One of the parts of our trip to Siberia that I personally enjoyed the most was getting to experience the Buryatian horse culture. At home in America, I’ve ridden horses on and off most of my life, so I consider myself fairly informed. It was very interesting for me, then, to see the present day take on horses in Buryatia and the impact they’ve had on the culture in the past.
All throughout history, horses have played a major role in Buryatian culture. While in Ulan Ude, we visited the Zabaikalsky Museum, in which were located buildings of various points of Buryatian history. Our guide Rada mentioned to us that in the traditional yurt, there was a woman’s side and a man’s side. The woman’s side contained the oven and tools for home-making, whereas the man’s side was distinguished by the presence of a saddle. At this time, horses were considered to be the most important thing in a man’s life. His horse came first, followed by his wife and children. At this museum we also saw the post to which horses were tied, one of which was placed outside every one. There was a hierarchal structure to the post – notches indicated where the man of the house versus guests tied their horse. This post has been incorporated into the Buddhist culture of the area as well – individuals tie strips of cloth, color coded for different prayers, to each level notch on the stake depending on where they want to send their prayers.
Horses were not only representational of status at this time – they gained their important position for a reason. Many products were made from horsehair, such as fishing nets, blankets, wall-hangings, and clothes. Horse was also a staple of the diet – you can still buy canned horse meat in grocery stores. They also played a large role in the Buryatian takeover of the region. Long ago, the Buryat tribe shared the area with other Siberian tribes, such as the Evenk. Both tribes were nomadic, moving with their herds depending on the season. Eventually the Buryats gave up their nomadic ways and settled in to where is now known as Buryatia. The Evenks, however, are almost wiped out, and aren’t really found there anymore. This is because the animals of the Buryats, horses and cattle, eat far more than the herds of reindeer possessed by the Evenks. Due to lack of food, the Evenks were pushed out, and the Buryats then settled down.
Horses are still very prominent in Buryatia today. Horseback riding is considered one of the three national sports of Buryatia, along with archery and wrestling – there’s a statue dedicated to the sport in Ulan Ude. Our Fullbright Alumni Brian, who accompanied us for half of our Siberian trip, said he rides horses today, in a large facility just outside the city. Of course, he studies more modern forms of riding, like huntseat, rather than more traditional methods.
While driving up to and around Ust-Barguzin, we passed many herds of horses wandering the area. They belong to people – their sides are clearly branded – but are not fenced, they are merely left to wander at their own discretion. Our first contact with horses came outside a gas station right next to a burning trash dump, not the typical environment in which one expects to see a herd of horses. As we drove around the Baikal area, our guide Evgeni Dmitriovich said that some of the horses have become wild, as they wander the steppe untethered. In any case, the presence of horses in Buryatia not only played a large role historically, today it makes the area only that much more beautiful.