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In the morning I awoke to find myself cocooned under a mountain of heavy blankets, I could still see my breath as I periscoped my head out of the covers. There was ice crystals on the ground, but the sky was clear and it was sunny. The water had frozen in the toilets whose plumbing was courtesy of large tanks of river water secured on their roofs. But within an hour everything began to thaw.

Preparing water for tea and coffee

Cute local kids

Over breakfast of porridge and dried fruit we planned out our day’s activities and before long our horses had arrived. I decided to go out with our local guide Farhad and a few others from the truck since riding with others seemed more fun for the day, plus I could always take off on my own again if I wished. The rest of the group weren’t experienced riders, so they put them up on more gentle beasts. Farhad and myself were given our ponies last, two very tall geldings. The difference was staggering. Before I’d even swung a foot over mine I could sense his energy and alertness. This was a real fire-breather.

It hardly took more than a slight press of my knees and we were off in a trot down the road, the others walking behind us. No encouragement at all was needed to cantor and my horse needed more coaxing to slow than to speed. I liked him already. He spun on a dime when I pulled to one side or another and only looked mildly annoyed when I wouldn’t let him munch on the lush grass along the way. The sun was warming the fields and the skies were clear. It was going to be a very good day.

I rode with the others down to the lakeshore where we stopped to let our horses drink and rest. Farhad spent a little time with a few of the others who were having difficulty with their horses and I continued up to the surrounding hills with a few others. My horse wanted to not just cantor, but gallop, any chance he got. He didn’t walk, he marched. Uphill, downhill, it hardly mattered. By now I no longer needed to use vocal commands at all, he moved purely with leg pressure, sped and slowed with my posture, like ESP. By the time Farhad again caught up with us it’d been a few hours into our ride and time to return for lunch. Farhad kicked his horse into a cantor, and that was all it took for mine to decide to gallop. He was very fast and I wanted to make sure I could control him, so I slowed him down, him fighting me the whole way. I again let him gallop, this time letting him go. He was even faster and I knew it would be a real fight to slow him again. But all that lay between us was miles and miles of empty green pasture with no holes, no ditches. I decided to just let him go and let up on the reins. He then caught sight of Farhad’s horse catching up to him and it was like he found another gear. I have never, ever, gone that fast on a horse before in my life. My eyes were reduced to water slits from the wind and I had to remind myself to breathe. I could hear Farhad behind me yelling and whopping as we flew over the plains. I don’t think there’s anything closer to feeling like you’re flying without leaving the ground. Absolutely stunning. We finally slowed just outside our yurts, still thundering in to the dinning tent. I gave my boy a good pat on the neck and let him graze while silently wondering how I could sneak him back home with me.

Traditional clothes in the dining yurt

Best horse in the world

After lunch we’d arranged for the locals to play a game of polo for us. Kok-boru or Ulak Tartysh is a traditional horseback game played all over central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan it is one of their national sports and they take great pride in this show of horsemanship and strength. The “ball” in this game is the body of a dead goat. Teams try to take the goat to one of two goals, all the while the opposing team will be trying to wrestle the goat away, wrestle their opponents off their horse, like a game of rugby on horseback.

Soon the locals began trickling in to our camps in small groups. Men and women, young children and old. The goat was waiting his fate, feet tied and lying on the ground. We were all a bit nervous about the actual slaughter of the goat, but were impressed with how it was delivered. The entire camp lifted their arms in the air in thanks and prayers. Two men held down the animal while a third approached with a knife he’d spent minutes sharpening. There was a quick gurgle as he cut the animal’s throat and it was all over. As quick as you can imagine and probably more humane than most animals in America are treated. The head and hooves were cut off and set aside to be used for soup. The goat itself would be given to the winner of the game and used as food. Little here goes to waste.

The game began with two teams of three, the entire group thundering past us, tugging at each other and the goat. They used their sticks to control their horses, or on their opponent’s horses to send them off. A well trained horse could be commanded to deliver a brutal kick to an opponent or his horse. This was not a game for sissies. We watched in fascination as men were pulled from their horses and had to remount under the trample of hooves. Horses fell too and you wondered how often someone or their horse faces serious injury. The entire village cheered on their family members, and occasionally broke for vodka and bread. There was no real out of bounds in this game, so several times the game ran wide and in between yurts, fire pits and spectators.

The game ended in a free-for-all event where there was no teams, just every man for himself. First one to the goal with the goat wins. We all correctly picked an athletic guy in a white polo shirt as the eventual winner. He showboated for us by asking his horse to rear up for photo ops and galloped up and down the road with his trophy.

It again got cooler in the evening, but nothing approaching the storm of the night before and it was hardly past dark before I crawled into bed, dreaming of ponies.

I have some video of the goat polo I'll put together and share soon.
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May 2017

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