Katy Willings - Forage in Mongolia

Katy Willings - Adventurer, travel agent and Mongolian horse enthusiast 
26th January 2020 

Katy has been in charge of organising some of the World’s most renowned adventures, including the longest and toughest horse race on Earth, the Mongol Derby. In the process of running these trips for others, Katy has had some incredible adventures of her own, and has since set up her own travel agency in Mongolia, Morindoo. In this article she looks at horse management and forage in Mongolia 

Our herd grazing in Khentii Province on one of our horse treks

Mongolia boasts a higher population of horses than humans, and is a country synonymous with horses and horsemanship. Great herds roam freely year round, eating, living, mating, fighting, dying and thriving in their near-natural state, and working only intermittently with their human owners and partners.

It’s a very different style of horsemanship, predicated on the fact that the conditions in Mongolia, with its extreme climate that ranges from +40 in summer to -40 for prolonged periods in winter, and the traditional nomadic pastoralist lifestyle it has supported for thousands of years, exclude the possibility of managing the horses to any great extent. No fences, stables, rugs, hard feed, supplements, automatic waterers. For both horse and human, it’s a case of preserving energy through the winter, finding food and water to survive, and laying down fat (horses) and stored food (humans) in the summer when the conditions allow. In western societies the extreme weight loss and gain these horses habitually endure in the yearly cycle of feast and famine would give our horses acute laminitis and other metabolic disorders. It truly is a wonder to see these semi-feral horses, their perfect hooves shaped by their great distances covered, their perfect teeth worn by their constant grazing, sometimes on the most spartan and un-promising looking grasses. 

" They are shaped by nature and need no protection from it. The result is one of the toughest, fittest and most capable breeds of horse one could ever wish to meet. To ride these horses is truly to re-join the animal kingdom and feel first hand their dexterity, stamina and enthusiasm for life and they make the best adventure partners imaginable ".

Nomadic pastoralism - a delicate eco-system

Until 30 years ago this nomadic pastoral model, where families moved with their animals multiple times per year, packing all their belongings, including their homes, the traditional Mongolian yurt or ger that dots the steppes and represents welcome and civilisation in such a sparsely populated country, was self-supporting. Over-grazing was not an issue, water was plentiful and pristine, and the free movement of people and livestock meant that everyone got enough, and no-one took too much. It was an elegant eco-system. However the move to a market economy in 1990, a huge resource boom which has seen a lot of land sold off and mined, using vast amounts of water and interrupting the long-established grazing patterns, as well as the cashmere boom which has incentivised many herders to increase their goat herds to unsustainable levels in pursuit of 

wealth, has contributed to a sharp decline in the quality and quantity of grazing available. As far from the moderating influence of the sea as one can get on Earth, Mongolia is at the very sharp end of climate change, and soil erosion, desertification, and dzud - the unfortunate sequence of a big snowfall, then a melt, then a freeze, that puts a layer of ice over the soil and means that animals cannot dig through it to reach the grasses below - are all an annual fact of life for herders, having been perhaps a once-a-decade crisis a generation ago. Herders are registered to their own villages, meaning that a great move up-country to where there is better grass and water is not allowed; perhaps if they were a new kind of refugee crisis would emerge, and competition for the remaining good grazing would spoil even the lands of plenty, such as the Orkhon Valley in Central Mongolia. Something of a postcode lottery has occurred. 

What does this mean for the horses of Mongolia 

A need to innovate, and at times, supplement their diet. Yes, it’s time to talk about hay! If the horses cannot reach the nutrition, the nutrition needs to come to them.

Haymaking pre- and post-Soviet era

Actually haymaking has a long history in Mongolia, but one that has been interrupted by social and political change. Under the Soviets who were Mongolia’s landlords for most of the twentieth century, collective farms were established and huge swathes of land were put to agricultural use and mechanically harvested, the hay centrally distributed and fertilised with imported chemicals at government expense. Post-collectivisation and we have a curious combination of private herds on public lands, and the Soviet machinery long-since seized up. These factors combine to result in very low yields, with meadows hand-mown and security, and therefore effort invested, hard to establish. The haymaking season is short, just 90 days without frost for growing and harvesting.

