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Far, far away from here, at the other end of the world, lives a hairy little horse by the name of Yakut. It lives in a frozen country called Yakutia, in eastern Siberia, and is the only horse which can survive within the Arctic Circle.
It is always amazing to note how the horse has been able to adapt to such incredibly different and hostile climates that it defies belief. Think of the desert horses of Namibia and South Africa, one of the cruellest in the world, or the Sable Island horses on the Atlantic coast, battered by wind and tides throughout the year. But who could have imagined that above the Arctic Circle a breed of horses could exist, able to endure temperatures ranging from 40o C (104o F) in summer to –60o C (-76o F) during the long Arctic winter months?
The origins of the Yakut horse are still uncertain, but researchers believe that it is probably one of the oldest breeds in existence. The genetic and immunity markers seem to show similarity with the original breeds of Central Asia (Akhal-Téké, Arab, Kazakh, Kirghiz and other saddle horses), which has led to the theory that the Yakut horse is not a native of Siberia, but that he was taken there by the ancestors of the Sakha people. These latter first arrived in the region by following the Lena river, around the 13th century, followed by successive waves of immigrants. The Lena’s source is in Lake Baikal, further south, near Irkutsk, on the border of western Mongolia. Other researchers think that the breed is linked to the Mongolian horse, which also is perfectly feasible.
Whatever its origins, one thing is certain: no other breed offers such a stunning example of a prefect adaptation to its environment (except perhaps the Namibian horse, at the other climatic extreme – see article in Équi-Libre, vol. 22, no. 2, Autumn 2003, p. 14.
Although it is considered as a horse and not a pony, the typical Yakut is rather small and compact, with a straight neck and short, wide feet, a direct result of its adaptation to the extreme climate to which it is exposed. In addition to this compact conformation which retains heat better, he is endowed with a very thick mane and tail and an exceptionally thick winter coat. His body mass becomes completely rounded during the short summer months, a sign that it is accumulating fat which will help it to survive the long winter months, during which it can lose as much as 20% of its weight! The fat can be as much as 35 kg. (77 lb.) on the total weight of a well-fed adult horse. Even its internal biomechanism has learned how to transform itself in order to regulate the rhythm and the volume of its breathing, passing from 20 breaths a minute during the summer to 10-12 during the winter, and from 19.8 litres (35 pints)/minute in summer to 12.6 litres (22 pints)/minute during winter time. The creation of warmth is also modified, dropping from 8.65 kJ/kg/hour (3.89 kJ/pound/hour) to 4.83 kJ/kg/hour (2.17 kJ/pound/hour) during the winter.
But all these morphological adaptations would be of no use if this surprising horse was not equally blessed with an exceptional sense of smell, which means he can find whatever there is to graze during the Arctic semi-darkness, and with hard enough hooves to scrape away the ice to reach the rare morsels of grass.
Broader than other horses descended from the Mongolian, there are actually three types of Yakut horse: the original from the north (around Kolyma or Verkhoïansk), the southern Yakut, smaller and more pure for they have not been cross-bred, and another Yakut from the central southern region (around Yakutsk), larger, crossed with other breeds of gaited horses and trotters, and used to improve the local breed.
The Kolyma, the most esteemed of the Yakut horses, has a greater homogeneity than the other Yakuts. The head is ordinary, the neck straight and of average length, low withers, a long, wide back, a dropping rump, a wide and deep chest, short leg, and exceptionally hard hooves. The mane and tail are long and very thick, and the body hair sometimes grows as long as 8 cm. (3 inches) in winter.
In spite of these adjustments, it is more than likely that the Yakut would not have been able to survive without the aid of the Sakha people, who provided them with a certain quantity of food during the winter, especially to help the young foals born that year. But apart from this modest help, the Yakut horses are left to themselves, quite free, almost in the state of wild horses.
And the Sakha maintain this state as much as possible, for they consider that their horses are closer to wild animals than domestic ones (domain reserved for the women), like the cattle or reindeer, in contrast with the other Siberian peoples, who put them on a par with their domestic animals.
