Exploring Siberia’s Equestrian Culture
by CuChullaine O'Reilly
Baron Yasumasa Fukushima, the descendant of a noble Samurai family, was sent to Berlin, Germany on military duty in 1892. When the time came to return home, the Japanese horseman elected to ride his horse Gaisen, (Triumphant Return) 14,000 kilometres (9,000 miles) from Berlin to Tokyo, Japan.
No foreign Long Rider is believed to have made a solo equestrian journey in Siberia in the subsequent 125 years. New Zealand Long Rider Ian Robinson previously made solo journeys in Mongolia, Tibet and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. He has now become the first foreign Long Rider to explore the Yakutia region of Siberia on horseback in this new century. The photo above shows Ian departing on his journey in late August, 2016.
You rode across Mongolia in 1992, across Tibet in 2002 (right) & 2004 and in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor in 2008. What attracted you to Siberia?
I made my first long ride in 1992 when I was 24 and then completed my ride in Tibet in 2004 when I was 36. As my 48th year loomed I wanted to continue my habit of making a ride every 12 years. I think it was in 2012 when CuChullaine O’Reilly of the Long Riders’ Guild contacted me saying he was about to tell me of a nation with an amazing horse culture that I had never heard of. And he was right.
I had never heard of the Sakha Republic, or Yakutia, in Siberia, part of the Russian Federation. Photos of prehistoric looking shaggy horses in snowy landscapes got my attention but what really grabbed me was a couple of statistics: the fact that the Sakha Republic is almost the size of India, yet it has a population of less than a million.
The thought of those vast areas of uninhabited wilderness, one of the last great wildernesses left in the world, but still being home to the toughest horses on the planet soon became a near obsession. I wanted to go and see the place for myself.
Siberia (right) is a simple word but in actuality it encompasses an area of 13.1 million square kilometres (5,100,000 sq miles). Where did you make your journey?
I flew into the capital and only city in the Republic, Yakutsk. There I met up with contacts I had made through the help of the Guild and travelled northeast to the village of Tomtor in Oymyakon Province. This area is famed as being the ‘Pole of Cold’, in 1933 it recorded the lowest ever temperature for a permanently inhabited settlement of -71.2 degrees Celsius.
Here I rented my Yakut horse ‘Katchula’ and set off into the Taiga heading south towards the lake Lybunkur. After reaching the lake I continued south, then turned east and finally back north to the lake again before returning to Tomtor.
The frozen heart of that country is Yakutia, a vast, sparsely populated area which contains the infamous “Pole of Cold.” Despite the man-killing cold, Siberia is the home of a unique equestrian culture The photo (right) shows a Yakut rider in 1905. Did you see any evidence of how the Siberians had created ways to ride in such perilous cold?
Cold, in fact extreme cold, is a major dominant force in the lives of any living thing in this region; plants, animals and humans alike must have considerable resourcefulness to be able to deal with the incredible temperatures and survive.
The horses have adapted by being able to store winter fat to survive the long cold months; they have hollow hair which holds heat and even go into a kind of semi-hibernation state; their heart rate slows down and they breathe only a few times a minute to conserve energy and body warmth.
For humans to survive numerous obstacles must be overcome. Winter clothing is made from reindeer furs, the fur worn on the outside. Reindeer fur is one of the warmest furs known and worn in layers by the local Yakut and Eveny people. In addition to the obvious other, more unexpected challenges occur.
Even in Autumn when I was there I had to deal with things that hadn’t
crossed my mind, with temperatures of minus ten Celsius my boots would be so
frozen stiff in the mornings I couldn’t get them on without lighting a fire
and melting them.
Siberia is home to a special type of equine known as the Yakut horse. These horses are able to survive because they have adapted to their environment. They have an exceptional sense of smell. This allows the horse to find forage during the long semi-darkness of the Arctic winter. Extra hard hooves enable it to scrape away snow and ice so as to reach the food hidden below. When the water is frozen, the horses survive by eating snow and ice. They have specialized hair which has a unique core that greatly increases its insulating characteristics. Additional insulation is provided by a sub-dermal layer of fat. Did you chose such a horse and was he different from the horses you rode on other expeditions?
To be honest I didn’t have much of a choice of horses, in fact none at all. My horse Katchula was the only one I was offered, he looked, and in fact turned out to be, a fine mount, and so it was an easy choice to take him. He turned out to be extremely hardy, easy to work with and a great companion. On the ride I did usually find enough grazing most of the time, but not always.
Katchula was able to forage in the snow by sweeping the snow with his nose left and right to get to the grass beneath. He also seemed happy to graze on the foliage of birch scrub and willow; he had an ingenious way to harvest the leaves by taking a branch in his mouth and stripping the leaves off by raising his head. He also ate a certain type of large, brown, flat mushroom which seemed to be a personal favourite (right).
