I hadn’t thought about riding a horse across the Asian steppes until a friend sent me a video of a young Mongolian woman galloping on a small but very fast horse, riding like the wind, and suddenly I knew I wanted to be there, doing that.
Was there an age limit to certain adventures?
I had once ridden like the wind myself, though on trails and across fields in New England, galloping bareback up and down the hills on Jed, my feisty Arabian/Thoroughbred endurance horse. But that had been more than 25 years ago, and I hadn’t ridden at all since I moved to Texas. I was rusty as an old unused gate. But Mongolia became the bur under my virtual saddle, and I kept thinking about it.
Would I be up to it, I wondered, with a trick knee that had gone out during a James Brown imitation a few years ago and a new social security card hiding in my wallet? Was there an age limit to certain adventures?
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Horse Riding Across Mongolia: Not a Good First Impression
Going on impulse, I hooked up with a horse trek to Mongolia put together by National Geographic Expeditions and led by a fantastic woman named Carroll Dunham, a New Jersey girl who wound up in Kathmandu, living the kind of life of adventure I had always dreamed about as a young girl. I filled out the information sheet, including my riding experience, which I played up a bit just as I hoped to play down my age.
When I arrived in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar after stops in Los Angeles and Beijing and settled into our surprisingly modern hotel, I did not make a good first impression with the group: I fell asleep and had to be called to come down for our initial dinner together. My fellow travelers were into their main course when I arrived. I missed all the introductions, including why each person had come on the journey. I felt like I was already playing catch-up.
I filled out the information sheet, including my riding experience, which I played up a bit just as I hoped to play down my age.
During our long van trip to our first destination, the ancient city of Karakorum, I had to call for an emergency stop to run behind a conveniently placed sign out in a field to deal with the sudden turmoil in my bowels. I know Carroll Dunham must have wondered, though she never even gave the slightest hint of doubt, whether I was going to be a liability on the trip.
Naming My Horse
There were two other women of a certain age in our group of 18, while everyone else seemed to be in their hale and hearty 30s and early 40s, with two athletic young teenagers rounding out the age span. The newlywed couple in the group, who were serious wine aficionados, had little riding experience, but they looked fit and enthusiastic.
I may have been thinking about the cause of my bum knee when I came up with the name, but it proved to be quite apt.
We were assigned horses based largely on our riding resumes, and my horse turned out to be the most feisty of the bunch. And, as I realized later, the best of the bunch. Mongolians don’t actually name their horses, but instead refer to them by one of their multiple words for shades of brown. I looked at my burnished brown horse with knowing eyes and a rock-star mane, and I decided I would bestow a name on him: James Brown. I may have been thinking about the cause of my bum knee when I came up with the name, but it proved to be quite apt.
Our head Mongolian wrangler, who looked as though he could have ridden with Genghis Khan, but who turned out to be adorable, patient, and kind, glanced skeptically at the elastic bandage on my left knee as he gave me a boost up into the English saddle I had chosen.
Trick Riding Comes in Handy
On our first ride, I was trotting behind one of the older women when I saw her starting to slip off her horse, and before anyone could do anything, she was on the ground, flat on her back. Everyone was relieved when the wranglers helped her up, and she smiled to signal she was okay. I could see that the other older woman was looking apprehensive, and, as it turned out, she decided not to ride to our destinations by horseback, but to stay in the beautiful riverside Lapis Sky ger (yurt) camp, which was our headquarters, to meditate and write.
On the ride across the valley to visit a family living in a traditional ger, where we were served homemade vodka and all kinds of cheese, rain poured down but let up as we mounted up to ride back to camp. There was a long slope between us and camp, and Carroll had said those of us who wanted to could let our horses loose in a gallop.
As I eased my sore and tired body to bed at night, I realized that I was being challenged to the very edge of my tolerance.
I was in a fast canter when James Brown did a fancy dance step to sideswipe an old tire lying in the field, and I was glad for the trick riding I had done all those years ago. And then, well, feeling confident that it would all come back, I held the reins in my left hand, Mongolian style, and held up my right hand as though I was ready to throw a spear. Lordy, James Brown hit another gear like a Ferrari, and we zoomed up the long hill. Wow!
