Honoring the Spirit Horse

The sky stretches forever in every direction and a biting wind adds to the feeling of loneliness. Meager grasses blow in the breeze like strange fingers trying to catch hold of the sun. A lone hawk calls in the distances as it sweeps and dips over the sloping grasslands of the arid Mongolian Steppe. The land may seem desolate, but for some, it is the safest sanctuary available.

The Steppe is ancient. Like a sage elder, its face has seen much of life, death, and rebirth. The sound of small hooves pounding against the turf has sustained this land like a pulsing heart. While other places breathe to the rush of the sea tides, landlocked Mongolia keeps time to the vigorous tempo of its little horses. For the people, they represent joy and life.

The Mongolian horse has faithfully served the nomads of the Steppe for centuries, and the nomads in turn have blessed it with safe pasture. But another horse also roamed the plains, the one that scoffed at the catch rope and danced out of its reach. Its coat was tan like the bleak grasslands in the summers and pale like the snows in the winter. Like a mirage, the wild horses of the Steppe appeared one moment, only to fade once more into the Steppe in the next instant. Only the young, inexperienced foals could even be captured. The people rightly called it and its offspring the “spirit horse,” or Takhi. But over time, the people of the Steppe turned away from the ghostly horses of the wind and left them to their freedom. Sadly, others looked on the beautiful Takhi with greed instead of respect. The Takhi hoofbeats on the Steppe faded to silence. Would they ever be heard again?

Many factors contributed to the disappearance of the Takhi from its native Steppe. Those factors fall into two categories: what the Europeans did and what the Mongolian people didn’t do. The Westerners were concerned with the Takhi as an unknown exotic species and a possible monetary gain. They acted predictably according to those considerations. Yet, the Mongol people who admired the wild horses to the point of giving them spiritual significance did not honor them with any active commitment to their well-being.

It is difficult to say exactly how the Takhi population fared up until the 19th century, but after that, the Europeans came and took their toll. Although earlier accounts mentioned the wild horses of Asia, Colonel Nikolai Mikailovich Przewalski was the first to truly draw the Western World’s attention toward the Takhi. Around 1881, he returned from an expedition in Asia with the skull and hide of a Takhi. The scientists of St. Petersburg catalogued his findings as a wild horse and named it Equs Ferus Przewalski after the Colonel. In the following years, scientists and merchants set out in search of the Przewalski’s horse as it was called in western circles. The Europeans shot the Takhi for science and captured it for Western entertainment.  A couple of expeditions proved fruitless. Eventually, the hunters decided to focus on catching the foals even if they had to kill the adult horses in order to do it. 53 foals made it back to the Western World alive. In short, the Europeans caused death and disruption for the wild horses.

For their part, the Mongol people added to the Takhi’s struggles through their inaction and inability to share. It seems that the Mongol people made no attempt at conservation on the behalf of their spirit horses. According to the American Museum of National History (AMNH), the nomads entertained the idea of breeding the Takhi with their own stock to gain its speed, but they could never catch it. This may suggest that they gave up and left the wild horses to fend for themselves.

(Credit: blogs.scientificamerican.com)

(Credit: blogs.scientificamerican.com)

On the other hand, their own interests might have blinded them to the plight of the Takhi. According to CSU professor Holmes Rolston III, “Mongolians have traditionally depended on the five ‘snouts’ or ‘muzzles’ that include horses, camels, sheep, cattle or yaks, and goats.” Competition for grazing territory is another cited factor that might have driven the Przewalski’s horse into the desert where they couldn’t find enough food to sustain themselves. Although there is no direct evidence to show that the Mongols were completely lax in their defense of the Takhi from European greed, it is fairly clear that their own herds drove the Wild Horses away.

In an ironic twist, the Western World actually saved the Przewalski’s horse from complete extinction even as it pushed them to extinction in the wild. Thanks to the greed of entertainment seekers who captured some of the Przewalski’s horses to sell to zoos, some still lived in captivity during the 20th century when they finally disappeared completely from their native habitats. Due to military activity during the Second World War, many of the remaining wild horses were shot. By 1945, only 31 Przewalski’s horses remained, and five years later, that number dropped to 12. The last credible report of a Takhi sighting in Mongolia occurred in 1969. At that point the fate of the whole breed rested on the 12 remaining horses living in captivity.

A multi-country collaboration brought the Przewalski’s horses back from the edge and it also gave the Mongolian people another chance to honor the wild horses with more than a name. Thanks to the work of the Zoological Society of London and the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski horse which was run out of the Netherlands, a solid breeding program was formed using 9 of the 12 remaining horses. The Soviet Union collapsed around 1990. In the wake of its downfall, Mongolia became an independent democracy. Conservationists seized the opportunity to approach the new country on the behalf of the Przewalski’s horses. They asked Mongolia to become the first reintroduction site for returning the Przewalski’s horses to the wild and Mongolia said yes. That was how the great homecoming began.

