▲ Though it is a misconception that Jeju horses are descendants of Mongolian horses, their intermingled history goes back centuries. Photo by Susan Shain
The country of Mongolia and the island of Jeju have a long history. From the remains of the Hangpaduri Anti-Mongolian Fortress to the Mongolian Horse Show, there is much evidence of Mongolia’s influence here on Jeju Island.
On a recent trip to Mongolia, I kept my eye out for any similarities between it and Jeju, or any evidence of their historic interactions. Other than Lotte Choco Pies being sold at every corner store, I did not see anything linking Mongolia and Korea, let alone Jeju. Until I saw the horses.
I had read about Mongolian horses being small, but I was unprepared for just how small. (Now I know how Ghengis Khan must have intimidated his enemies; anybody looks like a giant atop these little guys!) Then I realized that they looked just like traditional Jeju horses, and I remembered reading somewhere that Jeju’s horses were in fact descendants of Mongolian horses.
Upon my return to Jeju, I decided to do some further research into the connection between the four legged friends I had made in Mongolia and the ones that were my neighbors here.
According to Jang Deok Jee, the head of the Jeju Horse Culture Center, whatever I had read was wrong. It is a common misconception that Jeju’s horses are descendants of Mongolian horses. He said, “I would call Jeju horses a result of crossbreeding, but not descendants. If you look at books from the Goryeo Dynasty [918–1392], it states that Jeju already had excellent horses.”
“After the Mongolian invasion in 1276, 160 Mongolian horses came to Jeju. The Mongolians found Jeju suitable for raising horses due to its plains. That’s where the crossbreeding of Jeju horses and Mongolian horses began.”
Jeju horses are their own breed of horse, with a distinct DNA. According to Jang, the breed was registered approximately 10 years ago.
So, though Jeju’s horse culture did not begin with the Mongolian invasion, the two horse breeds are closely related — having been cross bred for almost 1,000 years. Today, in addition to their small size, Jeju horses and Mongolian horses share many characteristics. They come in a variety of colors, are good at enduring cold temperatures (due to their thick fur), and do not easily fall sick. Because Jeju horses haven’t been domesticated as long, however, they are not as friendly as Mongolian horses.
On Jeju, horses are now mostly used for tourism, entertainment, or meat. In Mongolia, horses are essential to everyday life, and the culture is almost unimaginable without them. Horses are one of the most common forms of transport, as is evidenced by the many elderly Mongolians with bowlegs that would put American cowboys to shame. Horse racing is considered one of Mongolia’s three great sports, and with many Mongolians learning to ride before they walk, good horsemanship is a source of great pride.
Mongolians do not eat horse meat, but the alcoholic drink of choice for the nomadic people (which make up about half of the population) is airag, fermented horse milk. Surprisingly, it tastes quite similar to the popular Korean drink makgeolli (albeit with a few extra pieces of grass floating on top).
Jeju horses can be seen at the Jeju Horse Racing Track and other farms around the island. Those interested in riding a potential relative of Ghengis Khan’s steed can try the Jeju Horse Riding Park. There, the horses are “Halla horses,” a mix of thoroughbred (big horses from Europe or America) and traditional Jeju horses. According to a park employee, they use the Halla horses (which still appear quite small), because the Jeju traditional horses are too small for riding. I only hope no Mongolian reads this, because I don’t think they would agree!
Jeju Horse Riding Park is located just east of Highway 1132, one exit north of the Jeju Horse Racing Track. It is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every dly membership rates are also available.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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