And that was how the riding went for me, as I bonded with that amazing little horse, who reminded me so much of my late horse Jed. But as I eased my sore and tired body to bed at night, with the temperatures dropping into the forties, I realized that I was being challenged to the very edge of my tolerance, more so than the younger people in the group.
My Wind Horse
As we rode across the vast, rolling green steppes that seemed to stretch out to eternity, making our way to our destination to set up camp beneath a sacred mountain, I knew it was all worth it. I particularly wanted to make the trek up Mount Mandal, where it was said you could communicate with your ancestors and with beloved ones who had departed. I had brought along my Native American flute, as I hoped to bring music to Mongolia from my Native American ancestors and to dedicate a song to my late husband.
I had a fleeting vision of my late husband, here on this sacred mountain said to be full of ancestral spirits.
I knew, however, as I watched the rest of the group head up the mountain on foot ahead of me, this would be a hard climb. I was still being affected by the altitude, and I trudged and huffed and puffed up to a rock promontory, where I stopped, exhausted, and caught my breath so I could play my flute. I had learned about the concept of the “wind horse” from a sage Buddhist monk we had met at a monastery earlier in the trip. We each have some “wind horse” power inside of us, he said, and its inner strength is a gauge of our life force. Right then, my wind horse felt very weak.
As I picked up my flute, I felt some strength and breath returning, and as I played, the notes seemed to waft up the mountain and through the valley below. I did have a fleeting vision of my late husband, here on this sacred mountain said to be full of ancestral spirits, and others told me later they could hear the music from high above on the mountaintop.
The Climb and The Pit Viper
I gathered myself for the ascent to the top, step by step, but when I reached the loose rocks near the top, I kept slipping and sliding, and it seemed to take forever to get there. The descent, I hoped, would be easier. But I was so exhausted, I just gave up dignity and slid down on my ass until the slope was easier and I could walk down. Then I began almost to run down the slope in sheer relief.
For some reason part of the way down, I paused with one foot in the air, like something out of a cartoon. Over to the right, I could see the rock where I had played the flute. But as I looked down where I was about to place my foot, there was a coiled snake, probably about four or five feet long, though to me he might as well have been ten feet. Being from Texas, I know how to determine if a snake is poisonous by the triangular head, and this one clearly meant business.
The Mongolians later told me that my encounter with the snake was an encounter with the spirit of the mountain.
All this cogitating on risk was instantaneous, and I was back up the slope in a blur. I later learned from the markings of the snake that it was a pit viper, which could have killed me.
The Mongolians later told me that my encounter with the snake was an encounter with the spirit of the mountain, which I might have awakened with my flute, and that it had given me a powerful blessing. The next day, when we met with a local shaman, I noted that his robe was decorated with the skins of pit vipers.
The Last Bonfire
I think about the last day of our ride, as we trotted and cantered for many hours to return to camp. I had begun feeling pain in my back, which I later learned resulted from aggravating an old injury. I wasn’t sure I could make the long ride back on a route the organizers called Thundering Hooves, for good reason. But I owed it to James Brown and to all the women of a certain age who have strived to make it back in style, wherever they venture, to give it a go. And it was a glorious ride.
And as we flew, there was no time, no age, no barrier between human and animal, just joy in being alive.
As we neared the camp, Carroll Dunham said, in so many words, “Go for it.” I hardly had to urge James Brown into racing gear. I was flying. And as we flew, there was no time, no age, no barrier between human and animal, just joy in being alive and heading home after a great adventure. I was the woman in the video who had inspired me, just a little bit—well, quite a bit—older.
I had come to Mongolia to recover a wild part of myself, but also to feel the resilience of humans who live lightly on the land, as they have for so many hundreds of years. On the last night of our journey, as we gathered around a bonfire to sing and tell stories, I recited a poem I had written about James Brown, my beloved Mongolian horse, who I still ride in my dreams. As a new Mongolian friend translated for the benefit of the wranglers, they smiled and clapped in recognition. Thanks to karaoke, they even knew who James Brown was.
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Top Image Photo Credit: Stan Pengelly
A version of this story was originally published in July 2017.