Intro | Buying horses | Route Planning | Provisioning | Equipment | Misc. Advice | Phrasebook |


Solo Horse Trekking?

Solo horse trekking means going without a guide, but of course you can still bring your friends. No guide means no tour company, and so you'll have to buy your own horses and plan your own route. This document is specifically about horse trekking in Mongolia, but much of it would be applicable to other destinations. There's not much point in buying a horse for a short trip, so typically expeditions will last longer than 14 days (about the maximum offered by most Mongolian companies). If you buy and sell your horses with care, then you can travel longer, see more, and spend less money than any other kind of tour. Mongolia is perhaps one of the last places on earth where it is easy to travel this way as a tourist, so get up and go!

What to Expect

Mongolia has very low population density in general, and some areas are extremely remote from people or services of any kind. Even if you are particularly interested in Mongolian culture and plan on using ger hospitality as often as possible, you still want to carry camping equipment and enough food and water for several days at all times. Depending on where you decide to ride, backcountry skills like orienteering may be much more important than having extensive equestrian experience.

Mongolian horses are tough but not large, and normally classified as ponies. If you are going alone you will want a in addition to the one you'll be riding, but for 2 people 3 horses should be fine.

Do not expect to travel fast by horse! (Even moving large distances by vehicle in Mongolia is slow and arduous; a bicycle tour is a better option for you if you prefer to make 60 or 70 kilometers per day.) See the section on riding time/riding distance.

Required Equestrian Experience

Obviously the more prior experience the better, but if you're particularly adventurous you can do it with almost zero prior experience. This document is aimed at people with no prior experience, but think of it as supplement for a beginners course. Note that depending on your route and the time of year, backcountry camping/navigation skills may actually be much more important than prior equestrian experience. Regardless of your experience level, you really ought to buy a short-term insurance policy which covers some kind of evacuation expenses as well as horse riding. See for example the world nomads adventure sports policy.

Buying horses

The Cost

There is no one simple number to quote for 2 horses and all the tack. Apart from bargaining skill and sheer luck, factors involved include where you buy/sell and what time of year. Unless someone is in a hurry to sell, for a foreigner the minimum price for 2 horses is maybe $600 USD as of 2014, but think twice about paying the minimum. For one thing, getting this price will be hard work, not at all quick, and it probably won't work at all near Ulaanbaatar where transsiberian rail tourists are the norm. Another issue is that not everything is going to be obvious on a short test drive of the horses in question, and even ruthless dealers will feel bad about selling a clueless foreigner a bad horse if the foreigner is already overpaying. You don't want to end up with animals that are feeble, wild, or otherwise undesirable!

The minimum price also doesn't include any "feel good" fees for interpreters or middlemen. Brokers (like existing tour companies that run horse tours) will always make the cost steeper but as long as you don't allow them to double or triple charges, then they might actually be useful in making introductions. Such people also might possibly be trusted for a prearranged buy-back agreement.

How to Find a Seller

There are a few ways to do this and you may need to try several. This will not be a terribly quick process, especially if you want good horses for a good deal. If you plan to be picky, allow at least a week for shopping and negotiations. Get yourself a local cell phone number, and give it away to anyone and everyone who asks for it throughout the process, even if they don't speak the same language as you.

  1. Try to go an actual horse market. Bigger cities will have a designated area for this, typically close to the main market/bazaar for other goods. The more sellers the better, since competition is good for the buyer.. assuming sellers are not in collusion against you. If there are only three men selling, they are quite possibly friends or family, thus any chance of seller-competition amongst them is shot. If there are 6 men selling, chances are better things will go in your favor: maybe 1 man has some expense to cover and might be in a bigger hurry to sell, maybe 2 of the men have some existing rivalry that prevents them from colluding, etc.