Perhaps the near extinction of the Takhi has helped the people to realize how precious their spirit horses are. Unlike the past, this time many people have been beside them cheering them on. Ana Radic praises the ongoing efforts to help the Przewalski’s horses: “success stories in returning animals to the wild are rare, but there are now around 460 of the animals in three conservation areas in Mongolia.” According to Radic, the Takhi is like a national symbol in Mongolia and its return was eagerly anticipated by people all over the country. Rolston echoes this idea in his article, when he recalls the way the hundreds of Mongolians waited for hours to see the Takhi arrive at their airport back in 1992. Radic admits that at first some were less than supportive of creating reserves for the Takhi to live in because they didn’t want to lose precious grazing land, but “today there is greater acceptance” she says. It seems that the people truly are willing to shed past selfishness in order to welcome their spirit horses back, but it also suggests that there has always been a prioritized self-interest when it comes to sharing the Steppe.

The disappearance of the Takhi in Mongolia is a true paradox given the high profile that horses have in Mongolia’s culture. Still, a closer inspection of the Mongol lifestyle reveals a possible contributing factor. Horses function as a central component in Mongol life for a specific reason. They function as a much needed tool and they don’t require much in terms of resources. Elizabeth Yazdzik, who traveled to Mongolia as a foreign exchange student, puts the situation in perspective by comparing American horses with the Mongol steeds. While American horses exist as pets, Mongol horses exist to do work. The Mongol horse contributes to the nomadic lifestyle by providing transportation, food, and entertainment. In each of these departments, save perhaps entertainment, the horses perform a useful task that helps to sustain nomadic life. Usually, several horses out of the herd are used for riding and consequently herding other animals. The horses provide food in the form of milk from the mares and meat from the males in some cases. Other parts of the horse are also used to fashion tools. Horse hair is desirable as a material for making rope and the nomads do use the tails of dead horses for that purpose. Clearly, the Mongol horses have a central position in the Mongolian culture because the culture is so utilitarian not just because Mongolian people enjoy the horses.

The horses contribute to the people not only through what they give and do, but also through their ability to be self-sustaining on the Steppe. They live in a herd which is cared for and defended by a stallion. The ability to govern and protect a herd well makes a stallion desirable to Mongol herdsmen. As another form of self-sufficiency, the horses also graze and go to water on their own without human intervention. Natural selection is essentially free to work in the Mongol herds since the people do not engage in specific breeding practices to hone certain traits. In all of those aspects Mongol horses possess a similarity to the Takhi. Yet, unlike the Takhi, the herders can collect the domesticated herds whenever the need for a horse arises.

Despite living in a similar fashion, the Takhi could never hope to have as much value to the Mongol people as their domesticated horses in terms of practicality and usefulness. Perhaps this is part of why the people did not consider reserving fertile grassland for the Takhi. It might be argued that the many traditions surrounding horses in Mongolia imply a deep desire on the nomad’s part to honor and preserve horses. This is true to a certain extent, but it is also true that many of the traditions and practices honor the horse’s work and usefulness rather than its mere existence. The Mongols will leave the skull of a horse that has been killed for food in the pasture as a way of preserving the horse’s sanctity. They also place the skulls of beloved horses in special mounds that hold spiritual significance. The horse equipment holds a place of honor in the Mongol tent.

All of those practices relate to the usefulness of the horse. The honoring of the skulls speaks of a life filled with faithful service and the placement of the equipment honors the ongoing service that the horse provides. Mongols still worship the Takhi, yet just as the Takhi lacked usefulness to the people’s prosperity, the people’s worship has lacked usefulness for the Takhi’s survival.  History proves that a sacred name alone cannot keep a beloved species alive. The present thriving reintroduction sites serve as illustration of what true honor means. True honor means taking action to protect and defend rather than giving acknowledgement in words only.

HorsesToday, the Takhi are alive and well in Mongolia, but it began with the activism of foreign countries. Whether through ignorance or their own ambitions, the Mongol people let their spirit horses down. Thankfully they have repaid these special wild horses with sanctuary on the Steppes. As of 2014, the Mongol People have taken an active role in supporting the Takhi. Their capital city, Ulaanbaatar, made a goal to raise money for the reintroduction site at Takhin Tal, and it also hopes to raise awareness amongst the citizens regarding the Takhi. Several field trips for the school children of Mongolia to visit the reintroductions also took place. These field trips specifically focused on educating the children about the history of the Takhi’s extinction and resettlement. All of these projects represent a new found sense of advocacy in Mongolia concerning the Spirit Horse. This new chapter in Takhi story speaks of promise and hope.

The Takhi have had a long, hard journey back from the edge of extinction, but it is a worthy price to pay if it helps to remind the world that honor should be an action and not just a word. Each culture possesses so much unique beauty that manifests itself in all that its people cherish. Yet nothing is safe. Like the Takhi, beauty can fade away soundlessly, and sometimes there is no fortune that can bring it back.

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Grace MedranGrace Medran lives in Woodland Park, Colorado.  Since the age of six, horses have held a special place in her heart, and she continues to learn from them as often as she can escape to the barn. She also loves reading, and her favorite genre is sci-fi fantasy.  As a writer, she likes to explore social psychology and unique stories. Grace is also a dedicated artist.  She composes music, paints in watercolor, and enjoys performing in community theater. Her main goal in art and writing is to inspire others.