How to Ride in Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan
Elise and Léopoldine Desprez
French Long Riders Elise and Léopoldine Desprez set off in June, 2019 from the Tash-Rabat caravanserai in the region of At-Bashi in Kyrgyzstan. Their 1,600 kilometre (1,000 miles) trip ended in Eastern Kazakhstan, at the village of Tapalovka, close to Lepsy. They used three Kyrgyz horses, Victor, Ti Bouchon and Monie.
In the message which accompanied this special report, they wrote, “The achievements made by the various Long Riders are positively tremendous and so inspiring in various ways: their view of the world and the respect they all share towards its people and the animals that accompany them in their journeys; their vision of what it means to be travelling with horses and to be crossing lands at a slow and respectful pace, and so on. We would feel privileged and honored to be part of the Long Riders’ Guild. It would be our pleasure if we can ourselves contribute to the Guild by helping other horse travelers.”
Finding Your Horses
Criteria of choice:
Being two persons, our goal is to buy 3 horses: 2 riding horses and 1 pack-horse.
Our preference lies towards geldings and, given the choice, we try to avoid buying mares or stallions. There are a lot of free horses’ herds in Central Asia, and it would be too much of a fighting risk with the stallions guarding their mares.
We wish to acquire horses that have been bred and raised in high altitudes, making them more adequate and tougher for the mountain areas and high passes where our itinerary will take us.
We especially look for pacers (trotters). This special trot is much more comfortable for the riders, allows the horses to cover longer distances without tiring and is particularly good for a pack-horse to limit the risks of friction injuries with the packs.
Buying the horses:
It is possible to buy horses on the animal bazaars usually held once a week in the major cities. The best horses are sold after the grazing season though, in autumn.
Tokmok bazaar (close to the Kazakh border, east of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital): the animal market is held every Sunday and all the “good deals” are made very early in the morning, before 7 AM. Most of the horses there are tall, crossed with part draft horses and Russian breeds and are destined for meat for the Kazakh market.
At-Bashy bazaar (southern Kyrgyzstan, close to the city of Naryn): smaller market than the one in Tokmok but horses there are bred and raised in the surrounding mountains. They are mostly of the Kyrgyz breed: smaller (between 1,40 m and 1,50 meters tall), more used and adapted to high altitudes, very hardy and used to cover long distances.
Papers and formalities:
It is easier to go to the animal market with a local to help with the negotiations, the translation and the payment.
Horses are bought on the spot and paid for in cash. It is therefore important to plan for the withdrawal of enough cash.
The seller gives the buyer the buying proof (“spravska”) and the veterinarian papers with the shots to date. The local vet then needs to approve this paper and the local police to approve the “spravska”, making the buyer the new official owner of the horse.
In our case, and since we were planning to cross the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border with the horses, we worked with the national veterinarian agency to write an approval letter of border crossing that was sent by them to their Kazakhs counterparts.
The price of the horses is established based on the amount of meat on a horse: the taller and the fatter the horse is, the more expensive it is.
760 Euros: gelding, pacer, 7 years, 1.45 m, bought at the At-Bashy bazaar.
1100 Euros: gelding, pacer, 6 years old, 1.55 m, past experience of treks with tourists, born and bred in a private herd in the mountain. Bought directly to from an indvidual.
1000 Euros: gelding, 6 years old, 1.55 m, same herd and same seller.
Planning Your Route
We followed the advice of the locals to find our way through the technical paths or complicated passes but also to find the areas where the grass will be sufficient in quantity and quality to feed the 3 horses and where there would be plenty of water.
Maps: topographical maps bought in Bishkek for Kyrgyzstan. We did not find any maps for Kazakhstan however.
View ranger: used as a navigation application from topographical maps, available for most of the countries worldwide and even comes sometimes with registered planned itineraries.
2gis: used for navigation in cities of the former USSR countries, in particular for public transport networks or public buses.
Soviet military maps: used as a navigation application from topographical maps. This is the app we mostly used in Kazakhstan. The paths, roads and villages are out of date, but the topographical markers are extremely precise.
Itinerary / constraints:
The objective was to cross the border at Keygen/ Karkara, in the eastern part of the country. We therefore followed a general direction towards the east from our starting point in Tash Rabat.
We followed the high-altitude valleys where there was enough grass and water for the horses, we stayed high in the mountains (average of 3200m altitude).
We avoided cities or areas that were too populated or even agricultural plains for safety reasons and to make sure that we had enough grass resources for the 3 horses. Most of the lower valleys grass is saved for hay cutting in summer so it is a bit more complicated to let the horses graze in these areas.
The country is larger and drier; we started by following the mountain range heading straight west, and then we headed north, towards our goal which was the Altai region.
