Agriculture and livestock raising make up a third of the Mongolian economy, with livestock accounting for a much larger portion of the sector than agriculture. Wheat is the main crop and it is only grown on 1 percent of the land. The Mongols have used irrigation and dry-farm methods for centuries. “Breaking the slumber of the earth” in the form of digging the soil or ploughing is considered bad luck. This is offered by some as one reason why Mongolian nomads are reluctant to practice agriculture.

Farming accounts for about 13 percent of the economy. Main agriculture and livestock products: wheat, barley, vegetables, forage crops; sheep, goats, cattle, camels, horses. Other crops: oats, potatoes, corn, buckwheat, millet, sugar beets, garlic, cabbage, onions, carrots, sorghum and fruit trees (especially apples). Under the Soviet system wheat was produced on state land. Of the total land area in Mongolia, about 65 percent is used for pasturage and fodder. In the past most of Mongolia's wheat was grown on state farms and fodder on collectives. In 1956, there were 13 stock breeding and 7 agricultural state farms and 600 cooperatives. [Source: William Jankowiak and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Rhubarb is one of the few crops that is associated with Mongolia. In the old days it was valued as a medicine. Traders from China came to Ulaanbaatar and traded gold, silk, tea and porcelain for it. Russia traders traded furs. The explorer John Ball wrote: “After digging and gathering rhubarb, the Mongols cut the large roots into small pieces, in order to make them dry more readily. In the middle of every piece they scoop a hole, through which a cord is drawn, in order to suspend them in any convenient place. They hang them for the most part, about their tents, and sometimes on the horns of their sheep

Land Use in Mongolia

Land use: agricultural and pasture land: 73 percent; arable land 0.4 percent; permanent crops 0 percent; permanent pasture 72.6 percent; forest: 7 percent; other: 20 percent (2011 est.). Irrigated land: 843 square kilometers (2003) Total renewable water resources: 34.8 cubic kilometers (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 0.55 cubic kilometers a year (13 percent/43 percent/44 percent); per capita: 196.8 cubic meters a year. (2009). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Irrigation and dry land farming methods have been employed in Mongolia for centuries. Agriculture has traditionally been practiced where conditions are suitable for irrigation: along large rivers and lakes, or foot hills regions were there are a number of streams. Spate irrigation — the use of seasonal floods of rivers, streams, ponds and lakes to fill water storage canals — is used up to a third of all irrigated farmland.

Land has traditionally not been privately owned. It has traditionally not belonged to individuals but to tribes and clans of herders. In the old days, and to some degree today, each tribe or clan had its regular grazing grounds and families were allotted space within this scheme. There were — and still are — almost no fences. With horse people and nomads, wealth has traditionally been measured on the basis of animals not in land. The value of land has been measured by its ability to provide water and pastures for animals.

Agriculture and Animal Husbandry in Mongolia in the Soviet Era

In the late 1980s, agriculture was a small but critical sector of the Mongolian economy. In 1985 agriculture accounted for only 18.3 percent of national income and 33.8 percent of the labor force. Nevertheless, agriculture remained economically important because much of Mongolia's industry processed agricultural products — foodstuffs, timber, and animal products, such as skins and hides — for domestic consumption and for export. In 1986 agriculture supplied nearly 60 percent of Mongolia's exports. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Mongolian agriculture developed slowly. An abortive attempt to collectivize all arads (animal herders) occurred in the early 1930s; efforts to encourage voluntary cooperatives and arad producers' associations followed. In the 1930s, the government also began developing state farms, and by 1940 there were ten state farms and ninety-one agricultural cooperatives. In 1937 the Soviet Union provided ten hay-making machine stations to prepare fodder for livestock. In 1940 agriculture represented 61 percent of national income, and it employed approximately 90 percent of the labor force. *

