land of the horse nomads on an eight-day trek. In Kyrgyzstan,
even the city people say they were born on a horse.
The sentiment runs so deep that the Soviets had limited
equine breeding and ownership for a long time, trying to settle
the shepherds who occupied the high country. Twenty-five years
into independence, the Kyrgyz celebrate their equestrian past
with nomad games and community-based horse tourism; these
things may help save an at-risk way of life. But they also revive
an identity. It was the perfect place for me to retool my own.
I was one of those girls who pretty much grew up in a stable. My earliest
memories are of mucking stalls and warming cold hands in an equine mane. I
don’t remember the names of my childhood friends, but I recall Brick and Foxy
Lady, Pandora and Plum Pudding and Troy’s Prize. After my parents’ divorce, I
took refuge in hoof beats, snuffling muzzles, and the sweet scent of shavings and
As my skills advanced, I found freedom plunging across rolling hills and soaring
over brightly painted rails. For most of my life, I rode with the kind of abandon bred
in youth, popping up relatively unscathed after a tumble. Until I didn’t.
/ Fear Settles In /
In my late 20s, a series of bad rides and worse falls left me truly scared for the
first time. My own savvy and athletic horse had my number and goaded me with
daily bucks and rears.
Eventually, putting my foot in a stirrup crippled me with trepidation rather
than inspiring excitement. Even after I found the mare a better home, the fear
stuck with me. Three years and countless uneventful rides later, I was still the
terrified amateur I never wanted to be. I didn’t trust horses anymore.
On June 20, I waited with helmet in hand, ogling the peaks as they rose
toward the clouds. Rash, Shepherd’s Way Trekking’s head wrangler, approached
with a whiskered, freckled horse.
“You’ve been riding all your life, right?” he asked.
Certain his charges were secure and
balanced, Misha gave a curt nod and
a sharp whistle, spun his grey gelding
on his haunches, and charged ahead.
I gave Jettagüs his head and he
launched into a gallop with the ease
of one trained in the steppes. I sank
into my heels and rose out of the
saddle, suddenly 10 years old again.
I whispered the equivalent of a
cowboy’s yah! into his ear: “Chu!”
Racing across the grasslands at 10,000
feet, following millennia of nomadic
hoofprints, I found a renewed me.
/ Journey to the
Nomadic People /
Last June, hoping to regain my carefree love of riding, I headed to the
Top left: Jettagüs
Right and below:
Trekking uses tent
RD’S WAY T