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The prevalence of Spasmodic Colic in Mongolian horse populations and knowledge concerning its treatment and diagnosis amongst the Mongolian herding communities in Tov, Bulgan and Khuvsghul Aimags




Tim Mullan

Sam Southey



In 2013 Tim and his wife Sam set out to ride across Mongolia, so the LRG-AF asked them to undertake a survey of the incidences of colic among the Mongol Horses.   This is their report.


To read about their journey, see "Expect the Unexpected".


Aim of the Study

To gauge the level of awareness concerning Spasmodic Colic in Mongolian herding communities and the rate of incidence among the horse population.  We wanted to know if respondents were able to accurately define what constituted Colic, describe how they would diagnose and treat the condition and how often respondents had seen cases amongst their own horses or those belonging to other herders.


General Observations

Whilst travelling through Mongolia we saw a variety of landscapes but there were several common factors in most locations; an iron rich, sandy soil, usually poor in organic matter but supporting a wide variety of plant phenotypes, often ten or more different types of plant per square metre, although this was not the case in Tov Aimag and the south of Bulgan Aimag, which were too arid during our visit to allow more than a narrow band of flora to flourish.  There was a wide preponderance of mushrooms and other fungi in the north of Bulgan Aimag and Khuvsghul Aimag.


One widespread plant throughout all the areas we visited was the Common Wormwood.  Its characteristic aromatic, rather cloying odour, is all pervasive in many areas and made it impossible to ignore.  Wormwood was often intermingled with forage and while our horses normally preferred not to eat it but they would nibble at it in areas with poor grazing.  We observed our horses grazing reluctantly on Wormwood at Chin Tolgoin Balgas in Dashinjillin Soum, Bulgan Aimag but not elsewhere.  Interestingly, Wormwood can be used in herbal medicine as a digestive tonic, particularly as a cure for flatulence in humans.


There is very little use of pesticide or fertilizer in Mongolia, indeed very little arable land in the areas we visited, except near Raashant in Khuvsghul, (Baasanjav), where there are several thousand acres of wheat planted.


Mongolian horsemanship practices vary widely throughout the parts of the country we have knowledge of but some habits are pervasive.  There are two practices that might conceivably be related to Colic.  Mongolian horsemen always remove their horse's bit prior to allowing it water.  We never observed a Mongolian breaking this rule and never received a satisfactory explanation of the reasons behind the practice.  We conjectured the practice may have originated as a way of stopping the horse swallowing air but on the other hand it may just be a way of preventing injury; Mongolian bits are normally hand tooled so have rough edges that may cut the mouth while the horse drinks.  It may just be a way of showing courtesy to the horse.  Mongolian horsemen are universally aware that one should not ″let a horse with a wet back drink or eat”.  In practice this means that Mongolian horseman always let a horse stand after work, while still wearing its tack for around an hour or until the horse's sweat has dried before letting it graze or taking it to water.  We think that this practice is more geared towards ensuring the horse does not catch a chill to the kidneys rather than any sort of precaution against Colic.  We assume that the reason the horse's head is normally tied back to its saddle in these situations is to prevent rolling and other disruptive behaviour rather than to stop it eating per-se.


The only respondent who wanted to talk about possible treatments for a horse with Colic was the herder Baasanbayar from Northern Khuvsghul Aimag, although he, like all the respondents, claimed to have no direct or indirect knowledge of actually seeing a horse suffer with the condition.  The sample of green-brown powder in Fig 1. he gave us was gathered from the wilderness area to the northwest of Khuvsghul Lake known as Ulaan Taiga.  Basanbayar referred to the powder as Хужир (Khoarjir), which translates as ″salt”, or ″saline”, ″soda”, but also ″natron”, a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate.  Having tasted the mixture, we can confirm that it tastes salty and alkaline but we haven't had it analysed yet.  We will try to do so once we return to the UK.


