocks, pooled water, soggy towel sky. It looks like someone dropped a washed-out photo filter over the landscape. Maybe that’s why I feel so out-of-body, like I’m watching someone else careen through the swamp.
My horse sloshes through water up to its knees, sliding, stumbling, clambering over sunken rocks. Taking these hurdles into account she’s moving like a bat out of hell toward the distant horizon.
“Wow, Erin, you’re really hauling!” a friend calls from behind.
I grasp the reins with blood-streaked hands and don’t reply; there isn’t time. Anyway, the only things that comes to mind sounds too corny to be taken seriously: “Help! I don’t know how to stop!”
This is the place in an essay to bridge into the theme, ideally something uplifting about how life carries you off to unexpected places. In fact, this is a parable of stupidity. Because what kind of idiot takes a horse into the remote Mongolian wilderness without knowing how to ride?
When I bring this up to Saraa she just blinks, waiting for the punchline. Telling a Mongolian you can’t ride a horse is like admitting you’re hit-and-miss at walking. In the countryside, Mongolian children master both skills at roughly the same time. They learn by experience; the stronger their legs get, the less they fall.
Saraa, our fixer, doesn’t think inexperience is a compelling reason not to take an extended riding trek through the largely-uninhabited taiga forests. We’re talking logistics in her plywood guesthouse in the town of Mörön—an apt name, given our intentions.
“It’s no problem,” she insists. “Just ride a reindeer instead. They’re very namuukhan.”
Namuukhan (намуухан) is Mongolian for calm or peaceful. According to Saraa, reindeer never throw their riders. Sure, you might fall off: they’re a bit slippery, and the saddles don’t stay on very well. But it’s no big deal—she’s tumbled off reindeer heaps of times.
“You have emergency evacuation insurance, right?” she asks just after we’ve struck the deal. I start worrying again.
Two days later we arrive at the edge of forest to find our guide waiting with the animals. Reindeer, it turns out, are primarily pack animals. We’ve overpacked, so there aren’t any left to ride. Like it or not, I’ll be on a horse.
Enkhe waives me over to a short, study animal. It is chocolate brown with a fudgy coat of mud around the legs. He gestures toward the saddle.
“Namuukhan?” I ask through feverish panic.
“Namuukhan, namuukhan,” laughs Enkhe, waiving me on.
I hoist myself up gingerly, remembering the last time I was on horseback. I’ve read that Mongolians don’t name their horses (true? I forgot to ask) so I hastily christen mine Dervla, the most intrepid name I know. That Dervla is clearly male is irrelevant. “Good girl,” I whisper soothingly.
Enkhe doesn’t offer any instructions—after all, who the heck would come all the way out here without knowing how to ride? As soon as everyone is mounted he turns his horse into the woods without a backwards glance.
The trail is a thread of mud and rainwater, and the horses are forced to walk single file. I am hugely relieved; there is nowhere to go but straight ahead, and Enkhe isn’t in a hurry.
Dervla turns out to be a natural follower. She walks with her nose nuzzling the butt of the horse in front of us. She clearly has separation issues—anytime we lag behind she breaks into a fretful jog, deaf to my commands until she’s caught back up.
Another traveler has drawn the trouble horse. It sidles off the trail, dragging her along the underside of tree branches. It jumps every dip and puddle in the path, and halfway up the mountains it rears to shake her off.
I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet until somehow I end up directly behind her.
Dervla immediately begins to copycat every stumble, leap, and detour. This antagonizes the demon horse further, and Enkhe shoulders back along the line to help. I take the opportunity to slide ahead so Dervla can tail a polite horse instead.
“Good girl,” I murmur again, reassuring no one but myself.
Over the following days, each of my fellow riders is struck by mishap. One is smashed against tree trunks by his vengeful horse. Others take falls into icy swamp water. By the last day I am the only one left unscathed. My stomach is leaden as we saddle up for the ride back: I’m certain it’s my turn for catastrophe.
It’s a short half hour up the thickly wooded mountains that surround Enkhe’s campsite. Then the landscape opens into bog. There is no trail, no indication which way to go; I am keenly aware that without Enkhe’s guidance I’d be permanently lost.
We hear the river first. It lies across the swamp like a spill, moving surprisingly fast through the already saturated landscape. Dervla hesitates, then plunges into the swirling water. It slashes cold against my skin, my heart is jackhammering. I twist my hands in the reins and grasp the rusty metal ring at the front of the saddle.
Halfway through Dervla stops. Her head jerks forward, scrapping my palm against the unfiled saddle ring. Immediately my hand fills with blood. Biting down a yelp I urge Dervla forward.
“Let her drink,” admonishes Enkhe, and I wait shivering at the middle of the river, squeezing my jacket cuff against my hand.
Back on land, I dare to look. I’ve torn soft skin below my right thumb. It’s pouring blood, but the cut itself doesn’t seem too bad. There is even a layer of skin left—admittedly not one that’s meant to get fresh air. It’s difficult to hold the reins, but all things considered I’ve lucked out. Destiny has been fulfilled, and I didn’t even have to fall off my horse. I exhale for the first time in hours.
Dervla and I realize in the same moment that we’re at the front of the group. There’s nothing ahead but swamp stretching off toward a distant bristle of forest. Dervla looks around, shakes her matted mane, as the idea begins to coalesce in her brain—she’s got to catch up to the next horse.
Now this is where the story should circle back to the larger narrative theme. It’s also a good spot for some cultural information—perhaps an interesting tidbit about Mongolia that adds depth to the story. Like that there is no command in the Mongolian language to slow or stop a horse.
I already know this. For all the lead up, I’m not a complete idiot. Since I couldn’t find riding lessons in Ulaanbaatar, I prepped this trip with theoretical research. What I learned is that Mongolian riders—the best horsemen in the world—are essentially driving without brakes.
The closest thing I ever got to an explanation came from an American trekking guide who’d worked in Mongolia for years.
“So to make a horse go faster you say tchoo.” I began.
“That’s right,” he agreed.
“But what do you say to make it stop?”
“Why would you want to?”
So when Dervla takes off I know there is nothing I can say to stop this horse. I’ve thought through this situation—thought about it a lot, actually. This is pretty much my worst-case scenario. But my brain short-circuits, and I call out stupidly, “Whoa, Dervla, whoooooa, girrrrrrrl.”
Slowly, slowly, I pull back the reins, sinking my weight into it. I’m almost as terrified of tripping this horse as I am losing control of her.
Enkhe’s brother, who’s been riding near the front, veers toward us. His horse pulls alongside, and just like that Dervla relaxes. She returns to a sloshy walk, snuggling against the other horse for emotional support. I know exactly how she feels.
As soon as we’re past the swamp I dismount, shaking and smeared with blood. If Dervla wants to follow something, fine. She can follow me. I don’t belong on horseback anyway.
But Enkhe’s brother cuts me off, laughing at my white-knuckled grip on the reins. He blocks the path and gestures toward my saddle.
I lack the Mongolian to adequately express the complexity of my feelings. “Dorgui,” I finally say. Don’t like.
He chuckles and takes the reins, holding Dervla steady.
And that's the closest I get to a Mongolian riding lesson: get up. Learn by experience. The stronger your legs get, the less you’ll fall.
I get back on the horse and ride the rest of the way out.
Back in Mörön we find an anxious Saraa scanning the clouds. The news came in by satellite phone: a rider has fallen from her horse and broken her shoulder. The emergency helicopter can’t evacuate her until the weather clears. Until then, she’s stuck in a tent in the wilderness.
This more than anything drives it home. I am an idiot. But today, at least, I am a lucky idiot.
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