  2. If there is no horse market at all or it's just too late in the season for the horse market to be open, go to a generic livestock market (in a bigger city sheep at least will be sold year round in some central place or other). A foreigner will automatically attract attention, so when people walk up to you, just indicate you want horses but try to avoid mentioning even a price range without seeing any horses. Phones will come out and calls will be made, and after a short wait either horses will show up directly in front of you or someone will start driving you around to see horses at various nearby gers.

  3. If you for some reason find yourself in a tiny soum without even a central livestock market and you don't want to bus elsewhere, there's really nothing to do but rely on word of mouth. In a place like this you might actually get the best horses for the cheapest price, but you may end up waiting for weeks just spreading the word and hoping to get lucky.

How to Choose Horses

If possible, you really want to get both horses from the same place because it is simpler that way and ideal if the horses already know each other and are friendly. Apart from avoiding conflict or dominance issues between them, their friendship and herd-mentality is part of what will keep you from losing a horse at night if one happens to get loose.

As far as differentiating the packhorse and the riding horse, if possible you can ask advice from the seller. If a language barrier prevents that, then a good basic strategy is to get any big, strong looking gelding for your pack horse and a stallion for your riding horse. When choosing your horses, keep in mind the relevant aspects of horse gender and sexuality. Obviously keeping one stallion and one mare could cause you problems. Mares are normally recommended for inexperienced riders, but considering you may be passing by unfenced herds of stallions on a pretty regular basis this advice may not apply to backcountry Mongolia.

Going into detail about choosing good, strong, healthy animals is beyond the scope of this article, but to put it simply, even if you know nothing about horses, you need to at least pretend to inspect the right stuff if you want to get a good price. First, you don't want something too skinny. Are the ribs and haunches poking out too much? A few scabs are normal if the animal has been pushing through brush, but are there any bad looking sores? Palpate the spine around the shoulders to see if it's fat or bony. Feel under the jaw a bit, touch the horse around the head as if you were putting on a bridle because it's better to find out now if he bites. Get the seller to show you the teeth and hooves. Have the seller demonstrate that the horse has been properly trained to accept hobbling, or in other words, the horse should allow his back left leg to pulled forward by human hands without kicking at human heads.

How to Bargain

At this point if you like what you see, you can begin to talk about prices. The excellent wikivoyage bargaining article is very useful, so read it first. Afterwards read on, because buying a pair of horses is not quite like haggling over a a pair of sunglasses. Obviously the initial quote will probably be too high, but even if you judge it a good price for the quality of the horses, do not even think about actually paying on the first day. A foreigner trying to buy horses will generate a small sensation, and waves of amusement and more strictly entrepreneurial interest will spread out with the news.

After the price for your favorite horses is first mentioned by the seller, don't try to get him to lower the price. You want to keep the seller totally in the dark about how much you want to spend. At this point only communicate that you want to come back in a day or two and ride the horses, then shake hands and leave because you don't want to seem like you're in a hurry to buy. (Hopefully, the seller is now anxiously recalling all the times he saw you trading phone numbers with the other people at the livestock market. Plus if you're lucky someone else from the market actually does contact you and you really do have other options opening up.)

Later when you test drive the horses, it's not like you're going to ride them far and you will have to be prepared to do this bareback if no one has a saddle around. If they do have a saddle, make a show of rechecking the girth straps and other equipment just to look like a pro (yes, you should always do this anyway). Saddled or saddleless, don't try anything without a proper bit and reign, even if some Mongolians ride the horse that way. When riding the horse, check the action at a walk and at a trot, and just use the test drive to figure out basic stuff like:

  1. does the horse obey commands or fight them

  2. does it limp or anything under weight (unlikely), and

  3. does the whole package stands a chance of being decently comfortable for a long period of time (for example a potbellied horse might be healthy yet uncomfortable to ride, a too-tall horse may present you daily inconvenience when you are climbing up, etc).

If at this point you still want the horses, now you can begin bargaining in earnest for a lower price.

Route Planning

Note that most maps will be spelled with Cyrillic, and it might help to be able to pronounce what you read. Here is a short introduction.