They even made it their national emblem by putting it the official flag of the Sakha Republic. In addition, “on the scale of symbolic animals of the country, the horse is in second place, after the white crane and before the reindeer.” [Voyage Russie: Iakoutie, le petit cheval de l’extrême, Émilie Maj, Absolute Travel Mag, nov. 2008, no. 108, www.participez.com/reportage.php?id=33]
Right from the beginning, the horse was completely integrated into the life of his masters, not only as a mount and pack animal, but also as a major source of meat for human consumption. Still today horse-meat provides 22-25% of annual meat, sometimes going as high as 40% on certain farms. The skin and manes of the Yakut are used to decorate clothing, and the fermented milk of the mares is the main ingredient of the local drink, Kumiss, supposed to be full of vitamins, just as with the other Asiatic people who depend on the horse. This symbiosis is rarely found elsewhere.
The Yakut in the Sakha culture, from yesterday to today.
According to Emilie Maj’s doctoral thesis, “The horse of the Yakut hunters and breeders: from mount to cultural emblem,” “If the utilitarian significance of the horse has become less and less important since the beginning of the twentieth century, its symbolic impact is growing in the structure of the process of cultural renewal which follows the fall of communism. The horse and all the elements attached to its breeding (hitching posts, fermented mares’ milk, ornamental saddle blankets for the bride’s horse, milk, meat, mane hairs) become symbols of the Yakut ethnicity […] More eaten than ridden, it acquires a symbolic significance in inverse proportion to its disappearance from the countryside.”
“… the horse used to make it possible for the Yakut to clothe himself and to eat and it was also a way of communicating with the spirits, which the herds were also supposed to possess. Now these duties have disappeared, but the equid has become a national emblem for the Yakut people, who invoke the importance which he held for their ancestors and elevate him to a national symbol of horsemanship and free horses, who are reunited in the shape of the horse of heroes of their epic tales.” [Voyage Russie : Iakoutie, le petit cheval de l’extrême, Émilie Maj, Absolute Travel Mag, nov. 2008, no. 108, www.participez.com/reportage.php?id=33]
Before the collectivisation of the 1920s and 1930s, the horse played an integral part in the lives and mythologies of the Yakuts, to the point where those considered him as a brother, having ancestors in common. This belief was not surprising in a people who draw their religious roots from a deep-rooted shamanism anchored in their collective memory.
This shamanism is of two kinds: one of hunting, which assumes an equal relationship between men and the gifts of the prey, where the hunter requests “luck” from the master-spirits; the other is of breeding, based on the supposed links with the spirit ancestors who protect the cattle, which is pastoral shamanism, where the breeder prays to the spirit ancestors to protect the livestock by giving him a greater advantage.
The Yakuts raise their horses in the taiga and on the alaas, sort of large clearings perfect for the lives of hunters and breeders. Used mainly for transporting merchandise and hay-making work, the horse is only ridden to round up the herd. But equitation is not sought at any price, for the concept of man’s domination of the animals simply isn’t part of the Yakut’s way of thinking.
By preserving the wild character of the horse, they have less work to do because the animals can feed themselves almost entirely without help. But at the same time, this practical aspect answers a religious need, the horse being an important adjunct to the shaman. “…the degree of dependence of the horse is cleverly controlled by the Yakuts, who preserve the independence of the horse while keeping some control over the livestock for meat and mounts.”
In spite of his disappearance from daily life, the herds of horses still contain about 400,000 heads. Anyone who travels can see them in the pastures along the sides of the Lena (the second Russian river at its source), moving from one woodland to another in their search for cover to protect themselves from the cruel winter winds, and scrape up a few bits of grass. The herds are usually composed of a stallion and 9 to 12 mares. At regular intervals horsemen go to fetch them to drive them towards corrals or to bring them some hay. But as these horses are spread out in a vast territory, this operation can take several hours – even several days!
In spring, the mares are collected with their foals to be milked. The national drink, Kumiss, is created from this milk, once fermented. As for the horses which have worked all winter, they are released so as to take a well-deserved rest and to regain their health and strength.