None of our respondents, including the western vet working in Mongolia, remember hearing about a Mongolian horse ever suffering from Colic.  Of course, the level of education concerning equid ailments is not particularly high amongst Mongolian herders but during our conversations with our Mongolian respondents, most did profess to understand know what Colic is.  Humans suffer from the condition when young and the words for the human and equestrian conditions are the same. People were less clear on the whole about diagnosis but our respondent who had worked in Japan (Batdrack), as well as the graduate from the Agricultural University (Baasanbayar), were able to talk about diagnosis.


Mongolian horses are not kept in fenced areas but roam around in loose bands often miles from their owners.  Horses are not herded back to their owner's Ger on a daily basis, only infrequently; to perform stock checks, branding, selecting a new saddle horse etc.  One herder may have several bands of horses roaming around at any one time.  Horses may occasionally join another herdsman’s band and wander out of the area.  Horses get stolen, or die from injury, old age, poisoning, or any one of a thousand illnesses.  The corpses of horses litter the steppe.  We have seen body parts from as many as ten horses during the course of a single day's travel, so it is of course possible that horses are occasionally dying from Colic but that there is no-one present to diagnose and treat their symptoms when they occur.


Mongolian horsemen rarely, as a rule, feed their horses hard food.  The sort of grains we in Europe associate with hard food; barley, millet, oats are all available in Mongolia but never in our experience packaged as animal feed.  However, several respondents talked about it sometimes being necessary to supplement horses' feed with ″a special type of rice”, called Овьёос (Ovios).  Later, when we had access to a larger dictionary, we discovered that the word means ″Oats”.


Mongolian horses, while hardy, are not the miracle beasts of myth.  Riding horses can and do lose condition if worked hard and fed on poor to middling pasture.  The Mongolian approach to dealing with this situation is to turn the horse out for the rest of the year when it starts to lose condition and to bring another animal in from stock, not to supplement the horse's feed to keep its weight up.


Mongolian horses are fed hay in the winter time.  We had always believed that the cutting of hay was a recently adopted practice, having read that NGOs in the country were trying to encourage Mongolian herders to set aside land for hay production but was told by a Mongolian friend in Khuvsghul;


″No.  We've been cutting hay for thousands of years.  If we didn't cut hay, the animals wouldn't survive the winter.”


Indeed, hay production was widespread throughout our journey.


Mongolian horses' bloodstock is perhaps the last in the world not to be partly Arabian/Turk.  Nowadays, more and more Arabs are being brought into the country because they have an edge in the type of horse racing Mongolians favour; long endurance races.  Purebreds, while fast, will only survive during the Mongolian winter in heated sheds, so the Arabs are crossed with Mongolian stock.  The resulting cross-breeds are hardy and able to live out with the general population.  Cross-breeds are becoming more common.  At present, these horses are only likely to be found around Ulaanbaatar.


Russian horses of one breed or another have been and continue to be brought into the country and are generally labelled Buryiat, after the semi autonomous area and ethnic group situated adjacent to Khuvsghul Aimag in the Russian Federation.  Once in Mongolia, these horses if they are not gelded are allowed to breed freely but the gene pool is massive with more than two million individuals, so the impact less apparent than in smaller populations.


The Mongol horse population is extremely variable.  Mongolian horses are normally described as being short-backed, thick-necked, narrow creatures with short thick cannon bones and coarse heads.  Although this type exists, we have seen most types of riding horse and pony during the course of our journey, except for any heavy horse type.   Adult horses range from well under ten hands up to 15 hands.  When thinking about ″Mongolian horses” as a breed, it is worth keeping in mind that virtually the whole country is maintained as a giant meadow with somewhere around 2.5 million horses.  There are only around three million people in the whole of the country and even fewer of those are herders.  With such large numbers of horses breeding freely, there is massive variance in physical characteristics and many poor genetic examples.  With so much space available, the herders are able to allow unfettered, haphazard breeding to occur and still be assured that plenty of good riding horses will be produced.  Simply by dint of the numbers involved, the gene pool is virtually guaranteed to throw up some good stock and the rest supply extra protein for the herders and be otherwise ignored during their lifetimes.  Ethnic Mongolians eat horse meat only during the winter, when there is a cull of weak, sick and old individuals.  Ethnic Kazaks eat horse meat year round.  A number of Mongolians have a keen interest in horses from other countries.  There is plenty of literature and even magazines available about international horse breeds.  Mongolians have been importing horses into the country for many hundreds of years but the native population is so sizeable that the widely varying, mongrel nature of the native population endures.