In the 1950s, agriculture began to adopt its present structure and modern techniques, based in part on material and technical assistance from the Soviet Union and East European countries. In the 1950s, the hay-making machine stations were reorganized as livestock machine stations. In 1955 negdels replaced the arad producers' associations. By 1959 the state had accomplished the collectivization of agriculture. In ten years, agricultural cooperatives had more than doubled, from 139 in 1950 to 354 by 1960. Ownership of livestock and sown areas changed dramatically as a result of collectivization. In 1950, according to Mongolian government statistics, state farms and other state organizations owned approximately 0.9 percent of livestock and 37.8 percent of sown areas; negdels had about 0.5 percent of livestock and no sown lands; and private owners some held 98.3 percent of livestock and 62.2 percent of sown areas. In 1960 state farms and other state organizations owned 2.7 percent of livestock; negdels, 73.8 percent; and individual negdel members, 23.5 percent. The state sector owned 77.5 percent of sown lands, and the cooperative sector the remainder. *

By 1960 agriculture's share of national income had fallen to 22.9 percent, but agriculture still employed 60.8 percent of the work force. After 1960 the number of state farms increased, state fodder supply farms were established, the number of negdels decreased through consolidation, and interagricultural cooperative associations were organized to facilitate negdel specialization and cooperation. Mongolia also began receiving large-scale agricultural assistance from the Soviet Union and other East European countries after Mongolia's 1962 entry into Comecon. The Soviet Union, for example, assisted in establishing and equipping several new state farms, and Hungary helped with irrigation. In 1967 the Third Congress of Agricultural Association Members founded the Union of Agricultural Associations to supervise negdels and to represent their interests to the government and to other cooperative and social organizations. The union elected a central council, the chairman of which was, ex officio, the minister of agriculture; it also adopted a Model Charter to govern members' rights and obligations. In 1969 the state handed over the livestock machine stations to the negdels. *

Negdels and State Farms in Soviet-Era Mongolia

Negdel is the common term for the agricultural cooperatives in Mongolia. In the Soviet era, negdels, which concentrated on livestock production, were organized into brigad (brigades) and then into suuri (bases), composed of several households. Each suuri had its own equipment and production tasks. Negdels adopted the Soviet system of herding, in which arad households lived in permanent settlements rather than traveling with their herds, as in the pastoral tradition (see Pastoral Nomadism). In 1985 the average negdel had 61,500 head of livestock, 438,500 hectares of land — of which 1,200 hectares was plowable land, 43 tractors, 2 grain harvesters, and 18 motor vehicles; it harvested 500 tons of grain. Individual negdel members were permitted to own livestock. In mountain steppe pasture areas, ten head of livestock per person, up to fifty head per household, were allowed. In desert regions, fifteen head per person, up to seventy-five head per household, were permitted. Private plots also were allowed for negdel farmers. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

State farms, compared with negdels, had more capital invested, were more highly mechanized, and generally were located in the most productive regions, or close to major mining and industrial complexes. State farms engaged primarily in crop production. In 1985 there were 52 state farms, 17 fodder supply farms, and 255 negdels. In 1985 the average state farm employed 500 workers; owned 26,200 head of livestock, 178,600 hectares of land — of which 15,400 hectares was plowable land, 265 tractors, 36 grain harvesters, and 40 motor vehicles; it harvested 12,100 tons of grain. *

In the late 1980s, several changes in governmental organization occurred to facilitate agricultural development. In October 1986, the Ministry of Agriculture absorbed the Ministry of Water Economy, which had controlled irrigation. In December 1987, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Forestry and Woodworking, and the Ministry of Food and Light Industries were abolished and two new ministries — the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection — were established. Among the functions of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry were the further coordination of agriculture and of industrial food processing to boost the food supply, and the development on state farms of agro-industrial complexes, which had processing plants for foodstuffs. The Sharin Gol state farm, for example, grew fruits and vegetables, which then were processed in the state farm's factories to produce dried fruit, fruit juices, fruit and vegetable preserves, and pickled vegetables. The Ministry of Environmental Protection incorporated the Forestry and Hunting Economy Section of the former Ministry of Forestry and Woodworking and the State Land and Water Utilization and Protection Service of the former Ministry of Agriculture. *

Crop Production in Soviet-Era Mongolia

Since its inception, the Mongolian People's Republic has devoted considerable resources to developing crop production in what was a predominantly nomadic, pastoral economy. Mongols traditionally disdained the raising of crops, which was conducted for the most part by Chinese farmers. Early efforts to force arads to become farmers failed, and the government turned to the creation of state farms to promote crop production. By 1941 when the state had established ten state farms, Mongolia had 26,600 hectares of sown land. State farms, however, accounted for only 29.6 percent of the planted areas. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