“Even if he is almost invisible in the Yakut countryside, the horse is present in the natives’ culture. He is sung about, danced about, eaten raw or cooked. Everything about the horse is good: jellied hooves, black pudding, entrail salad, liver or meat cooked with wild onions. His images is everywhere: on the flag of the Republic, on the mastheads of magazines, on the logo of The Year of the Child. He is painted, sculptures are made of his effigy in mammoth ivory…”
The symbiosis of the Sakha people with their horses is one of the most perfect in existence. This alliance has always been completely integrated into daily life, into the culture, and even into the pantheon of heroes and of spirits, to the extent of become a member of the Sakha family.
Even though the horse has also been integrated for many centuries into our European and North American cultures as a working creature, an instrument of conquest or a companion animal, most of us have never been able to rid ourselves of the disgust we feel when we think of eating our companion.
But for the Sakha people, the question is much more profound. The horse isn’t simply a tool or a friend, he is more than that. He is a free spirit, wild, who allows himself to serve Man so that the natural equilibrium can be maintained.
To eat horse-meat is the equivalent of integrating a part of this Spirit, of this soul as we shall call it here, in his body, to make him live again. For the Sakha, there is a predetermined number of souls in the hereafter. Each creature, human or animal, who dies rejoins this “bank” of souls. To delay departure towards the Other World is to delay the coming of a Spirit, a soul, into this world.
These shamanistic concepts may be a long way from the catholic vision of the Universe, Paradise and Hell with which we grew up. But that just makes them more fascinating. They open up to us another way of thinking, a new approach, perhaps a more balanced one, to the beings which surround us.
These people at the other end of the world and its horse are full of surprises, and still have a lot to teach us about our relationship with the world around us. It is wonderful that they have survived the narrow-minded spirit of the humans of yore. Let us seize the opportunity offered to broaden our horizons.
This article appears here by kind permission of the Magazine Équi-Libre, produced by the Association Québec à Cheval. It was translated from the French by Basha O'Reilly.
« Yakut Pony », Horseman magazine, horsemanmagazine.com/2008/08/yakut-pony
« Breeds of livestock-Yakut horse », ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/horses/yakut
« Yakut Horse : Breed Types, Economical and Biological Features », www.sakha-horse.com
« Siberian Yakut Horses to be Studied », CuChullaine O’Reilly, The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation.
« Sakha » : fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iakoutie
Sur le chamanisme : Les Rites d’initiation, R. Tresoldi, Ed. de Vecchi, 2005, p.32-36.
Émilie Maj : « Le cheval chez les Iakoutes chasseurs et éleveurs : de la monture à l’emblème culturel » (résumé), thèse en anthropologie religieuse, 2002-2007.
Émilie Maj : « Voyage Russe : Iakoutie, le petit cheval de l’extrême », Absolute Travel Mag, nov. 2008, no. 108, www.participez.com/reportage.php?id=33
The Sakha (Yakut) Republic
Economic Region: Far East
Capital: Yakutsk, 3,730 miles from Moscow, 1,000 miles from Vladivostok
Population: about 950,000; 610,000 in towns, 339,000 in the countryside.
432,290 Yakuts, 390,290 Russians, 34,633 Ukrainians, 18,232 Evenks, 11,657 Evenes, 7,266 Bouriates, 1,272 Dolganes, 1,097 Yukagirs, as well as representatives from 120 other nationalities.
Area: Nearly 2 million square miles – as large as India. It represents a fifth of Russia’s land. 40% is north of the Arctic Circle.
Density: about 0.5 person/square mile.
Official languages: Russian, Yakut
Industries: Diamonds, coal, gold, petrol, natural gas
Ecology: 95% permafrost
Three ecological zones: Arctic desert, Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra, Taiga forests (which cover 47% of the land, 90% of the trees are larches).
Climate: average temperatures –60o C (-76o F) in winter, 40o C (104o F) in summer.
Precipitation: 240 mm. (9.44 inches) on the plains, 500-700 mm. (20 to 28 inches) in the mountains.