Study was conducted over a two month period, during summer 2013.  All respondents were spoken to in the first person at their summer residences, except for the English vet, Nigel Brown, with whom we corresponded via Email.  Our questionnaire was translated into Mongolian with the assistance of the American Centre for Mongolian Studies, situated in Ulaanbaatar.  The translation of the word ″Colic” into Mongolian is rendered as гэдэс базлах, (Gedes Bazlalakh), which means ″Colon, Intestine, Gut or Stomach”, (Gedes) and ″Gripe”, (Bazlakh).  In addition to asking people to complete the questionnaire, we made attempts to engage all respondents in conversation about Colic.  All conversations were conducted by ourselves without the help of an interpreter, except for the respondent Baasanbayar, whose brother is an English teacher, the respondent Mandaa whose daughter in law works as an English-Mongolian interpreter for a mining company and the respondent Batdrack, who wife was a fluent English speaker.  Talking with Batdrack, who was the only respondent who claimed to have witnessed an attack of Colic, albeit in Japan, we were able to check our translation of the word.  At the time of the study our level of Mongolian language acquisition is best described as Lower-Intermediate.  Prior to our journey we acquired a Mongolian – English - Mongolian agricultural dictionary and made sure we had absorbed the relevant veterinary vocabulary relating to the study.  When talking about Colic we are focussing on Spasmodic Colic, rather than one of the many other diseases in the category.  Our hard data gained from the survey is presented in the Mongolia Research. Questionnaire Data 1.0.xls spreadsheet.  Observations gained during the course of conversation are presented in the General Observations section.  Information concerning the respondents themselves and their environments are presented in the Respondents section.  Included are the locations of the respondents: Mongolia Research. Map Clippings 1.0.pdf



We think it is worthwhile to make observations about the geographical area the respondents were living in at the time we visited them but Mongolian herding populations are nomadic.  While herders tend to have winter, spring, summer and autumn residences which they return to each year, rather than simply wandering around the country, they will range further, or change residence more often if the environment dictates.  For example, during instances of drought.  During our journey there were several herding families who normally lived in Mandalgovi (in the adjoining Aimag) camped in Bayan Onjul Soum.  They had been forced to move north because there was insufficient grazing and water in their ancestral herding grounds.


Sukhe – Ormin Tsagaan Nuur, Orkhon Soum, Bulgan Aimag


Lat/Long 48°49.818'N 102°57.340E

See Fig 2.1 for map snippet


Area Description

Well watered and drained area, resulting in an unusually high availability of exceptionally good grazing, close to the lake and in the hills behind.  The area closest to the lake itself, which forms the main human population area, had more than 40 Gers within a 1km wide radius and was overgrazed during our visit.  The grass surrounding the lake was good quality but grazed within 0.25 inch.  Livestock were able to drink clean water from the lake, which is only 1.25km across at it's widest point (even smaller during our visit because of drought), and fed exclusively from springs to the north, where an upland meadow, area ecosystem predominates. There were many more livestock and people than we were used to seeing in most areas.  There were many thousands of sheep, goats, horses and cows.


Interviewee Description

Sukhe, fifty seven years old, was the serving patriarch of his family.  Not a herder himself, he employed the services of a young man called Bulgan who, together with his wife, managed Sukhe's livestock on his behalf.  Sukhe had grown up during the soviet era and had worked in Russia for many years in the performing arts.  He now lived in the capital for most of the year teaching at one of the Universities, only returning to the countryside during the summer.  Like most Mongolian herders, Sukhe and Bulgan were reasonably sophisticated in terms of their understanding of animal husbandry.  They kept stocks of animal medical supplies including penicillin but didn't seem to be aware of Colic.  They said that they didn't believe the problem affected Mongolian horses.