In terms of behaviour he was very level headed and almost never spooked,
even when a bear was rampaging through the forest next to my camp he kept
his head and let me load him up and get saddled. He was also extremely
alert, watching him gave me a heads up at times when a bear was passing my
camp and later a moose; my horse noticed them when they were hundreds of
metres away and my brave Yakut dog ‘Dogor’ didn’t even see them at all.
Scientists have revealed that some horses had the ability to conserve energy by entering into a state of semi-hibernation. The Siberian horses are supposed to have retained the ability to alter the rate of their respiration and enter a state of semi-hibernation. Did you observe this unique characteristic?
A few times Katchula took an afternoon nap! I've never seen a horse do this before, we would be riding along or walking and he would suddenly stop and sink to his knees and sit down. I watched him and he put his nose in the snow and simply nodded off, I could see his eyelids twitching in REM as he dreamed. Then after 20 minutes he suddenly woke up with a start, got to his feet and off we went. This happened a few times on the trip.
After the journey concluded, I met with Egor Makarov, a noted Siberian horse
expert. We talked about the Yakut horse. It seems the story of this semi
hibernation is true. The horses move as little as possible to save energy,
breathing and heart rate slow down etc. I noticed that in bad weather my
horse Katchula seemed to not graze so much over night. He would instead
stand still as if to save energy. Egor told me that Yakut horses would not
sit down throughout the entire winter. They stay constantly on their feet
for months on end.
In 1889 Dmitri Peshkov became the first man to ride across Siberia. In 1910 Alexandra Kudasheva (pictured) rode 12,600 miles from Harbin, China to St. Petersburg, Russia. Like you, they chose to ride alone. Many would-be Long Riders harbour deep concerns about travelling without a companion. How do you manage this emotional part of the journey?
I never really considered travelling with a companion, all the rides I have done were done alone. For me a big part of the journey and experience is being alone, I cherish solitude and was happy to be alone. While the risks are greatly increased by being alone I personally feel that the rewards are greater and the experience is more intense. On a practical level I have always felt that I would soon become at odds with whoever I travelled with if I chose to ride with a companion and disagreements and disputes would be likely to spoil the experience.
There are more than seven billion people residing on our planet. Did your route take you through populated areas? (Photo of rider on frozen Siberian river courtesy of Matthieu Paley.)
No! Solitude was a major factor in this ride, I didn’t expect to meet many people once I had set off. I knew it wouldn’t be like Mongolia or Tibet where it is possible, if you want to, to ride across the entire country and meet nomads or villagers almost every day. I could almost count on one hand the number of people I met on my five week ride.
Closer to the town of Tomtor from where I set off I met a few people out harvesting berries or cutting grass for hay. After that I met four people at Lybunkur Lake, one was a Russian man who had chosen to spend a year at the lake alone to search for a fabled monster which is said to dwell in the depths.
After leaving the lake I didn’t meet a single person until I got back to it, seventeen days later!
I was in regions where no one lives, where very few visit, perhaps only the occasional hunter in winter when the ground is frozen which makes it more accessible by vehicle, and certainly where no one goes on horseback. I saw no sign whatsoever that horses ever reach the area.
I went for days without seeing the slightest sign of human activity; no
trails, no roads, no garbage, no old campsites. To experience that kind of
solitude was precious and yet frightening, to know that if I came to grief
no one would know, and probably no one would ever find me. To stand on the
top of a ridge and be able to see for miles in all directions and to know
that I was the only human in the entire landscape was rare, exhilarating and
terrifying at times, particularly when I had run out of food and had to
travel for four days surviving on only tea, berries and cough lozenges
raided from my medical kit.
The term “taiga” refers to one of the world’s major ecosystems. Characterized by coniferous forests, it covers 29% of the world’s surface, stretching from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō, across Siberia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Alaska. Snow may remain on the ground for as long as nine months, and because evaporation is consequently low most of the year, precipitation exceeds evaporation. The result is a permanently waterlogged environment. The Russians even have a word for this type of trap. They call it “rasputitsa,” meaning “roadlessness.” The last Long Rider who ventured into the Siberian taiga was Douglas Carruthers, who barely survived his journey in 1910. Did you ride into the taiga, and if so, was it a challenge?
Yes, my entire five week ride was done in the taiga and it was the most difficult and challenging terrain I have ever encountered. I can say I hardly rode a continuous mile of what I would term as ‘good riding country’. As mentioned above almost the entire landscape is a waterlogged bog for the summer and autumn months: due to the permafrost a few meters below the surface water cannot drain away. (Oddly at times it was difficult to find a flowing stream, even in such a wet environment the water just sits without forming channels to flow in.)
I often tried to travel across hillsides thinking they would be firmer as surely the water would have drained off. This wasn’t the case, even on higher, sloping ground I and my horse would still be up to our knees or more in mud. When it snowed the situation was even worse, as well as the boggy ground we had to deal with knee-deep snow on top of that.
