Prior to coming to Kyrgyzstan, my only experience riding a horse was being led around a stable at the age of 7. This was very much at the forefront of my mind as I got on to a horse in a village outside of Bishkek during my first few months here. In my limited Russian I tried to explain as much to the guy who owned the horse. He looked bemused. Boys in the villages here learn to ride about the same time as they learn to walk. I think it was outside of his comprehension (or maybe it was my poor language skills) that a 30-something fully grown man did not know how to ride a horse. He handed me the reins and walked off, leaving me and the horse looking at each other.
After that, it was really down to trial and error. Fortunately the horse was very good-natured and waited patiently while I tried to figure out how to make him move forward. I did have a vague recollection from riding a camel around the pyramids in Egypt that a gentle kick may produce some response. It did, and the horse started off at a leisurely pace up the hill. Some other deep memory made me think that pulling back on the reigns may act as a brake and this worked too. The only thing left was to work out how to turn. This proved to be the most difficult part. To turn right I decided to provide a gentle kick onto the horse’s right flank. This did nothing except make him continue in a straight line. Trying again just gave the same result. After a few minutes of stopping and starting I finally used the reign to turn the horses head and was pleasantly surprised to find his body turn in the same direction. Finally I could turn around and come back down the hill. When I got to the bottom my friends said they were very impressed by how far up the hill I had gone. Sheepishly I explained why I had gone so far. But my first lesson in horse riding was complete and I had lived to tell the tale! I am sure that the horse was relieved when the idiot foreigner got off and went to be fed bits of sheep’s head with the rest of the party.
Since then, I’ve clocked up a considerable number of hours riding horses. Horse treks are a great way of traveling through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and it is very inexpensive compared with most other countries in the world. My prowess on the horse has not really grown too significantly from my first experience and if I can do it then anyone can. I am a lot more comfortable with riding these days though – even with the occasional gallop. And knowing how to start, stop and turn the horse still comes in remarkably handy.
While I’d ridden a horse probably three times in my life, it was always in my childhood on strictly guided tours where the horses had followed a path hundreds of times before me and could probably follow it blindfolded. So when I first rented Kyrgyz horses here in Eki-Naryn (Old Naryn), I had barely more experience than Chris. It’s just like riding a bicycle, right? One never forgets I thought as I struggled how to throw my leg over to mount the steed.
My father-in-law reminded me of the basics as we started climbing a formidable hill above the Naryn River. My biggest problem was having the horse stop at any given moment to take a lazy bite to eat. I think I brought it upon myself early on when I took pity on the animal and graciously let the horse stop and nibble at some grass. Ages seemed to go by as my father-in-law gained a big lead out ahead of me. Coaxing and light heel kicks did little to motivate the animal up from his casual grazing. Finally we got moving again, but from then on out, whenever the horse noticed some new tempting grass, bush, or blackberry bush, he would stop straightaway and languish until he’d had his fill. I was caught suddenly off guard a couple of times and almost got thrown off as he dipped his neck low to nibble. I never could get him into a fast trot the rest of the day as he had pinned his rider as a softy. I thought maybe he was just old and incapable until I saw his owner gallop fast off into the sunset with him on a tight leash!