During a recent trip to Bayankhongor province in central Mongolia, I had the opportunity to watch and photograph a group of herders catch and cut the hair of two small herds of horses—around fifty horses in total.
“Gada aduu dellex xiij baina”—“They’re cutting the horses’ hair outside.” Filling in the gaps with her hands-turned-scissors mimicry, I was surprised by my own ability to understand the words my host-mother Enkhchimeg was saying.
I grabbed my camera and stepped out into the furious bluster that characterizes Mongolian spring. Herders and horses kicked dust and dirt, which was caught by the wind and thrown into eyes, ears, and mouths.
Mongolian horses have been aptly described to me as “half-wild.” Despite their undersized stature in comparison to their Western counterparts…
Mongolian horses have been aptly described to me as “half-wild.” Despite their undersized stature in comparison to their Western counterparts, lifetimes of grazing, running, and playing with the herd have left their spirits uninhibited and whole—gruff and abrasive in both texture and personality. If you held an apple to a Mongolian horse’s face, she would take a momentary pause to gaze at this foreign object and person before putting her head down, returning to graze her familiar pasture.
Roaming freely in the mountains nearby, the swirling herd was coaxed into my host family’s corral to make the process of hair cutting easier.
Otgo (grey), Bondon (blue), Togoo (green), and Ganbold (lasso) were systematic. Ganbold, someone Enkhchimeg lauded as being an exceptional horseman, led the group as most throws of his lasso found their mark on the first try. Togoo transitioned between roping and cutting as needed. Otgo and Bondon focused on cutting and helping rein in the especially spirited horses.
With some of young horses, Ganbold decided to forgo his lasso and simply use his hands. Grabbing a front leg, he would get the horse to lose its balance before wrestling it to the ground. I got a laugh as I gave him the nickname Aduunii Bukh—The Horse Wrestler.
While the horses Ganbold chose to grapple with were not full grown, their wild power was visible. Ganbold’s innate strength was apparent as he commanded the half-wild horses.
While the horses Ganbold chose to grapple with were not full grown, their wild power was visible.
Once controlled, the young horses had three of their legs tied. I watched as Bondon cocked a young horse’s head back, inserting a screwdriver into its mouth. Before I had time to grapple with what was happening, he had removed a small tooth from the horse’s mouth.
While the horse didn’t seem excited about the prospect of having a screwdriver shoved in its mouth, the initial churning in my gut subsided as I watched Bondon precisely remove several teeth in a matter of seconds. While there’s no way for me to really know, the process didn’t seem any more painful than branding.
The teeth cause pain when they are close to coming out, which discourages the young horses from eating and putting on weight.
Later, it was explained to me that this happens because the baby teeth prevent young horses from putting on weight. The teeth cause pain when they are close to coming out, which discourages the young horses from eating and putting on weight.
In between roping, wrestling, and hair cutting, the herders took short breaks to prepare hand-rolled cigarettes and pour themselves milk tea.
After hours, two small sacks of horsehair lay on the far edge of the corral. Togoo estimated ten kilos worth. Selling for around 5,000 Tugrik per kilo, this annual ritual brought in around $25 USD.
I entered this whirlwind of hair and teeth and flying grit with my camera, equipped with my go to 50mm lens. I was forced, by choice, into close proximity with these half-wild animals and left in awe of the four men wrangling them. I felt my own senses heighten as I attempted to capture the power and beauty I was witnessing.
I was forced, by choice, into close proximity with these half-wild animals and left in awe of the four men wrangling them.
Heading back to host-family’s white felt ger for noodles and tea, I expressed how impressed I was with the difficult job that had just been completed. My host-mother replied, “It’s not difficult. There’s a corral. If there wasn’t a corral it would be difficult.”