As a child, I loved the concept of horses. I used to collect every magazine page, every postcard or a stamp with a horse on it, putting them in a special album. I was fascinated with horses and dreamt of riding like a western movie hero, galloping fast and furious, on a wild mustang that would only listen to my command. It was a very intense, but also a very long-distance relationship: there were no horses anywhere near my home.
Finally, at the age of 14 I lucked out and got a horse-back ride in a summer camp. The mare was senile and quiet, and the solemn 10-minute snail-pace ride went without a hitch until I tried to get off the horse, caught my shoe in the stirrup and fell down, shattering the bones in my right arm. It took forever to heal and the dream kind of lost its luster. I figured I’d never gallop wild like Clint Eastwood, and that was that.
But the dream came rushing back to me when I found myself in Mongolia.
There were horses everywhere. One of the main events of the Naadam Festival is the horseback race by 7-year-old kids. Locals decorate their homes with paintings of horses. About half of the traditional music is dedicated to horses and riding, there is even a musical string instrument called “horse-head”. Looks like a horse head, sounds like a woman weeping in the open steppe – guaranteed to squeeze a tear out of the most cynical bastard. A horse head is also on the local airline logo.
Mongols even have a special word for a person’s spirit, your most inner self: it’s “wind-horse”, and the stronger you are, the stronger your “wind-horse” is perceived to be. “Wind-horse” is a term widely used in Shamanic practices, too.
In other words, my childhood obcession resurfaced. So one day somewhere in the countryside I gathered the courage to ask the locals if I could return to the camp on a horse instead of a van. Sure, they said. Gallop ok? – I double-checked. Whatever you want! – they gestured, put me on a quiet-looking horse, and sent me back to camp with two local boys, about 7 and 12 years old.
It was a nice, dry day. There was about 2 miles to the camp. The kids were young and seemed pretty friendly. How hard can it be to gallop a little, I thought. I was looking forward to a nice ride, getting comfortable in a saddle, when suddenly the boys lashed their whips, shrieked something wild and our horses suddenly took off like they just got fire lit under their tails.
I barely had time to grab fistfuls of my horse’s mane, as I had immediately lost the reigns and any control of the situation. I would later find out that the 7-year-old was some kind of a national horse-riding champion. And the 12-year-old was some kind of an ex-champion. And that both of their horses had won multiple races. And that although my horse had not been a champion, she had ambitions, too, and would not tolerate hanging too much behind the others.
StoOOooOOp the hooOOooOOooOOrse! – I was trying to yell, swallowing mouthfuls of dust and flying pebbles, trying to hold on to the mad beast under me. My whole life flashed in front of my eyes, including the damn horse album. I was holding on for dear life, feeling all my internal organs tumble inside and the brain matter bump around in my head, smashing against the cranial walls. The wind was about to blow the contacts straight out of my tearing eyes, the right arm started to itch again where the fracture had healed over a decade ago, as I started planning my imminent fall. From time to time the little rascals would glance back at me, clearly mistaking my SOS signals for expression of glee, scowl and whip their horses hard, making them going faster and faster.
I was just about to let go and accept my dire destiny, when my horse suddenly changed the gait. It was now moving in a wave pattern: jumping forward on both front legs, hanging in the air for half a second each time. All of a sudden, the body caught onto the new rhythm and balanced itself out, I recovered the reigns and realized – this was it! That was the gallop! Finally, the horse and I merged into one wind-horse spirit, moving in unison. It was like flying and felt totally euphoric, the best sensation ever, worth every moment of the horror leading up to it.
Unfortunately, we were already sprinting into the camp. The little juveniles were already there, cheering my effort. After peeling off the crazy horse, I tried to stabilize my jelly legs, squeezed out a happy smile, and limped into a guest yurt, where I collapsed on the nearest cot and proceeded to manually shift my eye lids back into their natural position, waiting for my stomach to find its way back down.
Over the next couple months spent amidst the mesmerizing Mongolian landscapes I eventually learned how to gallop without clutching a horse’s mane, just leisurely slumping in a saddle, almost cool like Clint. And just when I was about to feel very proud of myself, in a village somewhere a wild-looking horse stormed past me full-speed, foaming at the mouth. In the saddle, a pink-clad teenage girl was typing away furiously on her sparkly mobile phone with both hands, her head down and the reigns just tied to the saddle, letting the horse find its own way across the wide open land.
Clearly, I will never ride like Clint Eastwood. Nor like an average Mongolian child.
But I learned something better in Mongolia: every one of us has a wind-horse inside. And if you let yours run wild, it might take you to the happiest place you’ve ever been.