After World War II, Mongolia intensified efforts to expand crop production by establishing more state farms, by reclaiming virgin lands for crop raising, by mechanizing farm operations, and by developing irrigation systems for farmlands. When Mongolia began to report statistics on arable land in 1960, there were 532,000 hectares of arable land, and sown crops covered 265,000 hectares of the 477,000 hectares of plow land. Mongolia's 25 state farms accounted for 77.5 percent of sown areas, and cooperatives, for 22.5 percent. In 1985 when 52 state farms and 17 fodder supply farms existed, there were about 1.2 million hectares of arable land, and sown crops covered 789,600 hectares of the approximately 1 million hectares of plow land. The state sector accounted for 80.6 percent of sown areas, and cooperatives, for 19.4 percent. Development of virgin lands by state farms was responsible for most of the expansion of arable land and sown areas. Land reclamation started in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when 530,000 hectares were developed, and it continued throughout each five-year plan. During the Seventh Plan, 250,000 hectares were assimilated, and the Eighth Plan called for an additional 120,000 to 130,000 hectares to be reclaimed. *

Mechanization of farm operations commenced on a large scale in the 1950s with Soviet assistance. The Soviet Union provided most agricultural machines, as well as advice and expertise in mechanization. State farms were more highly mechanized than cooperatives. For example, in 1985, 100 percent of potato planting and 84 percent of potato harvesting were mechanized on state farms, compared with 85 percent and 35 percent, respectively, in negdels. Beginning in the 1960s, state farms also pioneered the development of irrigation systems for crops. By 1985 Mongolia had 85,200 hectares of available irrigated land, of which 81,600 hectares actually were irrigated. *

Crop production initially concentrated on raising cereals; in 1941 cereals covered 95.1 percent of sown areas, while 3.4 percent was devoted to potatoes and 1.5 percent to vegetables. Cultivation of fodder crops began in the 1950s. In 1985 cereals covered 80.6 percent of sown areas, fodder crops 17.7 percent, potatoes 1.3 percent, and vegetables 0.4 percent. Mongolia's staple crops were wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, vegetables, hay, and silage crops. Since 1960 agricultural performance — as measured by gross output, per capita output, and crop yields — was uneven. Although sown acreage expanded dramatically between 1960 and 1980, output and crop yields remained stagnant and, in some cases, fell because of natural disasters and poor management. In addition to the staple crops mentioned, Mongolia also produced small quantities of oil-yielding crops, such as sunflower and rape, and fruits and vegetables, such as sea buckthorn, apples, European black currants, watermelons, muskmelons, onions, and garlic. Small amounts of alfalfa, soybean, millet, and peas also were grown to provide protein fodder.

The Eighth Plan called for increasing the average annual gross harvest of cereals to between 780,000 and 800,000 tons; potatoes to between 150,000 and 160,000 tons; vegetables to between 50,000 and 80,000 tons; silage crops to between 280,000 and 300,000 tons; and annual and perennial fodder crops to between 330,000 and 360,000 tons. Emphasis was placed on raising crop production and quality by increasing mechanization; improving and expanding acreage; raising crop yields; expanding irrigation; selecting cereal varieties better adapted to natural climatic conditions and better locations for cereal cultivation; applying greater volumes of organic and mineral fertilizers; building more storage facilities; reducing losses because of pests, weeds, and plant diseases; and preventing soil erosion. Emphasis also was put on improving management of crop production on state farms and negdels as well as of procurement, transport, processing, and storage of agricultural products. *

Animal Herding in Mongolia

Two out of every five people in Mongolia make their living herding livestock. Herders generally keep sheep, goats and horses, and sometimes camels and cattle. Mongolians have traditionally referred to themselves as the people of the “the five animals” or the “five snouts,” with the animals being goats, horses, sheep, camels and cattle (including yaks). Chickens and pigs are generally not kept in Mongolia.

