Riding in the Rain Shadow

Sienna Craig

An American woman's horseback sojourn in Buddhist Mustang, where villages are protected by god-ponies


riding feature image summer 1998Midsummer in Mustang is bright days and early starts. We’d been riding since dawn. Too many stops for tea the day before had slowed us, yet we needed to reach Jomosom from Lo Monthang in two days and intended to move quickly south. Chandra’s rhakpa, a charcoal-colored mare, was pregnant. She had been trying to keep up all day. Though well-fed and muscle-toned, she struggled up the morning’s passes and was panting by noon, sweat trickling between her ears. The mare was about a quarter of the way through her gestation period, according to Gyatso. A local doctor (amji), he has treated many a horse and was attuned to signs of this new life, half formed, shifting inside her.

The kingdom of Mustang, Nepal—or “Lo” as Mustang is called in Tibetan—is high-altitude steppe and desert, a geography akin to the Tibetan plains to the north. Though closed to foreigners until 1992, Lo has been a trade route and pilgrimage site for centuries. The present king of Lo is twenty-fifth in a lineage of monarchs dating to the fourteenth century. Like people across the Tibetan plateau, Loba (“people from Lo”) rely on trade, agriculture, and animal husbandry to survive. As in other enclaves of Tibetan civilization, the horse in Mustang is at once an indispensable means of transportation, a symbol of wealth, and a religious icon. This region’s rugged terrain, its expanses of wasted, sandy plains, and Lo’s comparatively meager fodder supplies demand that riding horses—more delicate and expensive than yak, sheep, goat, even other porter horses—be guarded against as much hardship as is possible in this difficult landscape.

Chandra rode quietly and tried not to push his horse. The king of Mustang’s personal secretary for twenty-one years, Chandra is savvy, diplomatic, and looks clean even in dust storms. He realized that the developing foal, if born healthy and trained well, would fetch at least 50,000 rupees ($800) at the local market; a miscarriage, however, would only harm his mare. The day had begun to wane and Jomsom was still several hours’ ride downriver, but Chandra wouldn’t let us hurry. Instead, he let loose the reins, lowered his head, and dozed, lulled to sleep by the easy rhythm of his mare’s walk.

We dismounted and began the rapid descent to Tsele. Chandra’s mare lumbered with the added weight of the life inside her. She shied away from a piece of rock that broke off from the cliff and came tumbling down. The mare was alert and protective, guarding the vessel of her body as she stepped gingerly through this dangerous corridor of falling scree and dust the color of turmeric.

We reached the banks of the Kali Gandaki River, Mustang’s central artery, late in the afternoon. Water ran high. The river churned sand and saligrams (ammonite fossils) without distinction. Though our horses balked at the force of this muddied current, Gyatso and I convinced them to step in, brace themselves, and cross. Chandra’s mare refused to budge, and, oddly enough, strained to drink the swiftly moving cloud of river water. The mare’s exertions had brought on a thirst that was indifferent to rapids.

“See the way the baby flips in its mother’s stomach while she drinks? Maybe the foal is a lake horse,” Gyatso pondered as the mare drank. Tibetan legends speak of horses fathered by stallion deities who live at the center of lakes, emerging only to mate with mares grazing near the shore. Developing foals fathered by such stallions are said to “swim” inside their mother’s wombs. Mares birthed from such unions are thought to travel with exceptional strength and ease, as if moving through water. Colts, however, don’t like to approach water for fear of being paralyzed by their father’s reflection, of not knowing to which world they belong. Lake horse or not, I hoped the unborn foal would survive Mustang’s bleak winter and imagined it grown—as tenacious and fluid as the current that carried us home.

riding feature image summer 1998We would not reach Jomsom until dusk, and already my back was bent in pain. I had taken a bad fall off Gyatso’s new horse, freshly imported from Tibet, a few days before. My body still ached from simple movements. The crick in my back, stiff in the morning, had me moving with the lethargy of a bowlegged cowboy. In the evening, I had to rest one hand on my hip as the other hand separated saddle blankets, pulled off bridles, and doled out the evening’s grain. As I worked, I couldn’t help thinking of that dro-mar of Gyatso’s, the red-tinged “blue” horse that had thrown me. Everyone had warned me not to ride it: the father of the house in which I live in Monthang; the old men who sit spinning wool, prayers, and gossip at the gates of this city; even the king of Mustang.

“Horses from the chang tang [Tibet’s northern plains] are dangerous,” The king mumbled late one afternoon. “Let Pema Ngotug ride the horse first, then you can ride.” Pema Ngotug, all muscle and grit until he smiles, is one of the king’s closest attendants. The musket he carries whenever the palace entourage departs makes Pema the king’s bodyguard. Pema has been doctoring, trading, and breaking Mustang’s horses for years. His body bears the scars of countless mounted misadventures: the ridge of his nose, at least thrice broken; fingers that form a contorted, yet solid fist; feet that rest more naturally in stirrups than on the ground.

BUT PEMA NGOTUG had gone to the village of Drakmar to monitor the cutting of the king’s fields and the horse was there, saddled and looking docile. I decided to try. It wasn't the first time I had broken a horse, nor would it be the first time I took a bad fall, I reasoned, even though I knew many people would be worried if I did.

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