My guest today is Paula Boer from New South Wales, Australia. My first visitor from Down Under!
Paula started her lifelong love of horses at age 7 when she first rode a pony on a ranch in Canada. Two years later in England, she started weekly riding lessons and became hooked. She competed in many horse disciplines, caught and broke in brumbies, and mustered on remote cattle stations in Australia. Her Brumbies children’s series is based on her own experiences with wild horses. Set in the Snowy Mountains of Australia, the first of the series, Brumbies, became an Amazon ‘Best Seller’ in 2012. Her most recent book Brumbies In The Outback has just been released.
But today, instead of talking about those experiences, she’s going to tell us about a fascinating adventure among the horse people of Mongolia. Take it away Paula.
Turning forty is a major milestone. Wanting to escape the possibilities of surprise parties or reminders of creeping age, I jokingly said to my husband I wanted to go to Outer Mongolia. It wasn’t only the remoteness that appealed to me, but the fact that the country has more horses than people. So we went.
Horses canter around us across the open grasslands. Their hogged manes and lean hides accentuate their movements, muscles taut and necks stretched low. Riders of all sizes wave their arms, flap their legs and twitch the long ends of their reins to gain that extra effort from their mount.
The annual horse races in Mongolia are a splash of colour against a backdrop of rolling green hills. Clothes and tack are made from assorted materials knotted together or tied with rawhide. Our guide tells us that many competitors have ridden for hours to come to this event. The horses will race more than once over a distance of forty kilometres before being ridden home again.
The horses respond instantly to every command – spinning, barging, galloping or sliding to a halt to gain advantage over the other competitors. Riders jostle amidst an equally raucous crowd cheering on their favourites and shouting advice. The race winds over hills, through rivers and down valleys, the riders knowing the route from experience. No specific tracks mark the way. Cheers and jeers announce the invisible finish line where horses are swamped to be cared for in preparation for the next race.
The day after the race I had my chance to ride these tough horses. Despite having competed the day before, the ponies felt keen as we mounted up. I cantered through flowers that grew as high as my horse’s nose. Suddenly there was much shouting. Turning to see what the commotion was, I was signalled to return. Believing the situation urgent, I galloped back to the anxious guides. I pulled up as they leapt from their horses. Grinning, they indicated my girth had come undone and was dragging on the ground!
That event resulted in a comradeship I hadn’t sensed before. We climbed through vast stands of conifers, the smell of pine needles rising from under the horses’ hooves. We crossed grasslands where the horses nibbled seed heads as they walked. Herds of horses dotted amongst the lush feed in every valley.
We learned that everyone in Mongolia can ride. There are more horses than people. There are statues of horses, horses carved into musical instruments and furniture, even drawings of horses on their banknotes. Horses provide transport, entertainment, food, drink and income.
There are no fences. The herds roam freely, ownership identified by brands. Twice a day the mares come in to feed their foals tied to lines in rows. The mares are milked for human consumption before the foals are permitted to drink. Children nurture the foals that are to be theirs, creating a lifelong bond. I can’t think of a better way to live.
Brumbies in the Outback
Ben and Louise discover that life on a remote cattle station is very different to their Snowy Mountains home. Missing her horse, Honey, Louise struggles to adapt to the outback. Ben has a graver concern: he is desperate to prove that Brandy, his stallion, is fit after a serious leg injury, otherwise he may be destroyed. From mustering and working cattle, to tracking and taming desert brumbies, both friends are challenged by their experiences.
As the sun rose higher, more and more cattle thronged in to the mob. Ben had forgotten how slow a muster started. There had been little for him to do with the experienced stockmen chasing back cattle that didn’t want to stop. Although he’d hoped to have a chance to chat to Jacinta, they needed to keep their separate posts. Looking across to where Louise sat on Splash, he thought she seemed relaxed in the shade. The pony appeared to be asleep; an old hand at this game, he knew he’d need his energy for later.
A shrill whistle alerted Ben. Graeme signaled for them to start walking the cattle out. He had explained earlier how he wanted everyone to work—Ben and Jacinta on the wings, the head stockman and one other in the lead, and Louise with the remainder of the riders on the tail. They planned to keep the cattle close together and move at the pace of the slowest calves.
Ben’s chestnut mare pranced as she closed with a large Brahman bull, his neck hump wobbling with each step. Pushing his horse into the bull’s shoulder, Ben guided the old male back towards the mob. He turned without complaint, lumbering his great bulk with plodding steps. Pleased how his horse responded to his leg aids, Ben patted her neck.
Settling in for a long walk, Ben rode automatically, watching the cattle for any that might try to stray. Every so often, another small group would come running in from the scrub to join the herd, chased from far away by the buzzing helicopter. The heat had returned to the day and dust clung to his sweaty skin. Ben took a long swig from his canteen, letting some of the cool water dribble down his chin. While trying to re-secure his water bottle, the chestnut mare shied.
“Whoa! Steady there!” Ben slipped sideways, almost coming off. Grabbing the mane, he hauled himself back into the saddle. Overhead, a kite flew low with a snake in its claws, the writhing body of its meal casting shadows over the horse. The reptile had been easy prey while slithering away from the thousands of hooves trampling the dust.
“So that’s what spooked you.” Ben shortened up his reins and sat deep, preventing the mare from bolting as she continued to panic. As he brought her back under control, the helicopter appeared from behind a small bluff with a roar.
Too much for the green horse, she snatched at the bit and broke into a gallop.