Horses are a man’s wings”
“If you are given only one day’s life, spend half of it in the saddle”
“Only a horse and an agreeable conversation can shorten a long journey”
The Kyrgyz people are one of the nomadic Turkic peoples – that have roamed Central Asia over the centuries. The nomadic tradition is so strong that some say that it is only in death, when he is buried, that a Kyrgyz stop wandering. Kyrgyz graveyards are interesting sites, often set on high ground and instead of simple headstones, a small mausoleum is constructed from clay bricks, or a steel frame of a yurt placed over the grave.
For centuries, and even today, the backbone of the economy has been animal husbandry – sheep, yak and horse breeding for wool, meat, milk and fat.
Horses and sheep were the main currency of exchange to buy goods, or even a wife.
Horses play an important role in the life of nomadic peoples, and Kyrgyz ponies were famous and prized possession because they were strong and sturdy, bred to travel great distances with flocks and herds of animals. Children would be placed in a saddle and learn to ride a horse almost as soon as they learn to walk. Even today, herds of horses can be seen wandering mountain pastures.
In the countryside, nothing is respected more highly than skill with horses. Horse races that test both speed and skill can stretch over 30 kilometres and games played on horseback form the centre of festivals such as the Chanach. One such “game” involves two competitors on horseback whose bodies are covered with sheep fat, who try to wrestle each other to the floor. Another involves two teams trying to score “goals” by carrying or throwing a weighted carcass of a goat across the opposing team’s goal line. Perhaps more “romantic” is Kyz Kumai where a man chases a woman, both on horseback, attempting to kiss her whilst she does her utmost to avoid him. According to tradition, if he fails then she whips him – but if he is successful, then she is bound to fall in love with him as he has proved himself to be a truly skilful horseman.
Another activity in which horsemanship plays a major role is hunting, especially with eagles, which is still practiced only in certain regions of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Westerners tend to think of this as falconry – and although hunting with hawks and falcons does take place, it is looked down upon by those who hunt with eagles as a pastime for children and dilettantes. A skilled pair, hunter and bird, can typically catch 50 or 60 foxes a dozen badgers, a couple of lynx and 4 or 5 wolves in a normal 4-month season, which starts in the late autumn. Eagles rarely fail to catch their prey, which it quickly kills, usually by breaking the neck in its powerful claws.
Horsemeat is also highly revered food – horses are specially bred, and never ridden to ensure the tenderest meat. For a major celebration or a funeral then horse is the staple meat that is served. A horse is, in fact, a major investment for a Kyrgyz.
A major source of protein for much of the population comes from kurut, (small balls of cheese made from sheep’s milk – especially in the winter) and koumiss or kumys, (fermented mare’s milk – a strong and bitter drink). The traditional way of making koumiss is for mare’s milk to be stored in animal skins (chanach). One third of yesterday’s milk is mixed with new milk and allowed to ferment in the warmth of the yurt. It is then churned, beaten with a wooden stick (a bishkek) and becomes alcoholic before turning into lactic acid.