The Mongols: horsemen of the steppe

More than half of the world’s ten million Mongols live in China. Mongols make a living from their “five jewels”: horses, sheep, cattle or yaks, goats and camels.

We are in the Xhilingol Leage, in Inner Mongolia.  In fact, Inner Mongolia covers one eighth of the total area of China. Han Chinese – investors or workers in the mining or petroleum industry – make up 79% of the region’s population, while Mongols account for about 17%.

A yurt appears as though out of nowhere. Some children play in the grass. Their father smokes a cigarette as he watches his horses while, slightly further away, a woman works wool and felt to be used to insulate the yurt. Can you hear the whistling wind and the hoof-beats of an approaching horseman?

While some are tempted by the city, the Mongol is always a nomad of the steppe at heart. It’s a harsh life in a climate of extremes. Soon the family will set off with the herd in search of new pastures. What exhilarating freedom!

Not without my horse

Over 5,000 years of history in one of the most inhospitable lands on Earth – this sums up the vital bond between Mongols and their horses. As the premier means of transportation on the steppe, the Mongol horse is small, resilient and robust. These workhorses are also the star of the show and celebrations such as the Nadaam festival, where they take part in lively races.

As soon as they can run, young Mongols learn to ride. Before long, they are helping their parents drive the herd and round up stray livestock. From time to time, they will also see horse meat on their plate, and enjoy airag, fermented horse milk popular among the Mongol people.


The steppe : vast and bare: Apart from a few cities, the steppe dominates inner Mongolia. What a strange vista – with the harsh winter and dry climate, not a tree in to be seen, it is a seemingly endless landscape, bare except for stips – varieties of grass in the Poaceae family –which the livestock love to east. People are just as scarce just 20 per square kilometre. Photo: ©


The Yourt: It is practical, portable, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It stands up to the powerful wind of the steppe, can be set up in just half an hour (or so the Mongols say!), offers a living space of 20 square metres and weighs 100 to 300 kg. It’s the ideal home for a northern nomad. And while the interior once contained no more than the bare necessities, you can now find chairs, beds, desks and even a battery-operated TV inside. Photo: ©


Mongolian saddle: First designed for speed, the Mongolian saddle is shorter, narrower and less comfortable than its Western counterpart. Its particularity: A small wooden saddle tree that is perfectly fitted to the Mongol horse’s short back. One or two braided-leather belly straps keep the saddle in place on the horse. The stirrups are always mounted very short. The pommel and cantle are clearly raised, protecting the horseman from falls. Mongols have a unique way of mounting their horses: the horseman gets very high on his horse. Whether trotting or galloping, the horseman is rarely seated. He holds the reins in one hand and hoists himself up onto his stirrups. Photo: ©

boots mongolian

A young Mongol horseman’s boots: Hand-made sheepskin boots. Photo: ©


Mongol horseman’s flask. This sheepskin flask is usually filled with strong alcohol, in this particular case, it is white liquor made of barley, with a 67% alcohol content. Photo: ©

horse accessories

Accessory used to scrape the sweat off the horse after a run. Photo: ©


Morin Khuur or horse-head fiddle: Similar to the Chinese erhu, this Mongolian fiddle has horsehair strings. It features a trapezoid wooden sound box, and its frame is usually covered in goat or sheep skin. Image: ©

mongolian fiddle

From deep cello sounds to that of neighing horse, this instrument can produce a wide variety of sounds. Image: ©