Horse Farm at 2500 meters high

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This article is written based on my notes made during several trips to Kabardino-Balkar Republic and many days spent in the mountains with horses. I hope this gives our readers some ideas about how Kabardian horses are bred nowadays and how people live there.

About 30 km from Elbrus area crowded with tourists there is a bit forgotten but beautiful Tyzyl Gorge, starting from Balkarian village Gundelen. The Tyzyl river which starts from springs close to the Elbrus slopes then enters gigantic gate between Western Kenjal (Zapadni Kenjal) and Inal mountains.

The place was popular among tourists twenty years ago. They even had a special mountain hotel called Turbaza Tyzyl but in 90's number of tourists fallen down by a magnitude and the nature started to take back what once belonged to it. Electric wires were stolen, several bridges were destroyed by the river and the road also started to disappear bit by bit with spring floods. Now the turbaza is completely abandoned and to get there you have to walk for more than 2 km on a narrow path led on the valley slopes, hundred meters above the road destroyed by river.

The Tyzyl Gorge walls are several hundreds meters high at this point. If you look well, somewhere among the trees on steep valley slope you can find a narrow path climbing up to Dgarashly-Tala plateau with interesting, pink limestone caves. Still higher from them you can see a distant peak of 2990 m high Inal mountain.

Horse farm at 2500 meters high?

Brothers Arkadi and Ibragim Yaganov, national Kabardians, have chosen Inal mountain as summer pastures for their herds. In mountains in Kabarda you can find thousands of hectars of excellent, alpine pastures at heights above 2000 meters. Up to 3000 meters the grass is green and full of herbs, though not very tall. There are almost no flies, no ticks, air is fresh and temperature is just accurate even in the plains it's as high as 35 Centigrade degrees.

Each year in early spring several groups of horses, usually more than 150 heads in total, start their long walk from a farm in Nartan, village close to Nalchik, to the Inal plateau. The trip is about 120 km long and takes minium two days. Even foals walk this way, with the help of shepherds who assist the moving herd, and under careful eye of their mothers.

When the first signs of winter come the breeders start moving the herds from the mountains back to the farms in valleys. This operation is usually performed in October.

After entering mountain area the herd starts climbing the Tyzyl Gorge to the point where steep ascend to the Inal mountain starts. From there horses climb one by one on the narrow and stony path, eventually rising to the summer pastures which are located at around 2500 m over the sea level.

In 2002 our friend, French journalist Catherine Michelet made a great documentary film from the the trip and from the mountains.

Equine society

In the mountains horses live naturally in social groups - herds, called tabun in Russian. There are different types of herds, depending of whom they consist of. Typical family herd consisting of one stallion and 5-30 mares-mothers is called kasyak.

Another type of herd called molodnyak consists only of young stallions (up to 1-2 years old) and geldings. Here you can find mostly youngsters and horses in different ages who were sent for holidays for different reasons. For example, working horses who have some kinds of temporary health problems (saddle rubs or from various accidents) are usually sent for "rehabilitation" and live free with molodnyak for some time or for whole season.

Watching horses in mountains is amazing. Horses in their natural environment and with no limitations of their movement are perfectly relaxed and you can see all forms of their social life. At this point you realize how limited it is "down there" in our stables and small paddocks!

Movement

Because the mountain pastures on Inal are naturally limited by several hundred meter high cliffs, there's no need to make fences and limit horses movement. For us, people from the West, where a paddock of 100 square meters is called "relatively big", the freedom of horses in Caucasus is shocking. Even really large horse farms in Europe have something like 500 hectars of pastures. Here, on Inal mountain, horses can graze on more than 70'000 hectars.

With three separate equine families (kasyaks) and one youngsters gang (molodnyak) important questions is whether there are no conflicts? Surprisingly, no. The leader stallions always choose direction which will not collide with other herd's movement. In the beginning of season each herd chooses one area, naturally bounded by valleys, streams and other natural barriers and generally keeps to this area.

In the Inal area there are three main ridges, each several kilometers long, all starting from large plains under the top of Inal mountain and softly going down to the cliffs of Tyzyl Gorge. Usually each stallion naturally chooses one ridge for his herd and they keep this "gentleman agreement". When on herd comes closer to the place where all ridges meet, the other goes to the other end. This way there's no envy, no stealing of ladies, no scandals and no fight.

Usually the herds are living completely uncontrolled. But this doesn't mean they live with no supervision. Each day a shephard has to count them remotely using binocles to make sure no-one is missing. If the weather is foggy he has to use a work horse, search for the herds on each of the ridges and count them from closer distance. Usually this takes several hours. If you think it's long - it's not that easy to find a herd of horses on a ridge which is itself as big as a small mountain and full of small valleys, hills and gorges.

Danger and defense

Why do we count horses everyday while living in the mountains? Are there any natural enemies in this place which seems to be horses' paradise? Definitely there are.

First, there are completely natural enemies and horses are relatively good in living with them. These are wolves and bears. No other animals are able to hunt for horses. Especially wolves hunting in organized groups (wolf-packs) are highly-effective in this difficult hunt. They usually attack in fog and immediately choose some of the weakest horses, usually newly bord foals. This may sound brutal, but so is life in the mountains.

Horses aren't defenseless however. The wolves don't have any chances in face-to-face fight on open terrain. When horses see or smell wolves, mares immediately form a round structure with their tails outsite and heads pointing to the inside. Foals gather in the inside circle. This fortress is protected by a lethal weapon - back hoofs of the mares and there's no single point where a wolf could sneak inside.