The first hay truck arrives - this is a very rare sight indeed in Mongolia

The resulting hay would be considered very low-grade by the racing yards of Lambourn or similar, in fact hardly worth feeding. Again, the extraordinary natural adaptations of the Mongolian horses allow them to derive enough energy from very low-quality forage, with a typical make up of herbs (considered to have poor feeding value), 39 - 58%; Carex, 11 - 22%; grasses, 20 - 37%; and legumes, 6 - 18%, though the exact composition varies according to the geography, of mountain steppe versus rainfed meadow, for example. The fibrous nature of much of the forage keeps them chewing, producing saliva, protecting the acid balance of their gut linings during these times of relative famine. The scarcity of grass available, meaning they must dig through the snow cover to reach it, keeps horses moving in order to find grazing, and whilst they lose vast amounts of body weight each winter their organs seem to cope admirably. Herders are quick to point out that to provide more than a supplement, to more than the weakest or most valuable horses, creates a problem in their herds because the horses start to congregate around the gers or the hay store and wait to be fed, and stop travelling independently to look for grazing on their own initiative. Hence, hay as a famine relief, rather than as a dietary foundation, is the order of the day. Keep the horses as wild and independent as possible, to keep them fit, tough and strong enough to survive.

Horses as an economic resource in modern Mongolia - the tourism industry 

On the plus side, the thriving horse-tourism industry in Mongolia has given enterprising herders not only the means but also the incentive to look after their horses and supplement their diet wherever possible through the winter. Whilst selecting the horses for the 2019 Mongol Derby in July 2019, I asked many of our herders if they fed any forage during the winter months, and at least half said yes they did, and of that half, most were involved in making their own, but a significant few were able to buy from other families thanks to the cash income they had earned from working on the Mongol Derby, one of a number of adventures and tours in Mongolia that uses local horses in significant numbers and offers herders a cash payment for their supply. Events such as the Derby, and my own adventures through my tour company Morindoo, are a positive story in Mongolia, raising the value of the healthy horses and showing herders that a small but valuable herd, i.e. “yield”, is more important than a vast and redundant one.

I know of one owner and tour operator who buys 5000 bales of hay each winter for his horses, and rides them year-round, supported by a riding club and a full summer of tours and expeditions which monetise his fantastic horses. The transport of the hay, on two vast flatbeds, makes up almost half of the $10k bill, and this is just not within the reach, or storage capacity, of most herders. The performance of his horses, some of which clock up 2000kms each summer including 700kms in 10 days on the famous Gobi Gallop, testifies to his methods however.

Forage vs grain as the dietary supplement

Oats are much more readily stored and transported and deliver a much higher energy yield than hay. Many racehorse trainers in Mongolia feed oats by the bucketload to their horses in preparation for a race, well aware of their rocket fuel properties, but sadly ignorant of their acid-forming ones, especially on an empty stomach. On our travels in Mongolia sourcing horses and speaking to herders we have noticed a very high incidence of hind gut acidosis amongst their racehorse population, and all of the associated behavioural issues; stereotyping, poor performance, sour temperament. Extolling the virtues of forage, and grazing, over and above excessive grain use, has become a pet project for us at Morindoo, and our veterinary NGO Steppe and Hoof, and travelling horses to race meets with piles of hay to chew on while they travel, and once they are there, one of the biggest interventions we have been able to make to improve horse welfare in their ancient racing traditions.  

It’s ironic that the un-managed horses of Mongolia may be healthier than their most valuable racehorses in this regard, and something we are working hard to educate herders and trainers about. All want the very best for their horses, as any owner would. It’s fascinating to be there as ancient wisdom and modern horse management, and particularly performance horse management, techniques intersect. I for one would not bet against Haygain steamers making it to Mongolia soon; racing is the most prestigious sport in Mongolia and trainers will look for every possible advantage, as over here. There are huge gains to be made, as I will discuss in a future article looking at the respiratory performance and pressures on the Mongolian horse in hard work.

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