The ratio of animals to people is roughly 10 to 1 or higher. In 2004 there were 31 million animals and 2.5 million people. In 2010, according to World Almanac, there were 2.2 million cattle, 426,000 chickens, 24,842 pigs, 14.5 million sheep, 13.9 million goats and 2.8 million people. In 2000, there were 700,000 Bactrian camels, 3.1 million horses, 3.1 million cattle and yaks, 15 million sheep, and 11 million goats. In the mid 1990s, there were over 26 million cattle, horses, sheep and goats. In 1985, in the Soviet era, the animal to people ratio was 13 to 1. That year there were 591,500 Bactrian camels, 1,985,400 horses, 2,397,100 head of cattle, 14,230,700 sheep, and 4,566,700 goats. In the mid 1990s, there were over 26 million cattle, horses, sheep and goats.

A Mongolian saying goes: “Thanks to our animals were clothed and fed.” Livestock have traditionally been an indication of wealth and a form of insurance and welfare—if a family runs low on food, family members can always eat their animals. Camels and horses are most valuable animals. A camel is said to be worth 1.5 horses and a horse is said to be worth seven sheep and 10 goats.

Minerals and livestock and have traditionally been the backbone of the Mongolian economy. Mongolians primarily raise sheep and cashmere goats for money. A few horses are necessary to keep watch over livestock herds and provide transportation but otherwise horses—and camels too, which have traditionally been used to carry ger (tent) parts and other items—are no longer as important as they once were. Horses are kept mainly for recreation, mare’s milk, links to the Mongolian soul and the sheer pleasure of raising horses. Although horses are still a good way to get around on the open steppe, motorcycles can get around most places that horses can. The load carrying duties performed by camels can be done more easily with trucks and tractors.

Livestock and Life on the Steppe

Of the total land area in Mongolia about 65 percent is used for pasturage and fodder. Under the Soviet system fodder was produced on collectives. The grassland environment is better suited for raising livestock than agriculture. Herders generally keep sheep, goats and horses, and sometimes cattle, yaks and Bactrian camels. Animals have traditionally provided butter, cheese, and meat to eat, koumiss and milk to drink, wool to make clothing and tents, dung fuel for stoves, and meat, wool and cashmere to sell. Some nomads can slaughter their animals without spilling a drop of blood.

Daily life revolves around tending, feeding, washing and milking the animals and collecting dung for fuel. These chores have changed little since the time of the ancient Scythians and the Mongols. Sometimes the animals are tended. Other times they are allowed to roam about as if they were free and are rounded up from to time to time. Sometimes it seems as if the animals are wild but they always belong to someone. When animals owned by different nomads are gathered together, sometimes their horns or bodies are painted so they can be told apart.

The main concerns for animal herders are finding enough grazing land and water for their animals. The water comes from rivers, streams and wells. They water in lakes and some wells is often salty. In the winter when grass lies under crusty layers of ice and snow, the animals are fed hay.

Nomads, Semi-Nomads and Livestock

Mongolians have traditionally raised sheep, some horses, cattle and camels in rich pastures. Those that have stuck to their nomadic ways generally raise sheep and earn money by selling mutton, lamb, wool and sheepskin.

During the winter seminomads and their animals live in mud-brick structures and the animals survive off any grass they can find and fodder. In the spring the Mongolians take their sheep to the low pastures, where the ewes give birth. Later the animals are moved to higher summer pastures.

The use of summer pastures has traditionally been under the jurisdiction of individual clans. Among nomads, winter pastures are shared by small communities. Semi-nomads have rights to land around their homes They also generally have rights to certain hay-growing areas where fodder is produced for the winter. These are generally spread out near the winter pastures.

Semi-nomads engage in varying degrees of agriculture. The agricultural land is generally near their permanent winter homes. The poorer households tend to rely on agriculture more than richer ones. Herders who abandoned herding and became year-round farmer have traditionally been looked upon with pity. Under Soviet rule more and more Mongolians chose this existence and became the settled population.

Kazakhs are horsemen like Mongolians but they are many differences between the two ethnic groups. The shapes of their saddles are different. Kazakh yurts are wider and more richly decorated than Mongolia ones.

Livestock and the Economy

Even though Mongolia become heavily industrialized under the Communists and mining is now an important economic sector, the Mongolian economy still largely revolves around animal, namely sheep and goats. They provides people with a source of income. Sudden blizzards can bury pastures and starve animals and wreck the economy.

