HORSES IN TIBET
Separated from the rest of the world by high mountain ranges, Tibet has many animals that evolved in isolation. For example, almost all horses in the world have Arabian, Mongolian, or Turkish horse blood. At the same time, Tibetan horses don’t have these traces.
There might be six different horse species that originated in Tibet. Some of the most famous breeds are Nangchen horses in South-Eastern Tibet (Kham) and Riwoche horses. Since Tibetan horses are typically short, they are sometimes called ponies.
Tibetan horses adapted to the harsh conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. They can survive in high altitudes, withstand low temperatures, and navigate through tough terrain while still being muscular and strong.
Presently, even nomads have cars and motorbikes that help them to get around. Many nomads keep horses only for horse racing festivals which are still an important part of nomadic culture in Tibet. Still, Tibetans use horses for riding them and helping with herding livestock. Although Tibetans use horses as pack animals, the main animal for carrying loads is yak. Even nowadays, there are many areas without good roads and Tibetans use horses to get around these areas or to cross mountain ranges.
Nangchen horses are taller than other Tibetan horses. This breed most likely formed around the 9th century and has distinct characteristics. For example, the enlarged lungs of Nangchen horses allow them to strive in high-altitude areas and remain powerful, swift, and fast. They are taller than other Tibetan horses but still smaller compared to other horses of the region, such as Mongolian or Arabian. These fast and agile horses often participate in horse racing festivals – one of the most popular events in nomadic areas of Tibet.
Another horse breed mostly found in North-Eastern areas of Tibet is Riwoche or Riwoqe horses. Riwoche horse is native to the Tibetan Plateau. It is a small, pony-sized horse with distinct dun coloring and a dorsal stripe going along the spine.
They became very famous due to their archaic look. They closely resemble horses that we often see in prehistoric cave paintings. There even was speculation that these horses are archaic. However, after studying them closely, the horses appeared to be modern.
The horse racing festivals are an old, respected, and important Tibetan tradition. The 12th century Epic of King Gesar, consisting of poems and stories, tells the story of the legendary figure, who became the King of Ling after winning a horse race. Up to this day, horse racing festivals in Tibet are not a mere tradition, but an important event, allowing nomads to meet, exchange news, trade items, make friends and celebrate together. Nomads arrive with their entire families, wearing their best traditional dresses and heavily decorated with jewelry and headpieces.
The most famous horse racing festivals
There are several large horse-racing festivals lasting several days and attracting sometimes thousands of nomads. In addition to horse racing, you can see yak races, archery competitions, and Tibetan opera and dance performances.
The largest horse racing festivals are held in Gyantse, Nagqu, Litang, and in Yushu:
The dates are changing every year, depending on the Tibetan calendar, weather and conditions on the grasslands.
Nagqu festival (Northern Tibet)
The grasslands of Nagqu were always home to many Tibetan nomads. At the height of the wet season, when warm weather and plenty of rains create ideal conditions for grass to grow tall and plentiful, herders arrive in Nagqu and settle in their tents. Tibetan nomads gather for the festivals wearing their best traditional dress heavily adorned with turquoise, corals, and other precious stones. The festival lasts for several days and aside from various horse races, includes yak racing, arching tournament, weight lifting competition, and Tibetan opera performance.
Gyantse Damar Horse Racing Festival
The festival usually lasts 7-8 days. Traditionally, it was held on April 15th of the Tibetan calendar, but in recent years it was usually celebrated at the end of July. Nomads and locals gather in the valleys near Gyantse to meet each other, trade various goods, have tasty meals, and enjoy the show. In addition to many variations of horse racing, it includes yak races, archery competitions, and Tibetan opera and dance performances. Visiting the Gyantse festival even for one day is a great experience. You will see many Tibetans wearing traditional costumes, hundreds of their tents set up in fields and can stroll through the market with local crafts, religious items, and souvenirs.
RIDING Horses in tibet
If you want to meet Tibetan horses, the best way is to arrange horse riding. If you are visiting Yamdrok lake or Namtso lake, you can hire a horse for a short ride along the shore. Most Tibetan horses are well behaved and the horseman will select a horse that will best suit your riding abilities. For a short ride, he will accompany you to make sure you are safe. For a longer ride, he will give you safety instructions.
The best places to ride a horse in Tibet
If you prefer a more in-depth experience and want to ride a horse for a longer time, it is better to arrange a day tour. The best places for a day tour are Trupshi Valley near Ganden Monastery or Dechen Valley on the way from Lhasa to Namtso lake. Finally, if you are traveling to Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, you can enhance this already epic journey by riding a horse around the sacred mountain. Details about all these options are below.