History: The first contacts between Siberia and European Russia took place at the time of Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584). Several exploratory and conquering expeditions took place during the reigns of Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine II (1729-1796). Under Alexander I (1777-1825) the carving up of the land into administrative regions began, so as better to tax the local populace and exploit the region’s natural resources. The first Russians began immigrating from the middle of the seventeenth century and in 1632 founded Yakutsk, the most important town in Yakutia, beside the river Lena. Then exiles of all kinds arrived little by little; first Ukrainians and the old believers who broke away from the Orthodox Russian Church at the time of the schism in the seventeenth century, Poles in 1650 and 1795, Decembrists in 1826, Bolsheviks in 1906 and finally political prisoners during the Soviet era.
In 1922 the Soviet Socialist Republic of Yakutia was created and then the systematic collectivisation which was taking place all over the USSR began: i.e., communism forcibly imposed its precepts on all the peoples of its lands. The repression of the Sakha people was at its worst between 1930 and 1940, when any sign of religion was savagely suppressed, and their goods and cattle given to Russians. With the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1990, Yakutia took on the status of The Sakha (Yakut) Republic, preferring the word “Sakha” to the Russian “Yakut.”
Émilie Maj is passionate about Siberia and Central Asia, and spent a year in Yakutia (Siberia’s Far East). She also made a number of other journeys between 2002 and 2006 in order to prepare her doctoral thesis undertaken at the beginning of 2007. “The horse of the Yakut hunters and breeders – from mount to cultural emblem”. She was supported by the programme ETHNOEQUID, whose goals are to study the empirical and symbolic significance of the horse in the Yakut culture. Émilie is continuing her post-doctoral research with the Anthropology Department of the Scott Polar Institute (Cambridge), but is in fact working at the University of Tallin in Estonia, at the Centre for Landscape and Culture – Estonian Institute of Humanities.
Lover of horses and wide-open spaces, occasional horsewoman, she prefers, as a real anthropologist, to observe and understand the complex relationship between the people and their horses. Her first study was on the horsemen of the Camargue and their little white horses. Then, wanting to spend a year in Russia, she remembered Bartabas’s film Shaman (1996) which took place in Siberia. It didn’t take much for this young adventurer to set off for this faraway country, having a mastery of the Russian language under her belt!
There she discovered to her amazement the Sakha culture, and made friends with several families who generously allowed her to share their way of life, and told her of the myths and legends surrounding, among other things, their relationship with their horses.
What is Shamanism?
Shamanism is a collection of religious practices found all over the world among native peoples, where spirits, masters of Nature and of living beings, make contact with the shaman. He or she, by divination techniques, is able to pass through the barriers of the five senses and enter into a trance. This process allows his soul to leave his body and enter into contact with Nature’s spirits or the ancestors of his tribe. Upon his “return” he interprets his dreams in terms which are culturally accessible to his people.
Technical Information on the Yakut Horse.
Coat: The Yakut is generally bay, chestnut, brown-grey or grey, less often roan, mouse-grey or piebald. The purest horses all have a “mule stripe” and stripes on their legs. And sometimes one can see a sort of light mark on the point of the shoulder.
Height of Kolyma Yakut: Kolyma stallions are a little under 14 hands, the length of the body is 148 cm (58”), girth 173 cm (68”), circumference of the canon bone 19.7 cm. (7.75”). For mares the figures are 137cm, 145cm, 181cm and 18.1 cm respectively.
Height of Southern Yakut: 135, 141. 163 and 18.4 cm. respectively for the stallions, and 132, 138, 158 and 17.2 for the mares
Height of Central Southern Yakut: including the descendants of the horse from Suntar, Megezh and Olekimsk crossed with draught horses and trotters: stallions (in cm.) 141, 149, 182, 18.4, and mares 136, 150, 176 and 18.4.
Weight: between 430 and 470 kg, with an average of 450 kg (992 pounds).
Meat: The Yakut is an excellent producer of meat: the carcase of a six-month-old produces 105 kg (231 pounds). A horse of two and a half years old can give as much as 165 kg. (363 pounds) and an adult horse up to 225 kg. (496 pounds).
Milk: The volume of milk produced by a mare can be pretty impressive. At the experimental farm of the Yakut Institute of Agriculture the mares can produce 1200-1700 kg. (2,645-3,747 pounds) of milk.
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