Dead-tree maps

On the walls of tour companies in Mongolia, you may see huge maps pinned up. Take the time to scrutinize these. Old soviet maps are some of the most detailed around but no one is publishing them anymore and they seem impossible to find anywhere else. Halfway decent paper maps are available in Ulaanbaatar, but will have limited topographic information. The nice thing about these is that they are good about including the archaeological points of interest like petroglyphs and megaliths.

Electronic maps

Away from Ulaanbaatar, googlemaps is basically useless and you'll need better offline functionality anyway. For smartphones the best thing is to get the Mongolia dataset from The file is large, but the detail is priceless. This is a vector map, and you'll want to load it into some app that can read it (try locus maps or orux). Of course using electronic maps means you'll now have to worry about battery power, see the advice re: electricity in the backcountry equipment section.

Riding time and riding distance

People will have different ideas about how many hours per day they want to spend riding, but it's worth considering that trekking with horses means adding in the saddle-up and saddle-down procedures to the normal amount of time it requires to build up and pack in the rest of your camp site. Considering the additional camp chores and any initial saddle soreness that you may suffer, plan to ride only 4-6 hours if you want to keep things leisurely.

You will probably not move the horses to a gallop often, because this will tend to shake apart the gear strapped to the pack horse or otherwise compromise the tack. (If the tack slips enough, the horse may panic and bolt, scattering or kicking apart your food supply and essential camping gear.) You don't want to lose stuff or have to constantly stop and adjust things. Thus, a long journey on horseback means mostly walking or trotting. Expect to make anywhere from 20 − 50 km per day, depending on your skill, the vigor of your horses, and the terrain. For terrain of average difficulty, plan distances based on the horses moving about 6 kph. Save hard pushes for when you're crossing a dry spot and really need to get to a place where the horses can feed and water.


Water for Your Horses

Water is the most essential aspect of route planning. Considering their main burden and the amount of liquids they require, it will not be possible to have the horses carry the amount of water they will need for drinking. You have only 3 options:

  1. relying on rivers,
  2. relying on lakes, or
  3. relying on friendly nomads with wells.

The last option is not ideal since only the rivers, lakes, and villages have ger locations that will be easy to predict. Every ger you encounter will have water (and lots of chai) handy for humans, but not every ger has a well drilled. Unless you note the presence of huge amount of livestock already, watering your horses may not be convenient for you or your host. Following rivers or circumnavigating lakes is the easiest and safest thing you can do. Note that just like for humans, eating snow is fine for a day or two but is not a great long term solution to hydration.

Food for Your Horses

Mongolian horses are used to foraging, and won't even know that offerings of things like oats and carrots are food. Except in the dead of winter, following water (and selecting good stopping points) means that your horses should be able to find enough food. When you are not sleeping, always hobble your horses (don't tie them) so that they have a chance to graze. As with humans, it is unpleasant but not terrible for horses to go a day without eating, and this may happen sometimes depending on the route you choose. Just keep that to a minimum!

Water and Food for yourself

Always carry a minimum of 5 days worth of food for yourself, even when you don't think you will need it. If you want to visit Mongolian families then you will probably be offered food at any ger, but you'll want something to offer in return.

Food options in general in Mongolia are not great, and tiny variety stores in small Mongolian towns are worse still. You will definitely need a stove (see also: backcountry equipment) because without the ability to cook pasta your diet may be restricted to canned sardines and small candies!

If you're moving between lakes/rivers instead of following their edges, then you may need several days worth of water but plan carefully; as mentioned previously, if water is an issue for you then it is a much bigger problem for your horses. Given the low population, lack of industry, and lack of a tropical climate, one might be inclined to think Mongolian water quality is above average. Think again! Unless you are high in the mountains you must always treat your water, no matter how remote or pristine the source appears to be. Remember: the famously low population density of Mongolia refers only to people, not livestock.


