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A river crossing in northern Mongolia. (Bruce Kirkby/Bruce Kirkby)
A river crossing in northern Mongolia. (Bruce Kirkby/Bruce Kirkby)

Afraid of horses? Fix that by travelling with one (or three) Add to ...

When it comes to horses, people can be split into two camps. There are those who grew up immersed in the equine world, who wrap their arms around the neck of every mare and gelding they meet, kissing and cuddling the snout as if the animal were a family kitten. And then there are the rest of us, who instinctively shuffle backward when nostrils flare and bony legs begin to shift.

Since childhood, I have been afflicted with a serious case of hoof-phobia; my father had instilled a lifelong fear by solemnly recounting, time and again, the jolly Welsh neighbour who was fatally felled by a quick and well-aimed kick to the noggin.

Still, several years ago, inspired by visions of freedom, campfires and the rugged life of a cowboy, my wife Christine and I set off to explore the grasslands of Mongolia on horseback. From Ulan Bator, we travelled dusty roads to the crumbling outpost of Moron, where we sought a shepherd, a distant friend of a distant friend.

Without hesitation, Nara welcomed us into his family ger (yurt), feeding us, entertaining us and, after a few days, selling us three steeds – two for riding, one for packing. Ahead lay a two-month journey along the Russian border. There was just one hitch: Apart from a one-hour lesson in a dressage ring outside Cranbrook, B.C., neither Christine nor I had ever ridden before.

Nonetheless, I handed Nara a gangster-size pile of tugriks (Mongolian currency) and suddenly I was the owner of three horses. Inching toward their hitching post, I planned to win them over with bribery. Outstretched apples were of no interest, the horses intent on nodding their heads violently and in unison, like an Iron Maiden air band. In time, I would learn this meant that a horsefly was nearby, but now the jerky movements only added to my apprehension. No matter what direction I approached from, butt ends swung to greet me. Whispered entreaties were ignored. This was the starting point – unable even to pet my own horses.

Nara travelled with us for a week, teaching Christine and me the basics of life on the trail; how to load the animals each morning, and how to tether them each night; when to let them graze, when to force them onward. By the time we bade Nara a sad farewell, I felt confident controlling and caring for our small team. But none of Nara's lessons prepared me for the equine magic that lay ahead.

Day after day, as my horse's powerful lungs heaved between my clenched knees, we watched clouds tumble across the sky and distant mountains creep closer. Together, we rested beneath the same shady trees, drank from the same clear streams and lingered beside the same fires. The horses trusted me to inspect their hooves, and swat the flies that swarmed between their legs. I trusted them to nibble the grass beside my head while napping.

Before long, two minds began to act as one. The pitch of my horse's ears, and the spring in his gait would tell me someone was approaching long before they appeared on the trail ahead. In turn, he learned the subtle difference between “slow down a bit” and “stop!” on the reins.

I found myself seeking the horses in quiet moments around the camp, lingering with a hand pressed against their warm flanks, finding comfort in their company. I nuzzled each before crawling into the tent, and hours later, the first rustlings of our sleeping bags would bring clattering hooves and a trio of excited whinnies to the door.

There is notable intensity to human-horse interactions. In part, this is because horses historically view humans as predators, and to co-exist, a delicate bond of trust must be forged in the absence of language. The relationship is one of heightened sensitivity, of constant observation and the passing of subtle signals, offering a rare glimpse beyond our human-centric existence.

By the time we reluctantly (and tearfully) sold our geldings and flew home, leaping atop a horse had become as familiar as jumping into a car.

Somehow six years passed – during which time the only horses I saw were fleeting shadows beside the highway near my home in southeastern British Columbia. Now I was planning our family journey to the Republic of Georgia and decided to buy pack horses. Consumed with the logistics of keeping our young sons safe and comfortable, I hardly gave horses a second thought until Bonne Cheetah, a timid chestnut mare, was led into the courtyard outside our guest house. Suddenly, my uncertainties rushed back.

When I reached for her halter, Bonne Cheetah jerked her head away. When I pressed on her rear quarter, she refused to budge, instead jamming me uncomfortably against the wall. I felt like a teenage boy at a high school dance, awkward and bumbling and unsure of what to do next. The first hour-long walk proved disastrous, our new horse constantly fighting to get ahead of us.

But the barrier fell quickly. With a bit of discipline and a bit of affection, Bonne Cheetah grew to be part of our troop, and soon we were scratching her chin and working around her sharp hooves without a second thought. Once again, the joys of travelling with a horse rushed back.

Which all led me to think: Perhaps people can be divided by their childhood familiarity with horses, but for those with hoof-phobia, it is worth leaping toward the other camp. The rewards are, quite simply, enormous.

For those interested in the magic of a horse journey, Canadian author and horse guide Wayne Sawchuk leads expeditions in B.C.’s Muskwa-Kechika wilderness ( muskwakechika.com).

Special to The Globe and Mail

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