The Nomads of Central Asia | A Life on Horseback

Horses were first domesticated in Central Asia around 3500 BCE. Central Asians were the first people who had the guts to climb on top of a horse and learn to ride. From that moment on, there was no turning back. The horse and a life on the road became their home. They carried out their lives atop the saddle. They were nomads. They had no permanent home and they did not seek to possess one.

It’s time to settle down, get married and have kids. How many times have we heard how it is ‘time’ to do something? And yet, for so many, it does not happen. It does not fall into place. They are still on that horse. Seeking and not finding.

Central Asian nomads lived in tents called yurts. In Turkish, the word yurt has even come to mean ‘homeland’. How can a people who never sought to settle possess a homeland? It seems counterintuitive, but it is not. Horses could only go as far as travel via land permitted. Horse-bound nomads did not cross the seas as seafarers once did.

The ancient Central Asian tribes were many. It is said that they fought among one another, but at the same time, the region is renowned for their hospitality towards strangers. To them, ‘homeland’ was the steppes. It was the flat and endless treeless terrain of grass that formed the Eurasian steppe. It was a vast plot of land that stretched from modern-day Ukraine to Mongolia.

Horses have symbolised power, strength and freedom since humans first domesticated them. They enabled us to travel, to wage war as well as to clothe and feed ourselves. Whenever an animal is able to form a bond with humans, they were domesticated and their numbers grew.

There is only one species of wild horse that still exists in the world today and it is the Przewalski’s horse. We are still unsure if it is a true wild horse or if it is a descendant of an ancestor that ran away and escaped.

Many of us see the benefits of a domesticated life. We are provided with food, shelter, refuge and so on. A settled life is generally considered preferable to a nomadic life. We eventually want to put down roots or at least have them. Out in the wild, anything could happen. Travel was–and still remains–a dangerous activity. There are many unknowns to factor in when we choose to travel and to immigrate. There is a lot that we simply cannot plan for when we lead nomadic lives.

Despite the horse’s role as a domesticated animal, it has continued to symbolise freedom. Perhaps it was because when we rode a horse, it allowed us to free ourselves from whatever was binding us and keeping us ‘stuck’ in one place. No matter how ‘good’ we have it in one place or with one person, we still want to explore the world out there. Life on horseback led us to believe that the world always has more to offer us.

The further forward we ventured, the more we would discover and be able to enjoy. For many of us, a conflict rages within–within the Self that wants to settle and put down roots; and the Self that wants to be free. We do see the benefits of domestication. We generally now lead longer, healthier and better lives. We become members of a community and so on. We grow attached to what we have, what we have created as well as what we are in the process of creating.

To ancient humans, a horse was a companion, a partner and a friend; similar to the Golden Eagle that the nomads of Kazakhstan use to hunt. Unlike the eagle, that is normally set free after ten years of companionship, horses are sometimes eaten. Fermented mare’s milk is a popular alcoholic drink among the kumis people of the central Asian steppes. Horses also provide entertainment via horse racing.

The nomads obtained their food by hunting and from their livestock. They domesticated herds of cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and of course horses–their favourite. They largely subsisted on meat and dairy products. During periods of crisis, which were not infrequent on the unforgiving steppe, the horse was their only source of food.

Perhaps what we find through the horse–and what the horse finds through us–is a balance; between the domestic and the wild. We find a way to be free while still having the ability to put down roots. It is our attempt at having the best of both worlds–or at the very least–taking our home with us wherever we may go… And wherever the winds may blow us.


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