Katy Willings

Unveiling the Respiratory Challenges in Mongolian Racing Horses: A Comprehensive Insight

Katy Willings - Respiratory Challenges

Katy Willings

Katy Willings - Adventurer, travel agent and Mongolian horse enthusiast
31st January 2020

Katy has been in charge of organising some of the World’s most renowned adventures, including the longest and toughest horse race on Earth, the Mongol Derby. In this third and last article Katy explores the respiratory challenges of the Mongolian racing horse who's stamina and courage see them racing 30km.

Mongolian horses participating in the traditional Naadam festival race

Naadam witnesses the Mongolian horses' courage, stamina and endurance.

Mongolian horses are revered for their courage, stamina and endurance, and nowhere is this displayed more impressively than at the Naadam, the traditional race meeting held in July across the country, showcasing the “three manly sports”; archery, racing and wrestling. As well as being the most important social of the season, even at the village level, having a horse entered in the race is highly prestigious and potentially very lucrative for Mongolian families, and leading trainers take their preparation extremely seriously.

At the main Naadam held in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, upwards of 800 horses compete in the ‘big’ race, for five year old horses, and the top five finishers are awarded medals. As well as explaining some of the finer points of Mongolian horse racing, this article aims to show some of the challenges on the respiratory system on these athletes. In all cases it should be noted that on the whole, Mongolian horses live an extremely natural and healthy lifestyle, suited to their environment and genetics, but nonetheless there may be simple adaptations to the tried and tested training and competition routines that would improve the health and welfare of those that race each summer. Forage could play a big part.

A vibrant field teeming with racing horses in Mongolia

Distances raced - closer to endurance racing than to western horse racing

The five year-old stallions, and mature geldings, race over 30kms. The shortest races are for two-year olds who run 8-10kms. Compare that to our classics, with the Epsom Derby considered a stiff run at 2kms, and even our marathon steeplechase, the Grand National, less than 7kms. Furthermore, horses and jockeys warm up by cantering to the start line, so in fact, they go 60kms on race day.

Having followed a regional naadam from a veterinary car in 2019 I can confirm they generally keep up a solid 20-22kmph on the way to the start, a pace that would do most endurance riders proud over an open 30kms ride. Their speed during the race proper is often double this, with the winner completing in 45 minutes. Effectively, they sprint for 45 minutes to an hour. I cannot think of a precedent, or an equivalent of this level and intensity of performance, over that duration. Again, it is truly a marvel what these horses and riders can do.

Young jockeys in Mongolia gearing up for a thrilling horse race

Weight carried - junior jockeys!

One of the most eye-catching aspects of this already-spectacular sport is that the jockeys are all aged from 5-14. They succeed in making the horses look truly horse-sized until they are reunited with their trainers post-race and you see that, next to an adult man, the horses themselves are tiny; most around 14hh. Though you are unlikely to see truly tiny children racing in the big ticket events at provincial or national level, in the village naadams it is still not unusual to see kindergartners battle it out with their horses. Therefore the load on the horses is negligible, and in fact a horse who finishes a race without his jockey is placed regardless. That said, the skill and balance of these children is absolutely incredible, many racing with no saddles, no stirrups, and often with a whip in each hand rather than a rein.

They are certainly riding these horses and not just passengers. We have been lucky to work with many herders who have lent us their prized and beautiful racehorses for our adventures, and it’s always galling, when faced with a feisty and feral-seeming racing stallion, to remember that, even though you can’t handle him, a six-year old can and does, every summer.

Size of field - a bunfight!

There is no average field size statistic available, but anecdotally, we know that horse races frequently involve upwards of 100 horses at a time, and at the big provincial or national meets, even upwards of 500. Picture the logistical and regulatory challenge this represents, during, and immediately before the race meet, with no stabling, no water butts or troughs, and limited infrastructure with which to transport horses, feed, hay and water to the meets. Peak performance will be hard to achieve and it’s more a case of managing the decline of the horse and arriving just-in-time before the lack of shade, water and grazing affects their performance. Most canny families make camp around 10-15kms out from the race meet, make the most of the grazing and any nearby wells or rivers, and hack in to the race on the day.

In addition, the races themselves create huge clouds of dust, held as they are on the fastest ground available during the driest weeks of the year historically. In fact it is seen as auspicious to bathe in the dust cloud created by the racehorses, and take on some of their courage and endurance. At their maximum output, these horses are operating in a fierce dust cloud, and are highly likely to be somewhat dehydrated by the start of the race, even from the 30kms warm up run. There is no water offered before the start gun fires. So, if mucus membranes are dry and irritated, and multi-day travel and limited water have conspired to reduce salivary gland activity and the natural lubrication that provides, it’s almost inevitable that a dust cough will develop, and this is very common indeed.

Mongolian horse trainers meticulously preparing for a race

Distances travelled to the race meet - the odyssey before the battle.

The wealthiest trainers and families will have a pick-up truck to transport their horses. Most English trainers would be a little squeamish about how they are loaded, and how many, on the back of the vans, but the horses seem to know that it’s this or they trot the whole way under their own steam, and appreciate the lift. They jump up onto the flatbed with little persuasion or fuss!