Obtaining Horse Equipment

Outside of large cities most tack in Mongolia is made, not bought. Your best bet is to gear up before leaving Ulaanbaatar, because selection will dwindle from that point on and even an expert western equestrian may have difficulty retying the knots that make up an improvised halter or bridle. Without too much quibbling about the specifics of the terminology, roughly the minimum the equipment and tack you need is this:

  • 2 saddles (riding saddle, and pack saddle)
  • 2 girth straps (one for each animal)
  • 1 halter / hackamore (for the pack animal)
  • 1 bridle including reins (for the horse you ride)
  • 2 bits (1 for the horse you ride & another as a backup)
  • 2 hobbles (one for each animal)
  • 1 set of stirrups (for the horse you ride)
  • 2 pickets / stakes / pins (one for each animal)
  • lots of rope (for each animal and for backup / repairs)

Here are a few misc. considerations, observations, things you might want to bring from home, etc:

  • If you want, you could try to get the horse dealer to include all tack in the price. You may not be sure what you're getting, but this could save you hours of confused searching and bargaining in the local market, and a local will no doubt obtain a better price. Any tack you cannot buy will have to be made, and it's also possible the dealer will be much more competent at this than you are. Since he will want to sell the horses, you can be pretty confident of obtaining his help on this kind of stuff.

  • Bringing a few good climbing carabiners will save you from tying many hundreds of knots over the course of a few weeks. This is a really big deal for numb fingers if you're traveling during the cold months!

  • "Trail bridles" with quick-release bits for easy feeding seem to be completely unknown in Mongolia, and bringing one with you would save a lot of daily trouble.

  • Saddles mostly come in two flavors: Mongolian style and Russian style, and most tourists find the Russian style more comfortable. Western saddles and pack saddles are difficult if not impossible to find, so if you need either it's a good idea to bring it from home.

  • You need 2 pieces of heavy, strong rope to function as the main tethers for each animal. These ropes are used when hobbling is not possible but also during bathroom stops, whenever you're loading and unloading camp, etc. Mongolians with well trained horses will use just about anything for this, but for long term trail riding you probably need at least a quarter inch kernmantle of very high quality if you want it to last a while. One of these ropes is also the lead rope for the pack animal, and will be constantly getting dropped, stepped on, and subjected to friction.. do not underestimate the horses tendency to drag it through brush and thorns and over rocks, etc.

  • Bring along lots of other misc. rope to repair any breakages for halter, bridles, luggage system, etc.

  • Using rope for an improvised girth strap is not a good idea when you're riding a lot every day, because the horses will develop sores. Use webbing instead, and bring extra for repairs. Webbing, buckles, D rings etc are available at any market or hardware store.

Packhorse Luggage System

You will need some kind of saddle to throw your gear on for the pack horse. Bring a proper pack-saddle with you from home or buy a cheap, unfinished/unpadded Mongol saddle from the large market in any city (cost should be 60 - 80,000T).

If you have it already, consider bringing along some of your mountaineering, climbing, or cycling equipment. Cycling panniers make reasonably good saddle bags, and a nice big pile of carabiners will help prevent you from tying and retying knots constantly. Daisy-chains (used by climbers) or Eno slapstraps (used for hammocks) are also very useful objects for tethering horses or gear securely. Heavy, low quality carabiners and raw, un-sewn canvas webbing can be obtained from hardware stores anywhere in Mongolia, but only UB has mountaineering outfitters (for instance the Petzl shop near the state department store).

Although Mongolia is a pretty dry country most of the year, you may be faced with river crossings and freak weather that can blow across the steppe with no warning.. it’s definitely worth trying for waterproof gear. If you’re getting all your stuff after you arrive in Mongolia, this might mean buying cheap duffle bags and stowing everything inside trash bags. If you think you will be riding through scrub though, you’ll want something tougher because horses are oblivious and will shred a cheap bag rubbing up against brush in no time.

