Central Asia Horse Diplomacy

Live document, with some fun photos, here. English translation below.

Soon after I arrived in Kazakhstan last Spring, I wandered around the Native Lands exhibition at Almaty’s Kasteev Museum. The exhibition assembled a stunning collection of photos taken over one hundred years ago documenting the nomads of Kazakhstan’s great Steppe and the Native American Indians of the American West.

The pictures drew out powerful similarities between these two societies. The nomadic tents – teepees and yurts; the elaborate ceremonial headdresses; the proud, sun-leathered faces of the elders. All were nearly indistinguishable.

Then there were the horses. In both sets of photos, horses were everywhere. Children grew up riding; saddles were built for long rides across the open range; the horses – in both cases wide backed and short legged – appeared custom built for their important role. Both societies were defined by their horses.

I’ve been surrounded by horses all my life. My mom jokes that she made all her children ride before we could walk. There were always horses around growing up. When I needed more, I’d work at the local stable, shoveling manure in exchange for the chance to ride.

The sight of this shared reverence for the horse – between these two cultures separated by thousands of miles of geography and impossibly large chasms of culture – brought tears to my eyes.

Seeing these pictures, I knew that I had come home. I had moved thousands of miles from my ancestral home in the western United States. But surrounded by Kazakhstan’s reverence for the horse, I felt very much at home.

At a certain point, at least in America, boys tire of riding, preferring competitive sports with speed and teams. At this point, when I could have moved on to other pursuits, I discovered polo. Polo, a game on horseback involving teams, speed and a ball, is descended from the great Central Asian game of bushkazi or kokpar. Discovering polo, my interest in horses deepened. I’ve been playing ever since, briefly as a professional, once on a team organized by India’s Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Last summer, in search of polo’s Central Asian origins, we traveled to the magnificent Song Kul lake, in the rugged and empty heart of Kyrgyzstan. One day, as we camped on the lake shore, we were overtaken by a group of young men playing bushkazi; two teams competing to deposit a goat carcass in the opponent’s goal.

I wandered into the melee. Eying me suspiciously, the boys raced around me, showing off their moves. Eventually, one offered me his horse. I jumped on, placed the headless goat under my knee, and made off toward the opponents’ goal.

Polo is a competitive game played at speed. However, nothing I’d learned in polo prepared me for the chaos of what followed. Horses crashed into each other. Incredibly nimble boys lent down to the ground while galloping at speed to pick up a goat carcass half their weight. I learned to appreciate the strategy of the game, carefully orchestrated moves hidden by the dust of the stampede.

Later, hoping to teach my own three children Kazakhstan’s horse heritage, we made our way to the Kapshagay horse market, where thousands of horses – some large, some small, most with peculiar markings, all rugged – stood for sale in cramped pens.

With a few words of Russian, we asked if any knew how to ride. Moving past the horses destined for the dinner table, we jumped on a pony with a curiously hitched trot. We fell in love with him instantly and bought him on the spot. Caspian as he’s now called lives at Almaty’s hippodrome, standing next to much better bred neighbors. My friend Toleg laughs when he tells the story of where Caspian came from. Sometimes, I still catch Caspian eying me suspiciously, wondering even now if he’s being fattened up for the slaughter.

Horses run through every aspect of Kazakhstan’s culture and history. Riding on a sure footed pony through the steep hills, I wonder if these great beasts have changed much since the times of Genghis Khan. Mare’s milk is a national drink. Horses roam free over the steppe and into the mountains. Traditional Central Asian nomads once said that “the horse is the plough of mankind.”

My employer here – the US Agency for International Development – has picked up on this horse theme. When USAID first arrived in Kazakhstan In the early 1990’s, soon after Kazakhstan’s independence, we chose to place a horse at the center of our logo. Around the office, old timers still have coffee mugs or shirts proudly displaying this design. More recently, we updated our logo, bringing in new colors and designs for a new age. The horse, however, remains, as a sign of the equestrian ties that bind our two countries together.

Interests make connections across cultures. Wherever I travel, I seek out fellow horsemen. We may not speak one another’s language. We may know little about the other’s culture. But somehow we are connected. In traditional Kazakh society, when a boy turns three, he is placed on a horse for the first time, using a special saddle to hold him steady. As he sets off, his elders bless him with these words:

“Go through the desert, where the bird’s wings are tired.

Find the way off-road, be ahead of the troops in battle.

Let your horse be always ready. I wish you this.”

These are words I would like to pass along to my own son. Because of the horse, I feel connected to Kazakhstan.

The author works at USAID’s regional Mission to Central Asia based in Almaty.

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Government.

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About jkbharris

Living in Cairo.
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One Response to Central Asia Horse Diplomacy

  1. Grant davis says:

    John,
    Loved your words. Had a chance to go there about 10 years ago. One of my favorite places in the world.
    Regards to you and your family,
    Grant

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