Let the Tears Flow
In the summer of 2015, newly-weds Nic and Donna Cuthbert set out to ride across Mongolia. During their five-month journey one horse was stolen and they were forced to deal with a great many challenges. While the Australian Long Riders coped with all of those difficulties, one problem took them by surprise.
Donna and Nic learned that time after time, in journey after journey, hardship, fatigue, and hunger have brought horses and humans closer and closer together. The travellers may be from different species but they shiver together in wind and rain. They jointly endure bitter cold and blazing heat. Together they starve and then rejoice over a meal. They face the same perils with the same chances of escape or annihilation. Theirs is a community centred upon cooperation, sharing, sacrifice and support for one another.
There is more to this special relationship than just loyalty. This is a story based upon the love between horses and humans. The photo above shows Donna with her beloved horse, Milky.
Months back I secretly dreamt of this day, I leaned back in my saddle and let my imagination run wild with thoughts of the end; what it would feel like to have achieved what many doubted that we could and how nice it would be to sleep through the night without having a constant watch on our horses. Today however and for recent weeks as the end drew nearer it merged into the opposite. The yearning for it never to end, the heartache of eventually leaving them and the sad reality of life away from Mongolia.
For so long now this expedition has been so much more to us than a simple crossing from A to B; As we spent more and more time riding, packing, unpacking, hobbling, staking, nursing, caring and ultimately falling in love with our companions, the trip became more about life with them and less about the end result. To put it simply, it was about the journey in between and the destination became irrelevant.
Standing on a dirt road in a rural town I doubled over in pain as my heart was
ripped from my chest and my stomach felt that wrenching pull. I was watching my
horses, which I hadn't been separated from for the past five months drive away
from me with their new owner. The heartbreak was unimaginable and not a feeling
that I had predicted having methodically imagined this very moment in my head
for the few days that preceded the end of our journey. I knew that it would
hurt; I can admit to the world with pride that I love my horses, they had become
our best friends during the 2,000 kilometre crossing from west to east over
Mongolia, but nothing could prepare me for the reality of them being driven off
into the unknown by somebody else. Somebody I had only known for a day, somebody
that could have driven them straight to the meat market, ignoring our agreement
and made a tidy profit on our four muscle laden geldings.
|The team that crossed Mongolia. Fergus, Donna, Milky, Mori, Nick and Kitay.|
For weeks we agonised over how we would sell our horses in a way that would see them live on, the Mongolian summer had come to its abrupt end and the preferred meat option for the long, harsh winter on the Steppe is, you guessed it...
With this tearing at our heart strings and frantically calling on all of our contacts for this not to be the fate of our horses we finally got a response from a reputable tourist company.
"You realise that it is the start of winter don't you?" their director jibed us over the phone. "I will have to feed them, it will cost me in hay and grain", "No one buys horses at the start of winter."
These were the words that we were reluctant to hear, we knew the realities. Owning animals over winter in Mongolia is a burden. Thick snow and ice cover the land where grass once grew and the owner has to fund their livestock's survival by providing hay at a cost to them. Livestock trading is the most common form of business in the country and as much as they love their horses, they will always ultimately be food. The director, Mendee, spoke great English and after a long conversation with Nic he agreed to drive out to us and take a look at our boys. He arrived within a few hours took a brief look and gave us the usual "They are old", "This one won't survive the winter" that we hadn't fully prepared ourselves for before bartering a price that we reluctantly agreed with.
What he didn't know was that he was our only option, in the weeks leading to the end we were given multiple contacts that had each offered us a fair price but when it came to the crunch there were only let downs. We were indeed lucky to have made a deal with Mendee and that he had been impressed with their well trained, loveable personalities and saw a future with them at his tourist camp.
We shook on it and he arranged for them to be picked up later that night.
In the hours that led up to their collection I was content that I'd done my best by them, as they had unquestionably done for us for so many months.
Having spent the past four months sat astride my faithful Fergus and followed closely alongside by my pack horse, Milky, the most beautiful horse in Mongolia, I have bonded with them in a way that only a long rider can comprehend. Our unsupported expedition had seen us spend weeks training and feeding our four companions followed by a solid four months of riding across the country and allowed us to identify with these animals as individual characters that have made our expedition the most memorable experience of our lives.