Ortleib makes tough, waterproof cycling panniers which can be bought in any large city in Europe or the United States, and if you don't mind placing an order and waiting on mail they also make actual equestrian saddle bags.

Backcountry Equipment to Bring

This section assumes some familiarity with long term visits to wilderness areas. If you have no experience whatsoever with this kind of travel, then hopefully you have significant experience with horses or are traveling with friends or both. Here are a few places to begin reading:

  1. hiking equipment
  2. backpacking equipment for wilderness areas
  3. hazards of outdoor activities

Misc Advice

Pinning and Hobbling Your Horses

It's worth paying special attention to getting a nice pair of hobbles, preferably made from chain links. Even if you think you can tie improvised hobbles several times a day every day for weeks without messing it up even once, over time with rough terrain the rope will fatigue and the horses will break it.

After you make camp it's best to hobble your horses so they are free to wander nearby and graze as they please, but losing a horse is always a risk (yes, it even happens to Mongolians) and there are several reasons you might not be comfortable with just a hobble:

  • You know there are interesting animals (other horses) nearby your camp
  • You know there are scary animals (maybe dogs) nearby your camp
  • Your hobbles themselves are somehow feeble or faulty
  • Your two horses are having personality problems with each other
  • You are forced to camp on a mountain or hillside (going far in one direction is easier than random circular motion)
  • Objective hazards (fast water with steep banks, or things the animals can tangle in)

When you cannot hobble the horses you'll have to tether them, but in the steppe you cannot count on there always being a rock or a tree to tie your horse to. Hence the stakes. You want very sturdy stakes, because there is no guarantee you're only going to be hammering them into soft ground either! If you can't find these at the market, you'll have to improvise because this is essential gear when there are no trees or rocks. In a pinch, try getting someone at a construction site to give you a suitable length of rebar.

Wolves and horse thieves

Crossing Rivers

When fording rivers, even small ones, never allow your horses to drink midstream because you don't want them to get used to this. When managing 2 horses, crossing any water should be treated seriously. You never know if one horse may step into a deep spot, stumble, or startle and panic the other horse. While one horse is drinking, another might step into a soft spot and freak out, tangling the reins and the packhorse lead rope. Remember that even small inconveniences like wet boots can become very serious if the weather is freezing. Once the opposite side is reached, always let horses drink as much as they want.


As mentioned previously, you probably want to try to learn to read some Cyrillic if only for the maps, but that's out of the scope of this document. Despite the ambiguity for the tables below I decided not use IPA phonetics because for most readers that would be as illegible as the Cyrillic. For standard phrases see the Kazakh or Mongolian phrasebooks at wikivoyage, here I will just try to maintain a small horse trekking specific vocabulary. Chances are good your accent will not be understood anyway, but if nothing else this can inspire you about a few of the stock phrases you'll want translated and written down.

Note: Anywhere in Mongolia where you find a sufficiently large group of people over 30 years of age, you will probably find a Russian speaker. In some areas of western Mongolia however you may discover Kazakh is preferred and occasionally have difficulty finding anyone who speaks fluent Mongolian at all (should not be an issue for simple words or horse equipment words).


English Phonetic Mongolian Phonetic Kazakh
North khoid soltoostik
South oord ontoostik
East zoon shigis
West baroon tish batis
Passable / Navigable dairch ungooroo
how far her hol ve
River Gol oozen
Mountain ool tao
Plain tal gazar


English Phonetic Mongolian Phonetic Kazakh
hold the dogs (also means hello): nohoi horio
Thank you rrahkmed


English Phonetic Mongolian Phonetic Kazakh
Food (for humans) hool tamak
grass / horse fodder oss shoop
Water oos soh


English Phonetic Mongolian Phonetic Kazakh
Pin/stake gadas oolesi
Hobble chudur
Bridle hazaar jugai
Saddle emeel er
Stirrups dooroo oozengi
Rope ooya arkan
Reins joloo bel