We remained in the mountains in the east of the country, close to the Chinese border. In this area, we faced quite a large number of documentary or identity checks because the border area is a strategic point. Even though time- and patience-consuming, these checks always ended well. Our papers were all in orders.
The 1-month Kazakh visa required us to regularly return to make the 3-day drive to cross the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border to be able to renew our visa.
The grass and water resources remained sufficient to feed the 3 horses. We only needed once to use a truck to cover 200 km of particularly deserted land.
Kyrgyzstan – June / July:
We decided to stay mainly at high altitudes. It was very cold at night, with temperatures below 0 and some snow and hail storms. The days were milder but with many thunderstorms in June and early July.
When we reached the bottom of the valleys, on the outskirts of the big lake of Issyk-Kul, the climate became more temperate, warm in the day and mild at night.
Kazakhstan – August to October:
Overall, dry climate in this area of Central Asia and rain is not a big deal.
In August we were at lower altitudes than in Kyrgyzstan, it was hot to very hot during the day and the nights were mild. It was more difficult to find water as we moved away from the mountains and glaciers. The climate was generally very dry with a less abundant grass resource.
In September the days remained mild, especially in the valleys. We had our first few days of snow in the mountains and the nights were cold.
In October it was mild to cool during the day. However, it was very cold at night with frost as soon as the sun went down at around 7 p.m.
Gear & Tack
It is fairly easy to find gear and tack directly in the bazaar in Kyrgyzstan. That is not the case in Kazakhstan though. For example, when it is easy to replace missing ropes, horse shoes and such in small villages or directly from the shepherds in Kyrgyzstan, it was impossible in Kazakhstan.
It is possible to find people to sew, adjust, or mend the tack in the bazaars once in the country.
Bought on spot:
saddles, bridles, girths (made from cars seat-belts picked up at a cars bazaar - two on each horse - perfect for avoiding frictions), breast collars (only used on the pack horse), cruppers, double felted pads, halters, leading ropes
3 rounds of 15 m of ropes for tying them during the night (10 m of strong but thin rope (climbing type) + 5 m of thicker rope closer to them where they are more susceptible to step on it and break it)
hobbles and rings to limit the torsion of the rope as the horse graze around it
horseshoes and shoeing nails
Bought in France:
hoof pick and mini brush
pack gear: double big saddlebags and top H pack
2 horn bags
2 saddle bags
Blacksmith tools: hammer, shoe puller, a flat knife and a big hunting knife that was, after all, the most effective with the hammer to cut the extra.
2 pliable buckets
Human gear and equipment
Large waterproof compression pouches, waterproof bags and Ziploc
Clothing (per person):
Warm hat, cap, scarf, gloves, sunglasses and hood
1 short sleeve t-shirt and 1 long sleeve merino t-shirt, 1 long sleeve shirt
Down jacket, fleece jacket and equestrian rain cape (extended protection to saddlebags)
1 hiking pants and 1 pair of leggings
1 pair of high hiking shoes, 1 pair of trail sneakers, 1 pair of flip-flops
Sleeping bag, silk sheet, survival blanket and camping mattress
Tent, string, tarp, camping lamp and headlamp
Wood stove, set cooking, 1 2-litre pan, 1 multifunction knife, 1 tea ball
1 filter bottle, 1 4- litre folding jug
1 freeze-dried meal and 2 energy bars (=> emergency rations only)
Marseille soap and antibacterial soap
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Nail scissors, tweezers, ear and hair brush
Microfibre towel, moon cup, toilet paper
Essential oils, almond oil, shea butter, tiger balm, spirulina, sunscreen and after-sun lotion
Pharmacy Kit and Emergency Suture Kit
1 mobile phone with dual SIM card for local SIM card, SD card, USB key, headphones
Solar charger and external battery
Accessories and official papers
Notebook, pen, pack of cards and dictionary
Lighter and sewing kit
Digit-code padlock, belt to hide the cash, international payment card
Tear gas bomb
Passport, photo ID, international vaccination certificate, insurance
Topographical maps, binoculars, compass
This is the most worrisome problem for someone who is not used to shoeing himself.
Even if these horses from the mountains are not usually shod when they stay on the pasture and even if they have overall very good feet and hard hoofs, the many stones and the very dry terrain makes the horse shoes almost mandatory. However, managing to find good quality horse shoes, nails and people to actually shoe them properly with the appropriate way of cutting horn prior to the shoeing is quite complicated.
To cut the horn, we managed to do it ourselves with a good knife and a hammer. If the horse shoes were too worn, we would remove them and let the horses walk a few days barefoot to “use” the horn. Then we had to either find a shepherd to shoe them again or do it ourselves. We would always carry with us a spare set of horse shoes and nails for each of the three horses.