Daasa – Chin Tolgoin Balgas Dashinjillin Soum, Bulgan Aimag


Lat/Long 47°53.716'N 104°15.112'E

See Fig 2.2 for map snippet


Area Description

The area around Chin Tolgoin Balgas, the ruins of a settlement built during Mongolia's Khitan period, is a desert-like micro-system.  The area is extremely saline and although the stream encircling the ruins to the south, west and east is fresh water, allowing livestock to live in the area, the soil itself has a very high salt content and many grasses do not flourish.  There was some desert shrub and lots of Wormwood.  In some parts, there is no vegetation at all.  The human population was sparse.  There were only around seven or eight Gers in a 35km radius.  We observed seven or eight bands of horses in the area all around forty to sixty strong.  The horses range wide when grazing seeking out patches of grass.  All the horses we did see looked well fed except for those individuals nearing the end of their lives.  Our horses had to be re-tethered frequently as they exhausted the meagre grass supplies within their tether circle.  Daasa and the other herders in the area also maintained flocks of sheep, goats and a herd of cows.


Interviewee Description

Daasa was thirty nine, married with two sons of fifteen and twenty years old.  Daasa described himself somewhat ironically as a ″Master Herder”. using the term ″Majister”, which I understand was a job title during the communist area.  Daasa had spent his whole life herding and tending to livestock in the Mongolian countryside.  Daasa's wife was a doctor of medicine and as such had a reasonable education by western standards.  When asked to complete our questionnaire he did so in consultation with his wife.  Daasa kept stocks of penicillin but said he was not aware of Colic.


Baasanbayar – Khatgal, Khatgal Soum, Khuvsghul Aimag


Lat/Long 50°26.350'N 100°08.973'E

See Fig 2.3 for map snippet

Photograph not included


Area Description

Not applicable to the study.  We interviewed Baasanbayar in Khatgal where he lived with his wife.  His family had sold their livestock four years previously after the death of Baasanbayar's father and oldest brother, who had been the family's principle herder.  Whilst still herders, the family had maintained their animals in the Elgin Gol area, south of Khatgal.


Interviewee Description

Baasanbayar was twenty eight at the time we interviewed him, working in the police station in one of the villages nearby to Khatgal.  He belonged to a family with a herding background and had grown up a herder but the family had sold their livestock some years previously.  His father-in-law was still a herder and his mother-in-law was a veterinarian.  Baasanbayer had attended the Agricultural University in Ulaanbaatar to study animal husbandry and along with his family-in-law kept stocks of animal medical supplies including penicillin.  He had heard of Colic but was less clear in terms of diagnosis.  Despite his educational background, Baasanbayar felt that the best way to treat Colic was with the green-brown powder in Fig 1.


Dalga – Moron, Khuvsghul Aimag


Lat/Long 49°37.581'N 100°13.416'E

See Fig 2.4 for map snippet

Photograph not included


Area Description

Not applicable to the study..  Dalga had grown up in a herding family and had maintained animals of his own in the past but he and his immediate family now made their livelihood as mineral prospectors.


Interviewee Description

Dalga used to be a herder and had owned a herd of around twenty horses.  He grew up in a herding family.  He told us he currently maintained a herd of 42 horses but put them out to pasture away from Moron, the town he lived in when we met him.  Dalga was still interested in horses and kept at home many bridles he had made himself.  He said he was aware of Colic but declined to complete the questionnaire any further – I think due to boredom.


