Legendary Horse People

The Yakuts - a Legendary Horse People

Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg spent the winter of 2004-2005 travelling through Siberia. He sent this special report on the Yakut horsemen to The Long Riders' Guild. And Yakutia.org thanks The Long Riders' Guild for their generous permission to publish the article.

It is 19th of January today, -33°F, clear with a light southerly wind and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that it will stay this way. We’ve put a pot of fresh caribou meat cooking slowly on the stove. Acquired during our visited to Nalimsk yesterday. The local animists are down by the river all day talking to the river Gods. I hope those prayers will help us as well, when we leave Srednekolymsk on 1st of February, on our way north-east heading on skis for Kolymskaya. In any case we’ve located 6 kilograms [about 12 pounds] of oats in a hidden away store today! “The horse is my God”, Vasili declares: “I admire it and I have lived with horses all my life. It is my best friend, my partner and it feeds me and my family. Both through its work and because I eat its meat.”

In the small village we’re in, Nalimsk, Vasili is considered the real expert on horses. Like the other old Yakuts in the village, he speaks only Yakut. Therefore we need two translators. One who translates from Yakut to Russian and one from Russian to English. This is no problem, really, as long as you avoid telling jokes. Which is hard, since the Yakuts are a joking people. So am I. The problem is that either it takes three minutes after you’ve finished telling your joke to get a laugh or the translators mess it up and you end up getting a blank stare of misunderstanding. The Yakuts always do understand horses, though. Almost everybody in the village is the owner of at least one of the legendary Yakut horses. But it is only Vasili who’s old enough to have lived like many Yakuts did in the old days, namely a lonely life in the great wilderness, hunting, fishing and setting traps far away from other people, exploring new areas by horse.

“Most people travel by snowmobile in the winter nowadays, and by jeep in the summer when hunting and fishing” ,Vassili explains, “and if they run into trouble, like a vehicle breaking down, they’re in big trouble. Some of them die out there in the wilderness. This never happens if you travel by horse. If your horse runs out of fuel, the horse will find its own food by digging deep in the ground to find what it needs to survive. Grass and roots. No matter what time of the year.”

However, there’s always an exception to the rule. About ten years ago, it was such an odd winter, that the ground froze in such a way, that more than half of the more than 8000 wild Yakut horses in this vast area perished from hunger. A catastrophe of course. Because, the Yakut horse isn’t only stunningly beautiful, almost like a fairy tale horse, it is unique in many ways. It resembles the Icelandic horse, but has much thicker fur, it is sturdier and, of course, handles cold far better. It is a fantastic survivor and even the tame Yakut horses find their own food most of the time. This area around Srednekolymsk and the Kolyma River have developed their own breed of this legendary horse. It is called the Kolymskaya horse, it’s height is 168 cm, and is developed to better handle the specific surroundings of this area: the immense taiga, the eternal permafrost and the extreme cold.

“When the foals are old enough, we put them through severe tests”, Vassili informs me, “to see if they’re strong and clever enough to handle these demanding surroundings and see if they can survive by themselves, just in case the times get much harder and we cannot feed them anymore. We’re extremely careful to choose the right horses. Those who can’t make it, end up being our food. So the horses you’ll come across here in the village, they’re all the strongest and the best to be found.”

It's difficult to believe that these two photographs of Yakut horsemen were taken a hundred years apart - in 1905 and 2005!

Click on an image to enlarge it.

Most locals use the horse every day. Either when they ride down to the nearby lake to fetch ice to make drinking water from, since there’s no running water during the winter season. Or to fetch hay, timber or any other essentials for their daily survival. They don’t walk next to the horses or sit at the back of a sledge and steer, no, the Yakuts always ride their horses. They’re very proud over their own history and ability to handle horses. Vasili is a symbol for this reality and when he sits up on his horse, it’s hard to believe he’s 75 years of age, he swings himself up into the saddle. At least the first time. The next one, he climbs up on a haystack and takes place in the saddle. His horse wasn’t in the mood for tricks today. This irritated horse apart, most Yakut horses are very relaxed, easy going and calm. “I once had a horse which passed 30 years of age” ,Vasili tells me whilst I am walking by his side, on our way down to the frozen lake, in -51°F, “oh, he could handle the cold, well, everything! That horse was my all time favorite. His name was Hannanaq. He turned old, he did, even though most horses here never get older than 20.”