Large stock breeders have around 1,000 animals: 400 sheep, 360 goats, 160 horses, 140 cows and 15 camels. Since Mongolia broke away from Soviet control in the early 1990s, cashmere goats have become an important source of income. To improve productivity and make more money some herders are raising foreign breeds of cattle and planting fast-growing grass that uses less water.

The weather and the environment can determine wether animal herders have a good year or bad year. Water is a big problem for many herders. Water tables have dropped to low levels in many places and some wells aren't maintained. Animals produce very little milk in the winter. There have been outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and anthrax among animals.

See Dzud Under Weather

Sheep in Mongolia

Mongolia is home to one of world's largest populations of sheep. Many are fat-tailed sheep.

Wool is so common in Central Asia and Western China that Chinese in the 4th century called it the "Land of Felt" (felt is made from wool). Mongol warriors carried felt shields, wore felt boots, and sometimes were even issued felt helmets.

Mongolians value sheep that can withstand the harsh conditions of the steppe, semideserts and deserts. “Fatty tail” sheep are particularly prized. Instead of a tail these sheep have a fatty growth that reaches 10 to 16 kilograms. The fat in it is used like cooking oil.

All that is necessary for life can be taken from sheep: milk and meat for food; wool for clothes. Felt made from wool is used to make the walls and flooring of gers. Felt is also used for saddle clothes and lining for boots. Sheepskins are used to make warm coats, hats and, sometimes, men’s trousers. Sheep hair is used in saddle bags, bridles and ropes. Children use ram horns as a plaything.

Sheep raised on the Mongolian steppe generally drop their lambs at a birthing place in the summer pastures. Located next to the yurt, the birthing place consists of three-sided shelter and low fence, both made of flat rocks. After the lambs are born they are often brought into the yurt for the first couple of nights so the don't suffer from the cold. Sheep in Mongolia are sometimes menaced by wolves.


Bactrian Camels in Mongolia

Camels have traditionally been the preferred beasts of burden on the steppes and deserts of Mongolia and Central Asia. During migrations nomads loaded them up with all their possessions. They were particularly valued because they were able to carry the heavy burden of dismantled gers and all the heavy trunks and furniture kept in a ger.

Families kept fewer camels than they did other animals and generally kept only as many as were necessary to carry their possessions. Rich families maybe had fifty or sixty camels, enough to carry their stuff, while poorer families might have only three or four.

A camel has traditionally been the most valuable animal in Mongolia. It was worth eight yaks, nine horses or 45 sheep. Camel wool is valued because it is very warm. In some places “shubat” (the sour milk of camels) is the preferred drink. Camels provide milk for cheese and other foods and drinks, meat, hide, hair and dung. A camel produces 230 kilograms of camel dung fuel a year. In the Communist era, the meat from butchered camels used to go to the coop.

There were around 650,000 Bactrian camels in Mongolia in the early 2000s, more per capita than anywhere else in the world. About two thirds of Mongolia’s camels live in the Gobi Desert. When they are not needed they are sometimes left unattended for months a time and allowed to wander as far as 50 kilometers away. Males go nuts in the rainy season. They are horny, ornery, aloof and incoercible.

Camels were used for caravans that ran the length of Mongolia. There are fewer camels than there used to be. Sometimes they are eaten for meat. Mostly they are not as useful as they once were. Trucks now carry gers instead of camels.



In some places in Mongolia, yaks are kept. Yaks are cattle-like animals about the size of small oxen. Adapted for living at high altitudes, they have long hair that hangs off their sides like a curtain, sometimes touching the ground. Underneath is a soft undercoat that keeps the animal warm in the coldest and windiest environments. Yaks are highly valued by Himalayan peoples. According to Tibetan legend, the first yaks were domesticated by Tibetan Buddism founder Guru Rinpoche.

Yaks are around 3.3 meters (11 feet) in length, not including their 60 centimeter tail, and stand up to two meters at the shoulder. They weigh up to 525 kilograms (1,160 pounds). Their horns may reach 95 centimeters (38 inches) in length. Females tend to be smaller than males.