At the same time the stallion is running around the "fortress" kicking and biting wolves. His front hoofs are enough to kill a big wolf immediately. By the way, some of "domestic" horses also show this behaviour when dogs enter their territory.

This interesting behaviour has been described by several horse shepherds I've met in the mountains. I haven't seen it myself. Around 2002 I've however seen a single wolf and a pack of vultures eating remains of foal hunted last night. We were looking for the foal for all morning and eventually we found it when weather became well - circles of vultures flying over the point were clear sign of what happened. The wolf ran away as soon as we approached and then we had lots of trouble looking for our 1-year old Caucasian shepherd dog who ran after the wolf. Then the fog covered everything and after several hours of looking for her we came back to the camp - and she was already there. People say these dogs, with their ears cut off in young age, are able to fight mature wolves in one-to-one fight.

Another big problem in Kabardino-Balkaria are horse thieves. The Yaganov brothers suffered from them seriously in 1998 when a herd of 50 horses was stolen. Arkadi Yaganov spent several days on a horse trying to trace them in radius of 100 km, with no success. Common strategy of the thieves is to move the herd as fast as possible to closest road, load them to trucks and immediately send to slaughterhouse. Local police doesn't help at all even though control points are every 30 km on the roads. If you pay enough, they will let you go with a truck full of high explosives and arms (as it happened in Beslan'), not to mention someone else's horses.

For these two reasons - wolves and especially thieves - sometimes the shepherds use special pens (corrals) to protect the herds during the night. In some seasons they were putting horses to the pens each night and a armed man was guarding them - from wolves and from other men.

Luckily, last years are completely problemless comparing to the end of 90's. This year we saw no wolves and the horse thieves weren't motivated enough to climb to the Inal pastures. But you have to always keep in mind that such dangers exits.

Life in mountains

Days in the mountain base go slowly. You get up together with the sun, that is around 5.30am. I just wake up and can't sleep any more, but I know this feeling from my previous mountain expeditions. Then we eat breakfast and look for the work (riding) horses. Minimum four of them are always present at the base for the shepherds and their guests.

Most important task each day is to find all the herds and count all the horses. We put saddles on work horses and ride up our ridge looking around for the herds. If they're visible from distance, we can count them using binocles. If not - for example it's foggy - we have to listen carefully for sound of bells.

Other activities included fixing corrals or house roof, slightly damaged by several hail storms. We also spent lots of time exploring deep gorges cut in limestone by streams. Limestone means caves and we visited one of most interesting in this area, with pink rock. We also found several more small caves or grottos, some of them with traces of man like stone walls. In other places there are mysterious drawings on the rocks. Definitely this area needs thorough archeological examination.

Extreme horses

Our work horses deserve some more attention. They are strong and experienced Kabardians, used to walking in most difficult terrain. They're routinely used for transporting loads from the valley to the top. Sometimes the load they carry exceeds 140 kg - two sacks of sugar of 25 kg each plus 80 kg rider and rather heavy Circassian saddle.

These horses are usually 7 or more years old. They know the terrain very well, usually better than you. These are the horses you can hear all the interesting mountain stories about. For example:

"I, Alexander Repiev, spent three summers as herdsman with an Anglo–Kabardin herd at over 2,500 meters in a huge picturesque gorge called Kich–Malka. The way to my hut included some narrow paths on a formidable slope. Many a time I was caught in a cloud so dense that I could only see the ears of my mount. I would then drop the rains, wrap myself in a felt coat, and... pray. My Kabardin would progress slowly and cautiously, the sound of a stone falling into the precipice from under his feet signaling that we were playing a deadly game of Russian roulette. After a long while he would stop, and I would discern, straining my sight, the wall of my hut only one meter away from my savior's nose. That's the horse for you! (story from Horses.ru)"

This story is true and I've experienced this myself many times. In dense fog you lose any orientation after several steps even if you saw your base perfectly just a few minutes before the fog came. Kabardian horses however can find the way home using their memory, smell and maybe some other mysterious senses.

Another interesting story from Horses.ru:

"In the Pamir Mountains a Soviet frontier cavalry company had to climb to 4,000 meters. They rode various breeds, including Kabardins. The only breed that made it were Kabardins, other horses were dropping out at lower altitudes (the last to give up were the Dons). Helicopters could not bring hay that high, and so the Kabardins survived perfectly all right on what they could scavenge there. Back home they needed no recuperation, while other horses were allowed several days of rest."

What makes Kabardians so resistant and endure? There's no mystery in that, it's all natural. These horses are born at altitudes of 2500-3000 meters, in mountain climate which we would call harsh. Then they spend the first six months of their life at this height. Each days they run or walk up and down the ridges, either moving with the herd or playing with their mates. They graze perfectly clean, ecologically untouched, alpine grass full of herbs. They drink clean water whenever they want and where they like.

They breathe clean air and - what's even more important - the air has less oxygen than the air in the valleys. This requires their lungs operate more effectively to deliver necessary amount of oxygen to the cells. So the lungs effective volume increases and hemoglobine oxygen transport becomes better. Research made by Russian scientists in 90's shows that the "hemoglobine" effect works for 3 months after horses leave high mountain pastures, while the "volume" effect doesn't disappear even after long time spent in plains.


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