Fergus, my loyal riding horse is a striking red flamed gelding with a soft and caring nature. In all of the time I've known him his floppy ears, yet wide eyes never really let you know what he's thinking. He's a sweetheart that won't stray far even when you let him roam freely without a stake or hobbles as a safeguard. He has a wonderfully enjoyable canter and I look forward to the evening's camp search where Fergus and I ride off from the team and find the perfect spot for the night.
Is love at first sight really a thing because that's the only explanation for Milky. He is literally beautiful, his face just makes your heart melt and his personality, well, he may as well have his own television show because he is just that interesting. Milky is my favourite of our four and whilst at times he really is the biggest pain in the butt we can't help but love him. Life would be far easier without Milky but it would never be as eventful.
|Donna’s horse, Fergus, symbolizes the words of one Long Rider author, who wrote, “He is freedom and fearlessness. He is the secret of the wilderness and all that is lost to cities”|
As my pack horse he was by my side throughout, he walked so closely behind Fergus that after time he rubbed away half of his tail. Milky didn't mind cars but he didn't like trucks and he'd nuzzle his head into the far side of my leg and trace Fergus' steps rapidly until the daunting machine drove on past. Milky loved all animals, he would regularly call out to passing harems during our day and would occasionally spend his time at the well sniffing the sheep instead of drinking. During the night when wild horses would gallop over inquisitively to our four they would always go to Milky, sidling up beside him to groom one another until he decided he'd had enough and would let out a squeal for Kitay to come over and kick the intruders away.
Our expedition would have meant nothing without the colourful characters of Kitay, Fergus, Milky, Choco (sadly stolen from us in our second month) or Mongol Mori and they will live forever in our hearts and stories.
|Horse theft is a common occurrence in modern Mongolia. Choco (right) is only one of the many Long Rider horses that have been stolen.|
My two horses were spoiled with love and over time I came to know when it was suitable to smother them with kisses or stroke their necks. As with most horses in Mongolia, when we took responsibility for ours they were semi wild and didn't respond well to affection. Their eyes darted all over the place, they panted violently and pulled their heads backwards with force if I raised my hand towards them with the intention of stroking them. I understand how many animals are treated here, how they are 'cared' for and it is only fair to sense that many Mongol horses associate humans with unkind feeling; this was something that I hoped to change with my own.
It took time but I did get to a stage where they instinctively knew that I was safe, that whatever I was going to do to them would probably feel nice and after time they relaxed so much that I could touch them all over. To me this was significant and even more so when I kissed their faces or their blind spots in front of Mongol herders, or when Nic casually picked up their rear hooves for inspection, something that is never done here.
|In an email sent to the Guild after the journey concluded, Donna wrote, “This was typical of those three. They knew their routine so well that they'd just follow.”|
Living with our animals day in, day out and caring for their needs on a superior level to our own was possibly the greatest, most tiring challenge that either of us have faced. The reward was friendship, a bond between human and horse and a reciprocal understanding that if they worked hard for us each day we would reward them with water, grass, rest, love and affection.
|Nic Cuthbert draws water from a well. Donna commented on the constant need to supply the horses with water. “Our daily struggle was always grass and water; it really puts everything into perspective when you do or do not have access to those two things. Mongolia as a country has a well or water source every 20 kilometre or so and our entire crossing was based on those way points. Many people have asked us about the quality of the water in Mongolia and whether or not it was safe to drink from the wells or springs. We relied heavily on our horse Kitay for this as he was incredibly fussy with the water that we offered him. If he turned his nose up at it, it wasn't any good for us and whilst this only happened a handful of times during our five months it does go to show how smart these beauties are. If the well was frequented by locals then it was almost always perfect water, if it was in a deserted area you may find dead birds in the well or if the only source was a slow moving stream you'd probably want to assess how many animals excreted into it before drinking it yourself.”|
We had been told before that the best way to avoid the heartache at the end of the journey was to treat them as workers, employees that had fulfilled their role in carrying us across the country. This way, saying goodbye would be far easier.
Unfortunately, or rather fortunately in our opinion, our "workers" became our best friends.
Saying goodbye was incredibly emotional and I don't think either of us were prepared for how we would feel when they were driven away from us. I felt as though my heart had been torn from my chest and I wailed with pain as Nic bundled me up in his arms.
|After riding from west to east across Mongolia, the team reached the top of the Arkhangai Aimag Pass.|
With my face red from tears and my chest hyperventilating we concluded that we did our best by them and that they would be looked after well in their new home but feeling content that they will receive great care and that they have been kept together as a four didn't make the walk back with empty halters any easier.
We were now horsemen without horses.