“It’s the year of the horse” she told me. “There will be no better time to go there. Besides, when this event is included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Heritage, there will be more tourists coming and it won’t be the same.” This is how this story started.
Almost every country has its unique horse-related tradition. To name a few:
– they have The Siena Palio in Italy, the only place where horses are allowed to walk into the churches to get a blessing before the exhausting racing,
– in Oostduinkerke, a small village in Belgium, they catch shrimp while riding enormous Brabant horses,
– and there is the Lady Godiva Festival in Coventry, England, where they… Well just Google for the pictures :-)
And today I want to tell you about a tradition I witnessed in the beginning of May 2014 in the very center of my second motherland, Kazakhstan (which according to some research is, along with Ukraine, the place where people first domesticated a horse about 5500 years ago). In one tiny village, far away from the urban world, they celebrate Biye Bailau – Engagement of the stallion. This was the event my friend, Emma Usmanova, a well-known Kazakhstan archeologist, invited me to witness.
Tersakkan is the 50-household village located on the bank of the one and only Kazakhstan river flowing to the North. That’s how it got its name – Tersakkan, literally meaning flowing backwards or in the wrong direction.
Every year, on the 1st of May, when the grueling 7-month-long winter is finally over, the whole village gets together to celebrate the resurrection of nature; to thank Kambar Ata, the patron saint of horses, for newborn foals; to bet who will win the race; and to milk their mares for the first time this year. But the main aim is to “merry the horses” and give the beginning of new life…
Horses are everything for Kazakhs: transport; food (there are dozens of dishes cooked from horse meat); their milk is used to make kumys; their hair, skin and bones are used in medicines and cosmetics (there are plenty of ancient recipes still in use); they can even be used as a bank deposit or a measure of a person’s wealth. There are at least 60 words meaning “horse” in the Kazakh language, and countless proverbs, sayings and omens related to horses. But this is material for another story.
In tersakkan this year they had 22 herds with 15 to 25 horses in each of them, probably the highest human-to-horse ratio in the world. :-) The most interesting thing about Tersakkan horses is the unbelievably wide range of colors. When Emma asked me to help with the correct color terms, I was a bit confused. What is the term for a completely white horse with bright red main and tail, or the one with a bay head and legs and light grey hair on the rest of the body? Indeed, some of these horses looked like they were made of different spare parts. By the way… You can try your color identification skills in the comments section below.
These horses have never known stables. They graze all year long a few kilometers away from the village. Even when there is up to 1.5 meters of snow, they somehow find last year’s grass under it. The only time people get involved is when, due to a sudden thaw, snow is covered by a hard-to-break crust. Then people will bring their horses some hay saved specially for this occasion. Unfortunately, this year spring came late, so the animals didn’t get enough time to put on weight.
The celebration begins at 9 in the morning and goes in a precise order according to tradition. Nobody I spoke to knew how old this tradition was, but 60-70-year-old people were telling me that their parents celebrated it when they were kids, and so did their grandparents.
So the sequence of events is the following:
Haltering of foals – First of all, men will bring all the mares and offspring from the pastures. It’s time for haltering the newborn foals for the first time. “Normally, it’s a task for young boys,” one person told me. “Grown up man can halter and tie them up pretty quickly, but when boys do it, it’s more fun.” When all the foals are tied up, women bless them by smearing their tails and forelocks with freshly made butter, so they grew up big and sturdy.
Despite foals being only a few days or a few weeks old, they are quite strong and very determined not to lose their freedom. Looking at how the foals behave, villagers can predict if they will be good riding horses. It’s believed that the most obstinate foals will grow up to be the hardiest horses. However, no matter if a foal was fighting, turning and twisting all the time, or just passively resisting a rope, in 20-30 minutes when their legs betray them and their tiny bodies run out of energy, they will all end up the same way – lying down on the ground with their bellies up.