In addition we had to force our way through dense forest, this raised the risk of running into bears as visibility was reduced to a couple of meters at times, and this sometimes restricted my ability to navigate at all as I was unable to see the landscape around me and get bearings. I would often spend hours on end picking my way through the forest and around, under or over deadfalls that blocked the way and forced me to travel as if in a maze.
The taiga is an amazing environment, one of the last great wildernesses on
Earth, to experience the isolation and solitude of that landscape is hard to
put into words. But it is a land that will test even the hardest explorer
and bring him to his knees. I’m very confident that without the experience I
had gained on my rides in Mongolia, Tibet and Afghanistan I would have
either given up riding in Siberia after a day or two, or perished on my
English Long Rider Kate Marsden (pictured) rode across Siberia in 1890. Marsden recalled how the vast forests were densely populated by brown bears. At times the threat of bear attacks became so dire that the Cossacks escorting Marsden would group their horses round her in order to protect their foreign guest from attack. Despite the passage of time, the potential threat of bear attacks has not diminished. Russian news has reported that a hotter climate is definitely linked to an increase in the bear population, which has resulted in aggressive bears entering villages, digging up graves and attacking humans. Did you witness any bears or other wildlife?
Bears were a constant major concern. I encountered bears on three occasions, two were of no real consequence; once I came across a bear while walking through the scrub, I looked up to see it 50 meters away standing on its hind legs and looking straight at me, instantly the bear dropped and bolted and I just watched its fat ass disappear into the forest with my dog in hot pursuit.
Another time I was brewing tea in the morning and looked up to see my horse Katchula standing rigid and looking up the valley; 400 meters away a huge bear was wandering across the river flat. The bear didn’t notice us and my dog never noticed the bear.
The other time was far more exciting, or threatening. On just my sixth day I was packing up my tent when my dog went flying into the forest to great commotion. I could hear something crashing about through the undergrowth with much grunting and puffing and at first thought it might have been wild pigs. But then the bear burst from the scrub with my dog in pursuit.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a bear in the wild, it was thrilling but terrifying, I was unarmed and had been unable to buy bear spray in Yakutsk, I did have a can of something like mace spray which was more meant for women to deter aggressive unwanted advances or for warding off dangerous dogs. I drew my knife (what was I going to do? Re-enact the Revenant!) and stood watching my dog and the bear chase each other back and forth, just staying out of each other’s reach. The show went on for several minutes while I loaded up my jittery horse and retreated. Eventually the bear grew tired or bored of the game and wandered off, much to my relief.
In many places the ground was almost covered in bear tracks. My main defence was to hang a bell from my horses’ bridle and another around my neck to make plenty of noise as we went through the forest so as not to surprise an unsuspecting bear and send it into aggressive action.
Other wildlife I saw were small herds of reindeer, my dog would chase them
into the forest and if there was a lake nearby they would take refuge in the
water. I saw a moose once, found wolf tracks once. There were wild turkeys,
grouse, partridge and an abundance of fish in the rivers.
Siberia and Mongolia are both the traditional home to reindeer herding nomads known as Nenets (pictured). However these nomads are being adversely affected by new laws passed in Mongolia. The government of that country is persecuting these nomads, have declared the immense area of the country where they have lived for countless generations to be a national park, have made it illegal for the nomads to hunt or to gather wood for a fire. Several of the men in the nomad community have been arrested and imprisoned for hunting to feed their families. Did you encounter reindeer herding nomads in Siberia? (Photo of reindeer nomad courtesy of Thomas Kelly.)
Unfortunately I didn’t meet any of the Eveny reindeer people. This was
probably the greatest disappointment of the trip. I was told that I would
find reindeer herders in the valley of the Kalkhan river which I headed into
after leaving Lybunkur Lake. However I never found them. They may well have
been somewhere in the valley, which was vast, but I saw no sign of them.
This was both disappointing and dangerous as I was relying on finding them
to restock my supplies. As a result I ran out of food and had nothing to eat
for four days until I made it back to the lake.
Many people have a misconception that equestrian travel is bit like a pony picnic; i.e. it’s always sunny and there’s plenty to eat. Did you encounter any trouble keeping yourself fed?
Yes! A lot! As I mentioned above I was hoping to meet the Eveny reindeer herders and restock my supplies with them, however, they were nowhere to be found and so my food was steadily depleted. I carried with me rice, instant noodles and flour to make flat bread with. I basically lived, when I had food, on one cup of rice for dinner and half a loaf of flat bread for breakfast, lunch was usually skipped or just tea with sugar. In fact I ate even less as my cup of rice and bread was shared with my dog. I rationed my food but it eventually ran out, I was left with tea and sugar, foraged berries and throat lozenges from my medical kit, I also fed these to my dog.