A yak is built to survive tough environments. Yaks have three times more red blood cells than normal cows so they are able to live without any problems on the high elevation grasslands of Tibet. Their long, thick hair insulates their bodies from winter temperatures that can get to -30C (-22F) or colder. Most yaks are black, but it is not uncommon to see white or gray ones especially on the grasslands of northern Amdo (modern day Qinghai province).. [Source: Chloe Xin,, June 3, 2014]


Cattle in Mongolia

Some herders keep cattle but not that many. Cattle are suitable for the steppe and desert environment. They are best suited for long, relatively rapid migrations but have a hard time foraging for food for themselves under the snow (herder need to provide them with hay) and need more water than other animals. In harsh winters they are often the first to die.

Cattle probable wouldn’t be raised at all if were not for the fact that their meat fetches a high price. Herders prefer the taste mutton to beef. Cattle have traditionally been raised to be traded or sold. They are raised for milk, meat and leather. Many nomads eat “borts” (dried and salted meat) in the winter.

Cattle are more likely to be found among semi-nomads and settled farmers than nomads. Settled farmers can prepare hay for the cattle. They do not embark on long migrations the tend live near reliable water supplies.

Mongol Horses

Horses are suitable for the steppe grasslands and have traditionally been highly prized by the Mongolians. There are few roads on the steppe and horses are still the ideal way to get around. Horses have traditionally supplied Mongolians with milk and koumiss as well as a means of transport and carrying things. Their hair is sometimes still made into strong ropes. Horse meat is generally not eaten by Mongolians but kazakhs like it, and consider it tasty and nutritious.

Mongolian horses are small, stout, and muscular. Prized for their strength, speed and agility They are built to withstand the harsh weather and lengthy migrations and are able to forage for grass under the snow during the winter. They can cover long distances over rugged terrain in relatively short periods of time.

Mongol horses during the time of Genghis Khan in the 13th century were small but durable with a thick neck, short legs and a large head. They were "obedient, even tempered and ideal for winter fighting." Horses were rarely used as beasts of burden. Oxen were used to pull and carry loads in rocky terrain and camels were favored on grass and sand. Mongol children learned to ride at around the age of our of five.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “ Mongolian horses are short and stubby, but that is exactly what helped Genghis Khan conquer half the known world. His warriors could leap on and off their horses in the middle of battle. They also learned to whirl around and shoot arrows while riding away from their enemies. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 11, 2008 /]

The Mongol saddle had disc-shaped stirrups that served as platforms and allowed the riders to perform various maneuvers in battle. The Mongols could use their lances, sabers and bows and arrows with frightening results while riding full speed on their horses. They could shoot arrows forward, to the side and to the back. They were especially adept at shooting targets from the rear.

Each soldier had around five horses — the horse he was riding plus four remounts which could be used when the horse he was riding got tired or injured. Mongol soldiers usually changed their mounts every day to conserve their animals’ energy. It was said riders could survive for months on the milk and blood from their mounts. Soldiers would often stay in the saddle for days, slitting a vein in the neck of the horse to drink its blood so he would not have to stop for meals.

Mongolians and Their Horses

The Mongolians are excellent horsemen. In the old days the value of person was often measured by his or her horsemanship skills. Men tried to impress women with their horses and horsemanship. Frank Langfitt of NPR wrote: “Horses were first domesticated in the area that is Mongolia today. The original cowboys, Mongolians ride on wooden saddles and are some of the best horsemen in the world. They're a part of Mongolia's traditional culture, which is under pressure.” [Source: Frank Langfitt, NPR, May 21, 2012]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Until the 20th century, horses were in the blood of all Mongolians. Their language has more than 70 words to describe the animals’ coloring. When a great horse dies, its skull is placed atop a cairn on a mountain, and Mongolians make offerings there. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 11, 2008 /]

Horses are prized as means of transportation, sources of meat and milk, investments and displays of wealth. In the old days, they served the same function as money. Mares have traditionally been valued more than stallions because they supplied milk. Most nomadic families keep one two saddled horses tethered near their camps, while the main herd roams free and is rounded up for milk from times to time. Milking a mare can be a difficult and even dangerous procedure.