Thursday 20th of January. It is -31°F with a light southerly and overcast here in Srednekolymsk.

The Yakuts, in the same manner as the Patagonian cowboy, name their horses either after how they look or a specific of the nature at the place where they’re born or what weather it is that day. My wife Titti and myself spent a year living together with these southerly cowboys and during our visit to Nalimsk the other day, I realized there are many similarities between these two equestrian cultures. The saddles are more or less the same construction. The Yakuts make them from birch and the style is old traditional Castilian, in Patagonia called recado. The saddle blanket is a work of art. It is made from tangled hairs from the horsetail and it is thick and very comfortable. The same handy work is done with the saddle straps. Hair from the horsetail. Thick, beautiful and comfortable. Everything else is made from leather from either cow or horse. The bit is simple, comfortable and soft. At least in comparison with the Patagonian variety. The stirrups are normally made of birch as well.

“I bring my horses to drink here every day during the winter” , Vassili tells me at the same time as he cuts a hole in the thick ice and, suddenly he looks up and shouts; “Look, there are more thirsty horses in this village!”

Five other Yakut horses trot cautiously our way. They don’t like our hurried movements, our camera flashes and stop. But finally they make their way to the watering hole. Even the tame horses walk freely around the village as they like. Well, at least normally. This winter, however, a big herd of wild caribou have made their way down from the barren tundra in the north to feed in the taiga of this area. And big packs of the giant polar wolves have followed their tracks.

“These beasts can weigh up to a 100 kgs” , Vassili claims, “and they will easily kill my horses and my other cattle in no time. For this reason, we keep a vigilant eye on our horses and even keep them locked up during day time.”

The Yakut cowboy is as impressive and beautiful as his horse. Vasili is dressed in head cover made of the thick fur of the wolverine, he dons a coat of reindeer skin, his thick fur trousers comes from the laika or husky and his boots are made of the skin and fur from the hind leg of the horse. Same boots as the Patagonian cowboy.

“Do you know” ,Vasili asks me proudly when we’ve returned indoors again, “that we Yakuts arrived to this region with our horses and our cattle at the end of the 15th Century? 50 years after the first Russians passed through here on their explorations. It was the horse which brought us here and opened up this vast land to more people than the natives who lived here than? Yugahirs and Evens.”

In most Yakut villages we’ve visited, we came across plenty of totem poles, monuments from the Soviet Era and wall paintings depicting the horse as the number one symbol of this people. The Yakut name for horse is "salgit" as a collective name, but the local Kolymskaya horse is called an "at." And when seeing the Yakut handling his horse, it is easy to see how much they love this intelligent and beautiful animal.

“You know, if we end up with an aggressive and violent horse or foal, it can take up to a year before we can ride it”, Vassili continues to explain, “we never beat or use violence when training a horse. It has to take its time. This is a graceful and sensitive animal. And, I have to point out this, if a person has to beat a horse to make it do what one wants, this person is no horseman. He’s a brute.”

The Yakuts don’t, as an example of their horsemanship, use a whip, riding stick or anything more brutal than this to command their horse.

“I am of the opinion”, Vassili states, “that if you’re together with a horse every day for many years and after all this time still needs to beat the horse, you don’t understand horses. A real cowboy knows how to get his horse to do what he wants it to do, without using force.”

“It seems like you don’t shoe your horses?” I ask.

“We used to in the old days when we rode big distances and at times ended up in rocky areas”, the old man explains, “but we don’t ride any great distances today. And our local surroundings are made up of marshes and forests. You don’t need shoes than. But we do trim their hooves at least once a year.”

Before the arrival of communism and the Soviet power in the 1930’s, who relocated all people in the area to a few big villages instead a many small ones, there was a stable every 30 kms all over the territory. A place where both men and horses could get rest and food. A normal riding distance.

“Our village Nalimsk was a kolschoz [collective farm] during the Soviet era”, Vassili sums up before we leave, “we had a fox farm, a pig farm, we farmed tame reindeer and we had a lot more horses than. All this fell apart with the arrival of perestroika. However, no matter what happens in the future, I know our Yakut horses will survive us humans. They’re much wiser, stronger and braver.”

Please click here to go to Mikael Strandberg's website.