For those who do not have the option of trucking, it’s simply a case of riding or herding the horses to the race meet. Pre-vehicle days, this was universal, of course, and it must be a large part of how the Mongolians developed their outstanding ability to ride long distances and conserve their horses’ energy. They truly would not blink at riding 150kms to a race meet, having a day off to catch up with their friends and set up camp, then racing, and even setting off for home the same day. Moreover, neither would their horses! At a fast and flat trot, the horses can go seemingly indefinitely.

From a Western trainer’s perspective, the lack of opportunity to control the horse’s environment pre-race would be a big issue. In Mongolia, this simply is their environment, and the horses that stay sound and healthy, and vigorous, to race year after year, show that for the toughest of the tough, it’s not too tough. Perhaps you see now why to touch the sweat of the winning five-year old is seen as very lucky indeed. They are right to be revered in this way, and heralded in song.

Disease vectors - a more recent veterinary issue

Over the past 30 years since the move to a market economy and democracy in Mongolia, racing has modernised in several ways, and the increased ability for horses to travel big distances to race meets, or for trading, has increased the incidence and spread of the odd infectious disease. Whilst sourcing horses for the Mongol Derby, an endurance adventure held annually in August which uses some 1500 local horses conditioned specially for the event, I have seen a strangles outbreak, been stuck in a foot and mouth quarantine, and noticed several incidences of what we could call a yard cough, or a respiratory infection. Because there is little in the way of disease testing, and the stakes for competing are so high, it becomes vital that families and trainers recognise symptoms of infection and take steps to treat or isolate their affected herds, but unfortunately, race horses entered for valuable meets are often the unwitting vectors. Several horses tested positive for equine flu at the 2016 National Naadam.

Only a small minority of owners and trainers vaccinate their horses, partly an information problem (only around a quarter of families surveyed in 2012 even knew there was a vaccine for equine flu), and partly a resources problem - uptake would be higher if the vaccine was free. It’s on individual trainers to do the right thing and ‘stay home’ when they have an outbreak. Happily, most do exactly this, and do not exert their horses when they show any symptoms.

Feeding regime

Here we see the most complex part of the equation from a horse welfare perspective. All trainers want to improve the performance of their horses and many spend a great deal of extra money on interventions they believe will do so. My feeling is that some Western sports science has made its way to Mongolia and, out of context, done as much harm as good, and the primary suspect here is over-feeding grain and withholding grazing. In the 1970s, most eventers took their horses’ water buckets away on the morning of cross country day and gave them a bucket of oats. We now know why that’s a bad recipe; in the absence of forage or fibre a highly acid-forming feed ulcerates the gut and causes the horse considerable discomfort as well as metabolic distress. Unlike fibrous forage, oats do not need much chewing and hence the horse does not generate nearly as much saliva, with its stomach-protecting, dust-catching functions sorely missed. Yes, saliva has an upper respiratory tract benefit as well as a metabolic one! And as for withholding water, even a 2% dehydration causes a 10% drop in performance, in horses just as in humans. Drier airways further contribute to the horse’s susceptibility to the dry cough.

The landscape in Mongolia often looks a lot like this; trainers believe they are giving horses a huge advantage by giving the most concentrated and energy-rich feed they can. Many supplements are also imported at great expense to improve stamina and open airways. Multi-vitamin drips, with their fluorescent tinge of B12, are hugely popular, and clay cooling products for limbs and tendons post race also find their way into the wealthiest tack rooms. Much of the science is sound but as I frequently say to any trainers we meet and who will listen, without giving the horse enough of what it is evolved to eat - fibrous forage - all their investment is wasted. We see a lot of hind gut acidosis, sad and bad-tempered horses with poor coats, scouring badly the week before they are due to be racing. As well as preventing them performing at their best, it’s also just a shame to see the horses suffering for their sport. No harm is meant to them. Many of the international supplement companies are making great inroads into Mongolia with potions that will make a difference in syringe format. Much easier to transport and administer than the true elixir, hay.

Even if we could transport in fantastic forage to the big race meetings in Mongolia, the sheer potency of most haylage or commercially produced forage would be hard for a Mongolian horse to digest. Ironically they really are better on their native, wizened and adapted grasses. Perhaps the best intervention we westerners could offer would be haynets? Huge ones? That trainers would stuff with grass before setting off to the races? I never tire of telling trainers that their grandparents and great-grandparents had it right - to trust the incredible adaptations these horses have already made to be endurance athletes, and tinker as little as possible - especially with their guts!

Veterinary outreach programs and better science for herders and trainers

As well as my tour company, Morindoo, I am on the board of a veterinary NGO, Steppe and Hoof, whose aims are to help herders stay in the countryside if they wish to, and reverse the trend of highly skilled families losing their livelihood in the countryside and having to move to the city to try and scavenge a living with none of the skills needed in the city. Better herd management techniques, and diversifying their herding income, is a big part of our outreach objectives. One of our programs in 2020 will focus on grazing quality in different regions of Mongolia and I look forward to sharing some of those findings with Haygain’s audience.

How can Haygain help?

Haygain is committed to improving equine health through research and innovation in the respiratory and digestive health issues. Developed by riders, for riders, we understand the importance of clean forage in maintaining the overall well-being of the horse. Our hay steamers are recommended by many of the world’s leading riders, trainers and equine veterinarians.

More on steaming hay

Read Katy's previous blog


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