An American woman's horseback sojourn in Buddhist Mustang, where villages are protected by god-ponies
It all happened rather quickly: the mount, the first few steps, and the ensuing rodeo that ended with me flung to the ground behind the western border of the city’s wall. Thinking back over the number of times I had had to mount and dismount throughout this day on the trail, I wondered if that ride was worth it. As it was, I ended up riding to Jomsom on Gyatso’s smallest horse—a quiet gelding, not much taller than the Tibetan mastiffs that guard local homes. I had been relegated, by the care of this fine man, to the loping doldrums of a horse well broken.
There is a saying in Tibetan that likens the Buddhist concept of “mind” to a horse: a powerful tool rendered useless without training and discipline. Likewise, lung-ta, often translated as “wind horse,” is not only the name given to the prayer flags embossed with the image of a horse delicately balancing the jewels of Buddha’s teachings, Lung-ta is also a Tibetan Buddhist practice, a series of initiations and teachings that is both the “universal foundation” (klung) implied by vast space and the “excellent horse” (rta mchog), a symbol of traveling with wisdom, transmuting obstacles, illusion, and misfortune with the greatest speed.
Yet, the sort of insight buried within the Lung-ta teachings never comes instantly. Much plodding is required before one can ride on the wind. I found out later that Gyatso’s dro-mar spent the week after he threw me threshing sweet peas—a deliberate lesson in humility that left him quiet and rideable, but still green. I, too, had much to learn. This movement of horse and rider towards each other is nothing if not an act of discipline and subtlety, of skillful means and trust.
I had been in Mustang for six months now. Dips and peaks along the trail and the distances between villages were no longer a surprise. I felt confident traveling on my own. It was time for me to leave Lo for a quick trip to Kathmandu. Raju, the king’s nephew, gave me for the ride south a crow-colored gelding that had once belonged to a Tibetan nomad. Judging from the marks on the horse’s teeth, the animal was nearly eleven—well beyond middle age for most of Mustang’s horses. The tips of his ears had been split soon after birth, earning him the nickname na shi, or “four ears.” Raju explained that the ears of horses born to mares that have lost previous foals, or foals born sick, are split. This maiming is thought to ground a sentient being in its body. Once scarred, the horse is “imperfect” enough to remain in this world. Now grown, this gelding was one of Raju’s strongest. We left Monthang early, alone.
The stretch of trail after Samar invited speed. If the horse had been young, or if I had been less familiar with the trail, I might have been anxious. As it was, however, any sense of nervousness was dispelled by a joyful harmony of eyes and arms and solid seat, hooves and mane and half-pinned ears. Left hand raised and gripping reins, feet clicking forward at the girth, right hand flicking whip at my mount’s right eye, but never touching horseflesh. A vehicle in the true sense of the word, this seasoned horse was teaching patience, lending speed to the grace of this rugged landscape. I could feel the gelding’s power well up from behind. The strain of muscles, his and mine, became as seemingly effortless as exertion can be. A moment of balance found: lost, found again.
MUSTANG is in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, but is not entierly immune to monsoon. Clouds had been gathering all day. The sky darkened behind me, turning indigo over Lo and the Tibetan plains to the north. Lightning split the sky. Then it cracked: thunder, “sound of the dragon” in Tibetan, shook the earth. Raju’s horse had been undaunted by steep hills, high waters, porters carrying boxes and planks along the trail; but now, as the storm broke, he stopped short and whinnied at the northern sky and pawed the ground, answering the thunder.
A Tibetan refugee once told me, “Whenever a horse hears thunder, it will remember its birthplace. Some horses try to run back. Thunder is like the heartbeat of Tibet.” The northern plains on which this horse had been born were enveloped in storm.
WE ARRIVED IN JOMSOM drenched. Small rivers ran between houses, over slate cobblestones, down to the swollen Kali Gandaki. Willow trees kneeled under the force of the downpour. When we pulled into Chandra’s house, both the horse and I were shaking, steam rising from our bodies like smoke from the kitchen fire. I unsaddled and stabled the black gelding, Chandra’s wife prepared tea, Chandra fetched the horse some grain, and we began to dry off.
My mount was feverish by next morning. His nose ran and his eyes were dull. My hosts had gone out, and the horse needed immediate care. I decided to call on Mayala, one of Mustang’s renowned local veterinarians. This old man had spent nearly ten years with Tibetan nomads, trading horses and yak, sheep and salt, learning how to care for animals. Although the corpus of Tibetan medical texts includes veterinary volumes—horse texts, in particular—and though these books exist throughout Mustang, Mayala’s expertise lived in his skilled hands, not among the pages of such books. He was in constant demand. Even the king, an excellent veterinarian in his own right, called upon him to let blood, prepare herbal remedies, cauterize wounds.