Valley near Ganden Monastery
Trupshi Valley, lying at the foot of the peak where Ganden monastery stands is one of the best places to ride a horse near Lhasa. The valley is located 55km from Lhasa, and it takes about 1 hour to drive there. The day tour with horse riding includes visiting Ganden Monastery where you can enjoy the views of the valley and Brahmaputra River from the hilltop. Depending on the season, we can see some nomads settled in the area. We can visit nomads living in the yak hair tents and learn about their lifestyle that remained virtually unchanged for the past hundreds of years.
Dechen Valley lies on the road connecting Lhasa with Namtso Lake and it is another great area for horse riding. Located about 35 km and it is about 45 minutes of driving from Lhasa.
Gentle rolling hills with a mountain view in the background ensure you will enjoy the day outdoors. Visiting Dechen valley is best combined with a tour to Namtso lake.
Turquoise-colored sacred Yamdrok Lake is a splendid destination on its own. One of the largest freshwater lakes in Tibet with crystal clear water is a popular stopping point on the way from Lhasa to Shigatse and Everest. If instead of making a short stop by the lake, you wish to spend more time enjoying its beauty, you can arrange a horse ride to roam on the lake’s shore.
One of the most popular destinations in Tibet – the majestic Mount Kailash is sacred in 4 religions. Pilgrims travel to Western Tibet to walk the 52km long kora – pilgrimage circuit around Kailash. Many travelers join them to experience authentic Tibetan culture, enjoy some of the best views in Tibet along the way, and of course, enjoy the outdoors on the trek reaching 5,640 meters at the highest point. Although the trek is not technical, some people prefer getting some help on the route. While there is no transportation on the trek around Kailash, you can hire a porter, yaks or a horse. If you hire a horse, you can ride it on all flat parts of the trek and save your energy while enjoying the impressive views along the way. However, the ascent and descent from the highest point of the trek – Drolma La pass is very steep and not safe for the rider, and you will have to complete this section of the trek on foot.
COMPLETE GUIDE: PREPARE FOR MOUNT KAILASH TOUR
All you need to know to get ready for an adventure of a lifetime. Information about required documents, ways to travel, the best season, what to wear and pack, how to prepare physically and what to expect on your journey.
The largest saltwater lake in Tibet is located about 250km from Lhasa at an altitude of 4700 meters above sea level. The snow-capped Nyechen Tanglha mountain range served as a backdrop. If you are visiting the lake, you can enhance your experience by riding a horse along its shoreline and feel the thin crisp air of Tibet.
Because of the high altitude, there are very few settlements in the region. Instead, Tibetan nomads live on these territories, moving between different pastures throughout the year. Local nomads can arrange horse riding by Namtso Lake.
RECOMMENDED TOURS IN TIBET
9 DAYS LHASA TO EVEREST AND NAMTSO LAKE
This 9 days tour visits the most impressive destinations in Tibet. We start our tour in Lhasa visiting the highlights of the capital. After that, we will head to Everest driving by Yamdrok Lake, Karola glaciers, Gyantse town, Kumbum stupa, Pelkor Choede monastery, and Brahmaputra river. We will spend the night by the Rongbuk monastery with a view of Everest. At the end of the tour, we will drive to Namtso lake to enjoy its glorious beauty.
15 DAYS MOUNT KAILASH PILGRIMAGE TOUR
One of our most popular group tours starts in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and goes to Mount Kailash for three-day trekking around this sacred mountain. During this tour, we visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse monastery and Kumbum stupa, Mount Everest, Lake Manasarovar, and Mount Kailash, and much more.
5 DAYS LHASA AND YAMDROK LAKE
This tour combines visiting historical, religious and cultural highlights of Lhasa with some of the most impressive landscape views in Tibet. We will meet in Lhasa to explore Potala palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera and Drepung Monasteries, and Barkhor Street. After that, we will drive through the scenic mountain range to the Gampa La pass to enjoy the stunning view on the sacred Yamdrok Lake. After that we will drive closer to the lake shore to admire its crystal clear waters.
GANDEN MONASTERY AND HORSE RIDING DAY TOUR FROM LHASA
Visit one of the most important monastery founded in the 14th century by Lama Tsongkhapa, and enjoy the view from the mountain top overlooking surrounding valleys. After visiting the monastery, we will meet the horse man. He will introduce you to your well-behaved horse and help you to get around the valley. During the summer months, we can see nomads yak hair tents and visit them with their permission.