There are 300 words to describe horses, many of them dealing with coloring. A “longer” has an auburn color. A “bolt” has a white spot on its forehead. Horse hour is a good time to meet. Many Mongolian songs are about the toughness of Mongolian horses. Horse are still sacrificed and their dried corpses are hung from long sticks in the Altai Mountain region of Mongolia. This ritual is performed because it is believed that only a sacrificed horse can carry shaman to heaven.

The distance between wells in some places is so great that in the old days the death or injury of a horse often meant certain death. There is an old story about a man who loved his horse much that when the animal died he made a musical instrument from its hair and bones and spent the rest of his life thinking about the horse while he played the instrument.

Mongolian Riders

Mongolians have traditionally grown up on horseback and horses played an important part in their life. Mongolians proved their worth by showing good horsemanship and archery skills. A red or green waistband with a flint steel, snuffbox and knife with an ornate sheath for cutting meat were accessories common to all men and women. [Source: |]

Mongolians have traditionally preferred riding to walking and hopped on their horses even when the went a short distance. Some Mongolians walk bow-legged, the result of a lifetime of riding horses. Traditional flat felt boots are made for horseback riding. They are sometimes uncomfortable for walking.

Many children learn to ride not long after they learn to walk, when they are four or five. When they are eight and nine they dress in colorful costumes and participate in races across the steppe during summer festivals.

Some Mongolians still use Mongolia-style wooden saddles. Their traditional clothing is designed for horseback riding (See Clothing). Sometimes you see horses tethered up outside apartment buildings.

See Horse Racing Under Sports and Nadaam Under Holidays.

Mongolian Cowboys, Horse Roundups and Motorcycles

In the 1970s and 80s, when fuel was cheap, many nomads traded in their horses for Czechoslovakian and Russian motorcycles and hired helicopters and small planes to help spot strays and grazing herds and round up cattle. In the 1990s, when fuel shortage were common many nomads switched backed to horses. Today, both horses and motorcycles are widely used by Mongolian animal herders.

Mongolians have traditionally rounded up horses with handmade rawhide lariats and “urgas” (long poles with a loop at one end). When pursing a horse, the rider stands up in his stirrups, takes the reins in his mouth and uses both hands to work the loop around the horse’s neck. Sometimes riders catch horses by pulling their tails.

Describing a horse roundup, Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein wrote in National Geographic, "Riders raced back and forth, trying to contain a herd of 50 semi-wild horses brought down from the a mountain pasture, where they had been grazing unattended...Aji and some of the others lassoed mounts to take turns in the camp. The men showed off their horsemanship as they broke the broncos.”

Mongolian Horses, Camels and Wooden Carts

Beasts of burden and light wooden cart have traditionally been the two major means of communications and transport for Mongolian. For work animals, Mongolians rely mainly on horses and camels. Mongolians learn how to ride horses when they are kids. An old Mongol saying goes: “songs are our wings while horses are our partners.” The traditional Mongolian nomad life revolved around horses: riding the, putting them out to pasture, moving their yurts to find better pastures. Even things like passing on information, visiting the home of relatives or friends, even holding marriages, depended on horses. Mongolians form affectionate ties with their horses, look upon them a valuable treasures and view horses as holy animals. Many poems, proverbs and sayings praising them have been passed down from generation to generation. The horse is sometimes taken an analogy for the Mongolian people. The names for different types of horses are also full of admiration and appreciative meanings, such as horse of “chasing wind, flowing cloud horse,” Bailong horse and Qinglong horse (named after Chinese emperors) and winged steed. Major festivals often have horses as their central focus. There are even special festivals in which Mongolians express their deep affection for horses, such as the Koumiss festival and Festival of Cutting a Horse’s Mane. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

Camels are also highly valued by Mongolians. Having a relatively gentle disposition and relatively easy to be tame, they are resistant to cold or hot, hunger and thirst and good at trudging long distances while shouldering heavy loads. On top of that they produce milk, meat and fine hair and can live off harsh grasses. Camels are still widely used in the western part of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Called "Temo" in Mongolian, camels are used both as mounts and as carriers. A camel is able to walk up to 40 kilometers a day with its one meter strides and carry loads up to 200 kilograms, equal to the load carried by two bullocks. Since ancient times camels have been called "ships of the desert" and were the primary means of carrying loads in desert. Even nowadays, there are circumstances when a camel is preferable to modern means of transportation such as planes, trains, trucks and cars. the desert area of the western of Inner Mongolian—places like KubuQi, Maowu Su—camels caravans are still used to carry loads for surveyors and geologists as well as herders. The sounds of bells in the desert usually means camels are nearby. ~