What surprised me the most is that these half-wild mares didn’t protect their offspring from the people. It looked more like they accepted this tradition as an inevitable part of their lives. They just stayed beside their babies in silent support and occasionally touched them or shaded them from the sun. Or maybe they were just saving their energy to fight the stallions? :-)
Introduction of a stallion – The next step is the introduction of a stallion. Stallions have been kept away from the herds for about 2-3 months, and now they are eager to see their new family. The whole village comes together to cheer and watch how the mares will accept their new leader.
And the mating game starts. While flirting, these simple, unprepossessing stallions turn into beauties with swan necks and billowing manes. They trot with suspension and almost passage, trying to impress the females, but mares are not that easy to get. They will bite and kick, angrily neigh and run away. All until the stallion decides that instead of trying to tame them, he’d better go get some fresh grass to chew. The very moment the mares are left alone, they don’t look that furious and independent any more. Now they themselves are looking for attention – not unlike humans, right :-) – and the whole game starts all over again: biting and kicking, sniffing and neighing.
Dastarhan – While horses are sorting their relationships out, people are gathering at each family’s dastarhan (a kind of low table). Every family will offer their best dishes and you absolutely have to try something at each and every table. And don’t forget to thank them by saying “Kailak bolsyn,” literally meaning “Happy mating.” As you can imagine nobody start a diet on the 1st of May there :-)
By the way, Kazakh women are always ready to host guests, and I’m not talking about 2-3 friends coming for a cup of tea. “Guests” in Kazakhstan means 20-30 people coming at the same time and staying for at least 4-6 hours or maybe even a few days. So they normally slaughter a ram or an ox and cook beshbarmak (boiled meat with noodles spiced with onion sauce), bring irimshik (a special kind of dried cottage cheese), make baursaki (doughnut-like pastries) and lots of other very unique dishes. According to nomad tradition, the most respected guests will get the best pieces. So, as the guest who came from the furthest afield, I got the biggest piece of ox meat on the biggest bone.
Milking of horses – And the celebration goes on. After the foals stop resisting the ropes, it’s time for feeding them and milking the mares. Thanks to Emma, who befriended every person in Tersakkan, I was allowed to learn how to milk a horse. Surprisingly, this subtle bay mare had no objections, and now I can proudly say that I took part in making this year’s kumys. Unlike cows, horses produce only 200-300 mL of milk per milking, which is why mares’ milk is so precious.
Kazakhs, as well as other nomads of Asia, don’t drink fresh mares’ milk; it has to be fermented to become kumys – “the drink of the warriors” they call it. As Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This is precisely the way how Kazakhs use kumys. There is even a saying “If kumys doesn’t cure the disease, nothing else will.” Kumys comes in 3 main types: thin (for children and older people), medium and strong (heady and sour, which is also called “milky wine” sometimes). There are about 30 varieties of kumys depending on the season, composition, taste and secret recipes every family has.
Local craft master class – After all the herds have been introduced to the stallions and let to run away to the steppe, the village women provide master classes on kumys making, carpet weaving and felting. It’s great to see that in the era of globalization and all-alike goods produced in China, these people still remember, practice and teach the ancient crafts and traditions.
Racing – And the final and most awaited event is baiga – a 25-kilometer (5 times around the village) saddleless endurance race.
It takes 2-3 years and lots of special knowledge to raise a good racing horse. I was told that synshis, local horse specialists or horse whisperers, can check how well a horse is prepared for the race by tasting the horse’s sweat – I mean, wow! This is a type of quality check that never came to my mind before.
However, no matter what kind of race we are talking about, be it the most expensive Dubai race, the Kentucky derby or this particular baiga, no one can predict the outcome 100%. Every race is an equation with too many unknowns. Everything matters and doesn’t matter at the same time – the horse’s genes, the rider’s experience and weight, the horse’s color and composition, and even, as we now know, the taste of its sweat :-) All these are important, but there is no victory without something intangible – something which we call luck. So who got lucky this time? A very young boy, barely a teenager, riding a funny named 3-year-old horse (Kok Koyan – Blue Rabbit) was the fastest and got the first prize.
Leaving Tersakkan, I was thinking that maybe… Just maybe… I happened to see a future champion fighting the rope for the first time in his life today.
P.S. Few more pics