Horses of the Silk Road

Horses of the Silk Road

MIR’s Tour Manager Michel Behar is an encyclopedia when it comes to all things Central Asian. Here he shares his love of horses along the Silk Road.

Horse HistoryIn China, the “Silk Road” is known as the “Horse Road.”

There are so many horses of the ancient Silk Road, the network of trade routes that stretched from China to the Mediterranean Sea. The Chinese imported horses from Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, as protection from Xiong-Nu nomads, steppe people who populated what is now south Siberia, Mongolia, west Manchuria and the northern Chinese provinces. The Chinese were unsuccessful in breeding horses themselves for many centuries.

“The people [of Fergana]…have…many good horses. Their horses sweat blood and come from the stock of the ‘heavenly horse.’”

– Zhang Qian, 2nd c. BC 

Horse and rider in Kyrgyzstan <br>Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Timeless: horse and rider in Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Horses in Kyrgyzstan are so beloved that parents name their children after them  <br>Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Horses in Kyrgyzstan are so beloved that parents name their children after them 
Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

The first horses along the Silk Road were domesticated in Kazakhstan around 3,500 B.C., a full 1,000 years earlier than anywhere else in the world. They were so prized that rather than hand them over during Soviet collectivization under Stalin, Kazakhs instead slaughtered them. Today Kazakhs consider horsemeat a delicacy with healing powers, from lowering blood pressure to healing broken bones.

Playing "tiyin-enmay," a horse game in Kyrgyzstan <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Playing tiyin-enmay, a horse game in Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Horse games in Kyrgyzstan <br>Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Horse games in Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Kyrgyz Horse GamesKyrgyz horse games are still popular. One of the things I love about leading MIR tours is stopping in Burana to watch the young men who play horse games  quite a local passion. These are some of the games they play:

  • Tiyin-enmay: a contest to pick up a coin
  • Oodarysh: wrestling and trying to throw a rival off his horse
  • At chabysh: a horse race
  • Ulak tartysh: polo with a dead goat
  • Kyz-kumai : catch a girl and kiss her. When the boy is successful, the girl whips him gently; if he fails, she whips him hard.
Ancient horse games played against a backdrop of yurts in Kyrgyzstan <br>Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Ancient horse games played against a backdrop of yurts in Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

We watch from the sideline and cheer; the boys are so immersed in the games they don’t pay attention to us. Farhod, our local guide, has fond memories of these games from his childhood. One exception, though: the time Farhod failed to catch the girl and she whipped him really hard!

Survivor HorsesTurkmen Akhal-Teke horses are magnificent survivors. Turkmen horsemen convinced Stalin not to slaughter them by riding 15 steeds all the way to Moscow – 2,500 miles – in 84 days. Impressed, Stalin spared their lives. After that, Akhal-Teke horses were used in Soviet May Day parades until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Akhal-Teke horse and trainer near Ashkabad, Turkmenistan <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Akhal-Teke horse and trainer near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Akhal-Teke horses are bred for strength and endurance, necessary for Turkmenistan's extreme environment <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Akhal-Teke horses are bred for strength and endurance, necessary for Turkmenistan’s extreme environment
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Their golden color is good camouflage in the desert, but they’re also brown or black. Their eyes and ears are huge, and they see well at night. My favorite Akhal-Teke is blonde with blue eyes. When our MIR tour stops at a working horse farm near Ashgabat, owner Katia brings out the horses one by one from the stable. These athletically built and elegant stallions gallop for us. She pets and grooms them after a good performance, offering them treats to munch on.

It’s such a treat for us just to watch these beautiful steeds with their flowing manes and tails, and remember their long history, these horses of the Silk Road.


Travel the Silk Road with MIR Learn more about MIR tours that travel to Central Asia and along the Silk Road, where horses still reign. You can also book a MIR custom private journey. 

(Top photo credit: Vlad Ushakov)

PUBLISHED: June 18, 2014

Related Posts

Share your thoughts