Light wooden carts— called "winch cart", "Luoluo cart" or " Niuniu cart" in old days—have traditionally been completely made of birch or elm rather than iron or metal to be light. It has has a small body with two wheels, whose diameter are around 1.5 to 1.6 meter. The structure is very simple so it easy to repair. The wheels are made of hardwood that is chopped and curved pieces are that are connected to rims and formed into a circle. Each wheel is supported by thirty-six spokes. Below the feet are two shafts and ten props. The two shafts are about four meter long. They are fixed by ten props in the middle. A light wooden cart is able to carry five or six hundred kilograms cargo, whereas its own weight is only about fifty kilograms.

Durable and light, these wooden cart is suitable for travel on grassland, snow, swamps and sand. They are used to carry rice and milk and move yurts and firewood. As the carts can be connected into trains, a family can easily manage and carry all their possessions in eight to ten carts. In addition to these there are specially-made carts for a special purposes. For example the "saloon cart" is enclosed by shed can people in rainy weather. The "depot cart" can be used to store foodstuff or meat and has an installed wooden cupboard, The "water cart" is built with wooden groove, cowhide bag and metal pail as water containers. These days many of the jobs done by these as well as light wooden carts is done by trucks, tractors and cars.

Fishing, Hunting and Timber in Mongolia

Mongolia's lakes and rivers teem with freshwater fish. Mongolia has developed a small-scale fishing industry, to export canned fish. Little information was available on the types and the quantities of fish processed for export, but in 1986, the total fish catch was 400 metric tons in live weight. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Mongolia's vast forests (15 million hectares) are exploited for timber, hunting, and fur-bearing animals. In 1984 a Mongolian source stated that the forestry sector accounted for about onesixth of gross national product (GNP). Until December 1987, exploitation of these resources was supervised by the Forestry and Hunting Economy Section of the Ministry of Forestry and Woodworking. In that month this section was integrated into the new Ministry of Environmental Protection. The woodworking component of the former ministry presumably became part of the new Ministry of Light Industry. The Ministry of Environmental Protection's assumption of control of forest resources reflected the government's concern over environmental degradation resulting from indiscriminate deforestation. Forestry enterprises reafforested only 5,000 hectares of the 20,000 hectares felled annually. In addition, fires engulfed 1 million hectares of forest between 1980 and 1986. Mongolia's shrinking forests lowered water levels in many tributaries of the Selenge and Orhon rivers, hurting soil conservation and creating water shortages in Ulaanbaatar. *

Timber enterprises and their downstream industries made a sizable contribution to the Mongolian economy, accounting for 10 percent of gross industrial output in 1985. Approximately 2.5 million cubic meters of timber were cut annually. Fuel wood accounted for about 55 percent of the timber cut, and the remainder was processed by the woodworking industry. In 1986 Mongolia produced 627,000 cubic meters of sawn timber, of which 121,000 cubic meters was exported. Lumber also was exported; lumber exports declined dramatically from 104,000 cubic meters in 1984 to 85,700 cubic meters in 1985 and to 39,000 cubic meters in 1986. *

Mongolia's forests and steppes abounded with animals that were hunted for their fur, meat, and other products in the late 1980s. Fur-bearing animals included marmots, muskrats, squirrels, foxes, korsak (steppe foxes), and wolves, which were hunted, and such animals as deer, sable, and ermine, which were raised on state animal farms. Animal pelts were exported in large numbers. In 1985 Mongolia exported more than 1 million small hides, which included some of the 763,400 marmot pelts, 23,800 squirrel skins, 3,700 wolf skins, and other furs. Marmot also was hunted for its fat, which was processed industrially. Mongolian gazelles were hunted for their meat, and red deer, for their antler velvet. Organized hunting of wild sheep was a foreign tourist attraction. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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