For four days I ate almost nothing, amazingly I still had enough energy to get through each day slogging through the forests, snow and bogs, though at times I felt absolutely spent and would slump to the ground utterly exhausted. I lost a lot of weight but what was worse was seeing my poor dog get thinner and thinner. (By the way, I had not intended to take a dog with me; on the first day of the ride when I set out he followed me down the road, I tried to send him home but he kept coming and stayed with me the rest of the trip. Unfortunately I hadn’t expected to have him as a companion and so hadn’t prepared supplies for him. I shared my own food with him as much as I could and he frequently caught and ate small rodents.)
Finally I made it back to Lybunkur lake to a hunter’s cabin where I and my
hungry dog were welcomed in and fed, the best meal I’ve ever had!
One of the oldest rules of equestrian travel was first recorded by the English Long Rider Fynes Moryson (pictured) who explored Europe extensively in 1592. He warned that distance on horseback is measured in time, not miles. Your previous journeys required you to ride longer distances but in terms of difficulties, how would you rate the Siberian ride?
This Siberian ride was the toughest yet. The terrain was extremely difficult
to navigate as it was so wet and barely suited to horses. Add to this the
isolation, lack of people, running out of supplies and not getting enough to
eat, and then the constant risk of bears made this the most dangerous ride I
have done and without doubt the closest I have come to not making it
At the conclusion of your journey, you visited a museum in Yakutsk where you made a startling equestrian discovery. While "polite society" was forcing European women to ride side-saddle, Yakut women were provided with a saddle that allowed them to ride astride in equality alongside men. When you recall that it was illegal for a woman to wear trousers in the "Wild West," then you realize how exceptional the Yakut saddle is on a social level. But is the Yakut saddle unique for other reasons as well?
Women's saddles had a square pommel (pictured) and men's saddles had a round pommel. The front piece for a woman's saddle was square, higher and wider, perhaps to give a greater degree of protection and safety while holding a baby.
The metal covering was a very important feature of the saddle and was made by smithing ('tardii'). The metal was hammered out by starting in the middle and working in a circle outwards. It was important that each point on the sheet was only hit once. The metal was heated and then cooled in a basin of water mixed with mare’s milk. The sheet was beaten to the thickness of 3mm at a minimum. The metal was engraved ('oilu-laa-hym') and /or stamped ('batari-okhsuu').
Both men’s and women’s saddles were equipped with the 'hon-suoc-chu.' This handy hook allowed the rider to keep the reins from falling over the horse's head and getting tangled. The Yakuts believe that they are the only people who make and use these saddle hooks.
This saddle, equipped with its special hook, demonstrates what makes the Yakut horse culture unique; the ability of the horses and humans to endure what the rest of us consider unendurable cold. If you are deeply clothed in several layers of fur, and your hands are inside thick fur mittens, your ability to move in the saddle is going to be reduced. Thus, draping the reins over a hook would a) keep the horse from extending its head and bolting and b) keep the reins close to hand, a factor that would be critically important in bad weather. History proves that equestrian innovation is connected to practicality.
The saddles, obviously, were treasured items and were handed down through
The Yakut believe that animals are another kind of people wearing a different shirt. They do not attempt to dominate the horse. They treat the animal as their brother, believing that they have ancestors in common. This respect and reverence is so deeply ingrained that Yakuts frown on speaking roughly to a horse and striking the animal is a cultural taboo. Because of the Soviet Union’s iron curtain, the Yakut horses remained isolated from the rest of the world during the majority of the 20th century. Yet thanks to the combination of its remote location and severe weather, Yakutia’s unique horse heritage weathered the Soviet storm. Is Yakutia’s equestrian culture strong enough to confront the challenges of this new century? (Photo, courtesy of Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg, shows Siberian horseman Vassili riding his Yakut horse when the temperature registered minus 64 degrees Fahrenheit - minus 53 degrees Celsius)
Yes, I believe the horse culture in Yakutia is as strong as it is in Mongolia, for example. The Yakuts treasure their horses and hold them in sacred place as one of their totems. There seems to be an unofficial movement even in the city of Yakutsk to celebrate the Yakut horse. I think the people realise how unique their horses are in the way they are able to survive in such incredible winter conditions.
Sure will! If Bodhi wants to ride I’d give him all the support I can, it’s my dream that one day we’ll ride together somewhere. I believe that equestrian travel will continue. We stopped relying on horses for transport in most cases a hundred years ago and yet the horse has not disappeared. People still ride simply because they love horses and love to ride.
Years ago we were told the paper book was about to vanish and we would all be reading on electronic devices. This hasn’t happened. Why? Because people like books! Likewise there will always be people who want to ride and want to experience the world from horseback.
There are many, many Long Riders yet to come!
All photos courtesy of Ian Robinson and the Long Riders' Guild, unless otherwise noted.