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Nomads of Central Asia

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

... Among all these nomadic peoples, herding followed a similar pattern, the motivation for which is echoed in an ancient Kirghiz proverb: "Summer is like heaven; winter is like hell." Eurasian nomadism was seasonal, determined by how natural conditions affected the availability of forage and water. In his introduction to the catalog accompanying the 1989 U.S.—Soviet exhibition "Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes," Dr. Vladimir Basilov described how several Central Asian cultures fit into this pattern. The Kazakhs, for instance, migrated with their livestock as much as fifteen hundred kilometers to the milder south before winter, then headed back north to spring pastures. The Kirghiz and other nomads living near mountains migrated vertically, taking their animals up to higher elevations in summer to take advantage of alpine grazing, then bringing them down in winter to the open steppe, when snow covered the mountain forage. Mongolian herdsmen did the opposite, moving their livestock where there was adequate water near rivers and lakes on the steppe in summer, then taking them up into the mountains in winter, where they melted the snow for water. In the Altai Mountains, where sufficient forage is found throughout winter, migrations rarely exceeded ten kilometers.

The Russian ethnographers who followed, or in some cases accompanied, the czarist armies and Russian colonists began to distinguish a continuum of nomadism. The Turkmen, occupying the desert between the Caspian and Aral seas, kept sheep but not cattle, and lived as close to literally nomadic as possible. Constantly on the move, looking for forage and water for their sheep, or else sand dunes to protect their livestock from the howling winter winds, the Turkmen tribes had no fixed winter quarters. East of the Aral Sea, in present-day Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizstan, families usually owned private winter grazing areas. Instead of constantly moving in search of open pasture to feed their herds, they shifted between permanent winter and summer camps. In the Altai and Sayan mountains, the area of present-day Tuva and Mongolia, herders moved only at intervals of several years, when the accumulation of waste made new camps necessary; technically, they could not be considered nomadic at all.

The term nomadism, therefore, described a tremendous range of pastoral activities. No matter what the specifics, however, these tribes were united by the fact that they spent practically their entire lives mounted. They contemptuously looked down on any other kind of transport, especially walking, and by the time a herdsman reached middle age, his legs were so bowed from years in the saddle that he was only able to walk awkwardly and with difficulty. To say that Eurasian nomads were generally better riders than Europeans is a given. What matters more is that the Eurasian nomads practiced, in protean form, the same style of horsemanship later adopted in the West.

The Central Asian rider used a stiff boat shaped saddle, built on a wooden tree rising to high arches front and back, covered with hide, and padded with deer hair. With the high posts to brace the rider front and back, he sits nestled deep in the saddle. This was the basic design that would be adopted by the medieval knights of Europe, the Spanish hidalgos (noblemen), and ultimately in the American West. Not surprisingly, Central Asian nomads did not rise to the trot. There was, though, a fundamental difference between the way the nomads rode and the equitation of the armored knights. The latter rode straight-legged, with their legs thrust forward on long stirrup leathers attached to a stirrup bar at the front of the saddle, and the knight's seat braced against the cantle. This rear inclination put the knight in a secure position to sustain the shattering impact of a lance charge without falling. The Central Asian horseman used shorter leathers attached to a stirrup bar placed nearer the middle of the saddle flap. This brought the heel and hip into line, thrusting the seat and pelvis forward. He rode with the leg bent at the knee, hugging the horse's side with the whole inside of the leg, and this forward position favored speed and balance over security. As my instructor Ilona would say, the medieval knight rode on the horse, whereas the Central Asian, with full leg contact and forward seat, rode the horse. Anyone who rides will recognize this Central Asian forward seat and bent leg as the precursor of our modern riding style, employed for equestrian sports from dressage to jumping and cross country. It was probably first learned in Europe from the Hungarians, who had Central Asian Hunnish roots, and it really took hold during the Renaissance, when medieval chivalric tactics on heavy chargers finally gave way to the light cavalry style and school riding on finer horses.

Although the Central Asian nomads were patriarchal cultures characterized by male dominance and hierarchical clan structures, survivals of matriarchy and group marriage were sometimes present. Herodotus had first described this practice among the barbarian Scythians: When a father died, his sons married their widowed mothers; when a brother died, his siblings married their widowed sisters-in-law. On the steppes of Eurasia, women rode, sometimes owned horses, and shared herding duties. By the nineteenth century, however, there were no reliable accounts from Central Asia of women warriors. Apparently, the legendary Amazon women, who arrived at Alexander's camp with a frank proposition from their queen, had not managed to carry on their line. For this loss we may blame Alexander personally. Instead of joining the bare-breasted women warriors in matrimony to his Greeks, as he did in many other cases when alliances were useful, Alexander feared for their safety among his rapacious troops, and sent them home with a note telling the queen he would come get her with child as soon as he had some free time. In the event, of course, he was too busy conquering the world, and never got around to it.