Batdrack – Mongol Els, Bayan-Onjuul Soum, Tov Aimag


Lat/Long 46°59.402'N 106°10.778'E

See Fig 2.5 for map snippet


Area Description

Mongol Els is in essence an enormous sand-dune, 47km˛ in area, adjoining an area of steppe in the south of Tov Aimag an incursion of desert ecosystem into an area predominantly steppe.  The area is arid and grazing is poor, even non-existent in many places.  Stock animals range over a wide area.  There are fresh water springs to the north and better grazing.  The area soon becomes steppe-like and there is a limited amount of very good grazing where boggy fresh water springs well up and supply a meadow/wetland area.  Horses and other stock of which there are many hundreds tend to graze this area and to the north, northwest and northeast of the dunes, where the grazing is limited but reasonable.  To the south desert plants predominate and the only stock animals which habitually graze the area are camels.


Interviewee Description

Batdrack was in his early forties and had worked in Japan as a race-horse trainer.  His father was a famous horse trainer named Choidog, who won the national Nadaam three times before his death.  Batdrack was well aware of Colic but was quite definite that it was a condition that did not affect Mongolian horses.  Batdrack had seen Colic affect horses in Japan but not in Mongolia.  Batdrack's eldest brother Batbayar, who lived nearby, was a keen and competent horseman but had also not seen Colic.


Boronbay – Ondershireet Soum, Tov Aimag


Lat/Long 47°25.958'N 104°52.345'E

See Fig 2.6 for map snippet


Area Description

A mountainous area, sparsely populated during our visit during summer 2013 because of lack of fresh water sources.  There were approximately five Gers in an area 13 square kilometers, all clustered around a few wells.  The grazing was excellent and there were far fewer animals than the area could sustain.  It is difficult to estimate how many stock animals there were in the area because the mountains provide many hiding places but Boronbay had several hundred head of goats/sheep which he brought in every night.


Interviewee Description

Boronbay was in his early fifties and worked as a herder and a race-horse trainer.  He was prosperous and employed another herder to help.  He herded goats, sheep, cows and horses.  Boronbay kept stocks of penicillin like most herders.  He had no knowledge of Colic.


Tomor – Orkhon Soum, Bulgan Aimag



Lat/Long 48°44.173'N 103°16.644'E

See Fig 2.7 for map snippet


Area Description

We visited Tomor's home after several days of heavy rains.  Tomor and his family lived in an area of rolling grasslands to the north of the Orkhon river, bounded to the north east and south and to the west by the Bireen Gol (river)  There were abundant fresh water sources and a wide variety of grasses, thistles, mushrooms and wild-flowers.  Tomor lived in a small ″Ail”, a ″village” of five Gers clustered round a well.   We believe there to have been twelve Gers within 11 square kilometres.  There were many goats, sheep, horses and cattle in the area, perhaps three or four hundred of each.


Interviewee Description

Tomor was 55 years old at the time we met him.  He lived with his daughter, 19 years old and two twin boys.  His wife worked away.  He herded sheep, goats and cattle and was a keen horseman but had not heard of Colic.


Mandaa – Oarsm Tsagiin, Bulgan Aimag


Lat/Long 48°53.685'N 102°27.464'E

See Fig 2.8 for map snippet


Area Description

An area of low, grass covered hills, salty and freshwater depressions reasonable to high quality grazing but somewhat overgrazed during our visit due to the high human and livestock population density thereabouts.  There were many hundreds of livestock in the area and there were perhaps 50 families in an eight square kilometre area around the small (1km˛), freshwater lake.


Interviewee Description

Mandaa was in his late fifties and celebrating during our visit.  His son and five of his friends, who worked for one of the large mining companies, were also visiting.  We were able to talk over a wider range of subjects than usual because one of the son's friends was a Mongolian/English interpreter.  We talked to Mandaa about Colic with two of his neighbours, also herders.  The consensus was that Mongolian horses do not suffer from Colic.  Neither of the three herdsman had ever seen an incidence of Colic.