The horses were rubbed at the withers only towards the end of our trip, because of a saddle not properly placed on their back once. One day of inattention was enough to create wounds that were extremely hard to heal. We treated them with shea butter and very effective anti-bedsore plasters for humans. We then cut wool felt into the shape of their withers to limit friction until the wounds closed.
One of our horses also had an abscess on his foot. We made him a clay plaster to make it ripen and then cleaned it with Marseille soap. In addition, we injected him with intramuscular penicillin for five days. Penicillin can be found in any small village store.
Two of the three horses had an episode of very strong fever and were down for a few days, probably due to piroplasmosis. We gave them penicillin for five days intramuscularly. This was hard on them and since it was towards October and the grass, because of the snow and frost, had lost most of its nutritional value, they did not completely recover from the disease. This is also what sped up the end of our trip mid-October: the horses needed rest.
The bivouacs along the rivers often cause the horses to graze in areas more likely to be infested with intestinal parasites: we have de-wormed the horses twice with de-worming that we had bought from local veterinarians. It did them very good each time.
Learn from the Locals
To tie the horses:
Tie the hind knots to the forelegs of the horses at night with flat ropes so as not to hurt them.
Use strong pegs and about 15 metres of rope. First five metres should be of solid rope in case the horses walk on it and then ten metres of softer rope.
To prevent colic and hypothermia:
Never let the horses drink during the day when we are crossing rivers: the water of the glaciers is too cold and may make them sick because of the temperature difference between it and their body during the effort of the day. Always let them cool off first.
At lunch break: we left the horses saddled so that they did not catch cold; we only loosened the girths. We removed the bridles to let them eat but did not make them drink until the very end of the break time, just before leaving.
At the end of the day: we tied the horses without being able to eat, saddled but with the girth loosened so they could cool off for at least 2 hours. Only after that period of time, we removed the saddles and the bridles that hindered them and let them eat. We only watered at the very last moment of the day, just before night and first thing in the morning.
To feed them:
Optimizing the grass intake: we moved the tethering picket as often as possible so that the horses ate as much good and fresh grass as possible.
We moved them first thing in the morning at 5 AM so they would wake up and go back to eating until the bivouac is undone and we would be ready to leave.
We tethered them only in places where they could not wrap themselves around rocks, bushes or tree trunks; this would limit their time to graze during the night and they need every precious hour. Or else, we would wake up in the night to untangle them.
To find the equipment for the horses and get to know the country better:
Tips from locals to know where to find the material, which type is most suitable for local morphologies and uses.
Our horses did run away from us quite a few times, especially at the beginning when the caravan was not yet welded; the locals who know their territory were very helpful in helping us to find them back.
Locals also introduced us to their way of living and traditions. This introduction helped us to better communicate with shepherds and mingle with them along our route.
We have always managed to feed our horses only on grass. It grows in abundance in Kyrgyzstan, a little less in Kazakhstan. So, we made our riding days shorter in Kazakhstan to allow them more time to graze.
No problem to find water in Kyrgyzstan with the many rivers that flow from the glaciers, a little drier in Kazakhstan at some places. We always managed to find some water once a day.
We had the opportunity to restock regularly in the markets or in small shops in the villages.
Our pack horse allowed us to have an autonomy of 15 days - 3 weeks (2 pack bags and rations for 2 women)
Our food was mainly based on dry foods (rice, lentils, polenta, pasta) that we could cook with wood fire, seeds and dried fruits that we could nibble during the day (squash seeds, figs, dried apricots, almonds, etc. ) and fresh vegetables and fruits that could be stored, or at least which could make a nice change for the first couple of days after “shopping” (potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers).
We could occasionally buy fresh bread, meat, kumis and eggs from shepherds in yurts. Most of the time and thanks to their amazing sense of hospitality that was offered to us.
No problem to drink water from rivers with our filter bottles or without, no need to use water disinfection tablets
In general, we had no problem travelling while being only 2 single women in Kyrgyzstan and then with a larger group (up to 5 people) with a man in Kazakhstan.
It’s mostly families that go up in the mountains during summer. A herd of mares near the yurts was often the reassuring sign of the presence of a woman inside.
We did not have any specific issue to communicate only with our knowledge of Kyrgyz and Russian
Unlike Kyrgyzstan, the shepherds go up in the mountains without their wives and families during summer.
We did not have any particular problem as the caravan was bigger at that time and 1 male team-mate had joined us.
We set up a preventive fire to keep bears away.
We did not encounter any problem with wild animals, only with a few shepherd dogs.