After surviving an unexpected early morning meeting with a yak, it was time to head out on our second day of horse riding in Central Mongolia.
Everything started out the same as the day before – the landscape was flat and the pace moderately slow. Just as I started easing in to the day's ride, we came to the edge of a mountain side. “Now we go up,” our guide said. “What?! We're going up there?!” “Control your horse,” she replied.
This wasn't a clear mountain but completely forested. Suddenly we started through some of the most difficult riding conditions we could have imagined and, what's more, we were at the mercy of our four-legged friends. I have this thing about not having full control over my feet – things like skiing and ice skating where my feet are being moved by something other than just my own two feet have always made me nervous. I think that's also connected to why I'm scared of heights, it's something about not feeling like my feet are firmly on the ground. Now my feet were these four hooves.
It was suddenly clear that the more relaxed riding of yesterday was over. Whereas before the horses could move about basically as they pleased – next to each other, one after the other, close, at a bit of a distance – it didn't matter as long as we were generally together and heading the same direction, now precision was everything.
One of the horse guides led the way. “The way” was a very narrow concept and it didn't necessarily mean a path that was clear, just the better way of all the others. It was full of obstructions – fallen trees, branches and exposed roots. It was steep and the horses weren't immune to slipping or needing assistance to make the next step up. It then became clear why the guide had said, apart from the obvious control issue, “Never let go of the reins. They will help the horse up.”
Things started out relatively mildly. While it's not exactly a relaxing thing being at such angles on the back of a moving animal, once you've done it enough times you kind of learn just to roll with it. But then things got crazy fast. The horses didn't necessarily want to follow this “way” and no amount of pulling with the reins seemed to make any difference. “Control your horse!” we heard the guide yelling from the rear. “We're trying, believe me!” We had received no instruction on how this “control” was meant to be carried out. I wanted it to go left, so I tried pulling the reins to the left. Nothing. Go your own way. I wanted it to go right, so I pulled the reins to the right. Nothing. Just go your own way, why don't you!
It all started to get dicey from there. I don't know how many branches we brushed passed. Thank goodness we were wearing long everything and gloves. I can't imagine how cut up we would have been otherwise.
It was then that my horse decided it wanted to go a different way round. I pulled at the reins trying to stop it, I told him not to, but nothing, NOTHING, was stopping this horse. My commands were laughable against its will. Unfortunately, the best way in the horse's eyes, is not always the best way for its rider. The horse cleared the tree branch, but there was no way I could. Don't forget about me up here!
Suddenly I was pressed against the tree branch. And when I say branch here, I mean a sizeable branch, it wasn't budging like the other ones that could be broken on the way through or were flexible enough to just grin and bear as you pushed through them. I was stuck. Really stuck. And the horse wanted to keep pushing forward. My feet had become wedged in the stirrups at an angle. With the branch across my chest, all I could do was hold on to the branch and push at it while simultaneously trying to scramble for some control with the reins. Oh man, I'm going to be fall. I'm going to fall. Maybe the reason the yak didn't kill me this morning was because I was supposed to die by horse up on this mountain.
Hanging there with mounting pressure on my chest, Papa horse guide heard my distressed calls and came to my aid. The horse was stubborn but he whipped it into retreating a couple of steps, before it surged forward again, luckily this time not right by the thick trunk but further along the branch where it started thinning out. I crouched my head down to brace myself for what was about to happen. The sound of the branch eventually snapping was the best sound I could have possibly heard at that time. I was free.
I may have been released from the tree, but now I was nervous as all hell. Every time the horse veered even slightly on a different path the panic rose in me. Finally the thickest of the muddy obstacle course cleared and we were starting to descend down the other side. Only my horse didn't like the constant pressure on its legs as it slipped a little at each step. I couldn't blame him really. He didn't like this anymore than I, and I wasn't having to bear the full strain of this physical exertion.
Despite the path going down, he started ascending the mountain solo, a very rocky section with a ways to fall. “No, no, no!” I told him as I tried to hold him back with the reins once more. The horse couldn't go back now. Other than continuing to go up and getting myself in an even more precarious situation, the only way was to get the horse to descend back to the path, right here, straight down. My heart was racing, but the alternative was worse. I steered him down and gave him a tap with my foot. I closed my eyes. This animal was seriously going to give me heart failure. Moments later, as we rejoined the path, I could breathe again. Now just to keep him there.
The biggest trees had cleared and we approached large areas of tightly-packed brittle bushes, up to rider chest height. Despite the horses in front following the path, my horse suddenly used all its force to go cross-country, straight through all these bushes that whipped around my legs and middle. “No, no, no, no, no!” I yelled, increasingly agitated. There was no point, and unfortunately the horses behind followed my horse's bad example. It was then that I settled on a name for my horse. We had been talking about it and a couple had already been named, but nothing had quite seemed right for mine yet. “Go Your Own Way.” That's your name, I thought.
The rest of the ride was over huge areas of rocks and a few rivers. It wasn't easy riding as the horses found it difficult to find their footing, but it went by basically without incident. After the mountain, we picked up the pace, and trotted most of the way to the next camp, a ger by one of the Eight Lakes. I was glad to get off the horse, and I felt the feeling my mutual. He was exhausted.
We rested for an hour or two in our ger and contemplated how on earth we were going to get through more riding. Two days on a horse wasn't exactly comfortable and our bodies were starting to feel it.
After lunch, which these days was a 4 o'clock affair, we were back on the horses to explore some of the other lakes. I was nervous. I didn't want to get back on the horse. But I also wanted to push through and conquer what I set out here to do. Go My Own Way didn't want to leave camp. The horse guides had given me a small hand whip to help get him going. He moved a little and then promptly turned around and started heading back up the hill to camp. He hated me taking him on this second outing.
The horse guide came back and grabbed a hold of the rope that was tucked under my saddle to start leading him the right direction. It was a struggle the whole way. Without being led by a trotting horse, he wouldn't budge. It was like parents waving goodbye to their child mid-tantrum at the shopping mall in an effort to get the kid to finally leave the slide they've been playing on for an hour, only to have to come back moments later when they really don't follow. So in order to keep moving, my horse was pulled along by the guide the whole way. It became more like a pony ride at the fair only faster. Being led, I didn't have to think about steering, just trying to lessen the pain of trotting by standing in the stirrups. And I was glad for it. I was mentally exhausted from trying to control the horse on the mountain side.
When we got back, another group had taken over our ger and relegated our bags to the guides' accommodation. Despite sleeping on the floor, that night was really a blessing because we were able to spend more time with the guides. We played cards and chatted, and the horse guides enjoyed looking through fashion magazines our French tour mates had brought along – picking out the leather boots and belts they thought would be great for horse riding.
It had been a long day. We were about to go into day three of riding – and there was still halfway to go. Things were going to change, they had to.