Kazakhstan – the birthplace of a unique understanding of horses
Humans and horses have been working together since time immemorial. Horses have been essential to human life and industry as a form of transport, as working animals on farms and in industry, providing humans with meat and milk, and later for racing and entertainment. But did you know that Kazakhstan may have been the place where this unique and symbiotic relationship started?
Early domestication of horses
An early Kazakh tribe called the Botai may have been domesticating horses as early as around 3,600-3,100 years ago, according to archaeologist Alan Outram, a researcher at the University of Exeter in the UK. Evidence for horse domestication in the area comes from pottery, which still had traces of fat from horse meat and milk, as well as leatherwork tools that may have been used to make harnesses. The teeth on the horse skeletons excavated also showed evidence of wear and tear that was consistent with the use of a bit and bridle.
Horses have not historically been widely used as a dairy animal, but there is a long established horse milking tradition in Kazakhstan. Horse milk is actually lower in calories than cows’ milk – around 44 calories per 100 grams compared to 64 for cows’ milk. Because horses have only two teats, they do not produce as much milk, however, making this a revered and specialist commodity. Horse milk is considered a delicacy in some gastronomic circles on par with caviar. Horse milk contains more sugars (lactose) than cows’ milk, but it is usually drunk fermented in a drink called Kumis, similar to Kefir, which has grown in popularity in recent years. Fermented horse milk may be suitable for those with lactose intolerance, because during the fermentation process, the lactose is digested by the bacteria. The lactobacilli bacteria produced may also have benefits for the digestive system.
In the West, there is something of a cultural barrier around eating horsemeat (as shown by the 2013 horsemeat scandal where processed meat products were found to be contaminated with it). This was not always the case, however; in America, in the pre-automobile age, eating horsemeat was quite common, especially in rural areas. Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow Ryan Bell found that horsemeat began to fall out of favour in America with the dawn of the automobile, when it became less common to keep horses for utilitarian purposes and horse riding became more of a pleasure activity than a necessity.
Horsemeat may, however, be a more sustainable meat than beef. Horses are usually grass fed and outdoor-reared (although some countries, such as Canada, are starting to use feedlots) and they need less grazing land than beef cattle. In Kazakhstan, the use of horses and sheep for meat mostly stems from the fact that the native Kazakh tribes were nomadic, so these animals were most suited to moving around frequently. Like wild game, which has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, horsemeat may also be healthier than beef, as it is often leaner, higher in protein, and higher in minerals like iron, as well as healthy Omega 3 fats.
The Kazakh national dish: Beshbarmak
Beshbarmak is a native Kazakh dish that is traditionally made to welcome guests. It is a dish made from horsemeat boiled in a bone broth served over noodles. The word translates as “five fingers”. Several different versions of this dish exist in different areas of the region, because various tribes and peoples have adapted it over the years according to the availability of meat (in some areas, for example, camel or mutton may be used) and spices may be added according to the local culinary traditions. The stock, made from bones, is quite fatty, which may take some getting used to for a Western palate. The reason for the inclusion of the fat from the meat is because nomadic tribes traditionally needed energy-dense food, because the landscapes they travelled across were not always very hospitable.
Horses for leisure and tourism
Where they were once essential to everyday life, horses in Kazakhstan now serve a key purpose in the country’s booming leisure and tourism industry. Seeing the country on horseback is now a popular vacation activity. Several areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Kolsai Lakes, the Aksu-Zhabagly national park, Altai mountain ranges, and Almarasan, are perfect for exploring on horseback. Organised horseback tours are an option, mostly with companies based in the cities of Almaty or Astana. There are also riding clubs and schools where you can go to learn the basics or refresh your riding skills, if you haven’t ridden in a while. Experienced riders and horse handlers also have the option of renting a horse for the duration of their stay and being free to explore the area as they wish, either by themselves or with a horseback guide from the local area. Kazakh horses are known for being hardy and having excellent endurance, the most common breed in the area being variants of the Adaev. Most Kazakh horse breeders are now focusing on creating animals that are easier to ride and suitable for the tourist industry.
It would be fair to say that horses have shaped the national character of Kazakhstan in several important ways. By getting close to these magnificent animals in the land where they were bred and raised, visitors to the country can experience this unique and special relationship for themselves.
Riding a horse in Kazakhstan
Riding a horse in Kazakhstan is best in the north, south and east of the country, where the landscape is more diverse, grazing is better and there are more sources of water for the horses. National parks are the first choice for many, but these can be expensive sometimes. Any place that is of tourist interest in Kazakhstan will usually have some horses for rent.
The centre and the west of the country are made up of huge expanses of desert and steppe. Although this may sound very romantic, the reality is that of a very harsh horse ride, suitable only for the toughest, most experienced riders and horses.
Buying a horse in Kazakhstan
Where should you buy a horse in Kazakhstan? With the huge distances involved in traveling across Kazakhstan, close to where you plan to start your trip is a good idea. All small villages have people who own horses, it is simply a matter of doing your research on the ground, talking to people. One of the dedicated stud farms in Almaty is Ajar (4000$ – 10000$). The Kulager school in Astana also has horses for sale. There is some bureaucracy involved in owning a horse in Kazakhstan, including a national horse passport. The Equestrian Association of Kazakhstan can help you.
Price of a horse in Kazakhstan
The price for a decent riding stallion (mares are highly valued and not used for riding) goes from US$3000 up to $10000 in Kazakhstan. If you are planning to buy a horse just for meat, count on spending around $600. It will fill your fridge!