Batbaatar – Bayan-Act Soum, Bulgan Aimag bordering Khuvsghul Aimag


Lat/Long 49°01.869'N 101°40.809'E

See Fig 2.9 for map snippet


Area Description

This part of Bulgan province, right on the border with Khuvsghul, is an upland area at around 1600 metres on the valley floor, so a few degrees cooler than normal.  The area to the west and north is mountainous and heavily forested with water draining off the steep hills and feeding the well adjacent to Batbaatar's Ail.  The area to the south and east gradually becomes more arid, then saline.  The only river in the area, the Bayan Gol five kilometres away, was dry during our visit, so herders and livestock depended on wells and springs for water.  This meant the area was sparsely populated by people and livestock during our visit with only the three Gers in Batbaatar's Ail within 11 square kilometres as far as we could tell.  There were several hundred livestock in the area, around seventy cows, several hundred goats and sheep and many bands of horses, comprising somewhere over a hundred.


Interviewee Description

Batbaatar was a herder in his early fifties.  A keen horseman, he also made unusually fine tack, making everything from bits to saddles.  Batbaatar lived in an Ail with his sister-in-law's family and another family.  Batbaatar had never heard of Equine Colic.


Baasanjav – Khar Zaalamin Dagaa, Raashant Soum, Khuvsghul Aimag. 


Lat/Long 49°01.625'N 101°35.623'E

See Fig 2.10 for map snippet

No photographs available


Area Description

This is a semi alpine area on the northeastern side of the high mountain pass between Khuvsghul and Bulgan Aimags.  There was excellent pasture on the narrow valley floor at 1600m with a wide variety of under grazed grasses and wild flowers.  There were a few springs and wells but no nearby rivers and therefore, few herders and animals.  The land to the north is for the most part inaccessible, mountainous and forested.  To the west, the land gradually falls and flattens out over a hundred kilometres to become the central Khuvsghul plain.  The area is extremely mountainous and therefore difficult to spot animals.  As with most places, goats and sheep are herded quite attentively, so our host's herd of 100-150 was kept in the area but otherwise we didn't see any animals in sizeable numbers and it is impossible to estimate their numbers.  Likewise, the human population was likely secreted in the various folds and pockets of the landscape but we only saw our host's Ger and one other, located about twenty metres away, while travelling through the area,


Interviewee Description

Basanjav was a herder and keen race-horse owner and trainer.  He was in his early thirties and lived with his wife and young son.  He had no knowledge of Colic.


Nigel Brown.  Veterinary, Livestock and Rural Development Consultant, Mongolia.


We sent Nigel the questionnaire we used when speaking with herders noted in this document.  Nigel's reply is as follows.


″I don't believe Equine Colic is common from my discussions with veterinarians over 6 aimags when we have talked about common clinical problems with all the vets of the provinces in one room.   It has never featured in a list of problems vets meet and want to learn more about.  Having said that there are some real problems in diagnosis in Mongolia plus terrible weakness in ability to treat with very few drugs, little surgical ability.


Many herders are too far from vets to get treatment and there is a widespread lack of knowledge about what causes problems, among both vets and owners.  Many herders carry out blood-letting themselves for assorted problems and firing is still practised in some regions as well as being taught in vet school.


Without wishing to be too negative I think it will be important that your translator clearly understands the clinical issues involved otherwise it will all get translated as something general like pain in the foot or belly and who knows what will be caught in the net.


For four years I gave training/awareness sessions and in the early days gave a session on Colic about four years ago to about 20 vets, I forget where.  No-one had anything typical in horses only associated with birth.”




The results of the questionnaire we asked all respondents are recorded in the Mongolia Research. Questionnaire Data 1.0.xls spreadsheet.



None of our Mongolian respondents had even seen a case of colic in Mongolia or believed that the condition affected Mongolian horses.  This isn't perhaps as amazing as one might first think considering the very large number of horses in the country and the extent to which they are left to live and die according to their own devices.  It is nevertheless surprising that so many horsemen could be adamant on the same point.  Mongolians are not on the whole the most forthcoming respondents and nobody was enthusiastic about completing our questionnaire but people were more than happy to chat about anything horse related and everybody was clear that Colic was not perceived as a problem.  We can't make very many conclusions but we can say that the perceived rate of incidence of Equine Colic is much less than in other countries.


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