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Attitude towards horse

Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by [Jonathan Maslow]

With the fall of Turkmenistan, the Russian conquest of Central Asia was complete. The first order of business was completion of the great Central Asian railroad, connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow with such faraway cities as Tashkent and Samarkand. With the railroad came Russian merchants, and then Russian colonists, spreading into the lands last united by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. With the Russian colonists came not just the will to conquer and exploit, but also the equally human spirit of inquiry, fostered originally by Peter the Great's decree that all archaeological and ethnographic artifacts were to be collected for his Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Petersburg.

In the whole area from the Caspian Sea to the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, the Russians found hundreds of sparsely populated tribes who spoke related Turkish dialects and had quite similar ways of life. They were pastoralists, who barely cultivated the mean steppe soils, but kept sheep, goats, horses, camels, and cattle. In most cases, no matter what they herded, the social and economic fabric of their lives was woven around the horse, and their herding was done on horseback. Their horses were kept without fences in a more or less wild state approximating the original equine herd behavior before domestication. Control over the stallion was exercised through the mares, which were sometimes kept hobbled near tents. At other times it was the stallion that was tethered while the herder mounted a bell mare to lead the herd. A major difference from horses in the wild state was that colts were usually kept in a separate pack, sold, raised for meat, or castrated for riding. Geldings were accorded a special place of pride among the Central Asian nomads, ridden exclusively by the rich or powerful members of their society—the khans, their chief warriors, and traders with large herds. It had long ago been discovered on the Eurasian steppes that castrating stallions produced the most tractable and, therefore, desirable riding horses, with the powerful physique and instincts of the stallion but without that bothersome sex.

A unique cultural attitude toward the horse and riding it epitomized the peoples of the region. Horses were considered the single unit of wealth, and spiritual taboos about equus survived all across Central Asia. Among the Yakuts of the Siberian plateau, it was forbidden to strike a horse, and considered a crime even to speak roughly to one. The German-Russian ethnologist Wilhelm Radloff found in his studies of the Kirghiz steppe that among the Kirghiz mounted nomads, striking another man's horse or making insults against it were considered the same as striking or offending the man. Throughout Central Asia, marriage dowries and criminal fines were commonly calculated in so many head of horses. Although milking rather than raising meat was the principal concern of pastoral nomads, they revered horse meat, usually served only on ceremonial occasions. Similar reverence was also shown to mare's milk and the dairy products derived from it. Kumis—fermented mare's milk—was to the Central Asian like red table wine to the French. A serious offense was committed by anyone who failed to set a bowl of kumis before a stranger.