The Mongolian horse is an Asian horse breed that traces its roots back to the time of Ghengis Khan. First raised by nomadic Mongol tribes, these small but sturdy horses played a pivotal role in the early conquests of the Mongol Empire.

While no longer used for military conquests, Mongol horses are still essential to nomadic cultures on the Mongolian steppe. The breed is most famous for its use in the Mongol Derby, an equestrian endurance race that attracts adventurous riders from all backgrounds.

Mongolian horses are among the oldest breeds still alive today and closely resemble their ancient ancestors. These horses shaped the development of other Asian breeds, and new research is starting to unveil broader influences worldwide.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Mongolian horse breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Mongolian horses.

Mongolian Horse History

Mongolian horses once carried Mongol warriors across 13th-century Asia. But the breed can trace their origins back thousands of years before then. Without a breeding registry, natural selection had the most significant influence on the Mongolian horse’s development.

Origin

Mongolian horses originated on the same Eastern Steppe as the Przewalski’s horse. These species diverged over 150,000 years ago, long before humans domesticated horses. [1]

Despite their geographic proximity and ability to produce fertile offspring when interbred, genetic studies do not find strong links between the domestic Mongolian horse breed and wild Przewalski horses. [2]

Archaeologists have discovered skeletal remains of ancient horses in Mongolia, dating back to the 11th century BC. Studies reveal that these ancient specimens share mitochondrial lineages with modern Mongolian horse, indicating a direct genetic link. [2]

Osteological specimens from 1150 BC also show Mongolian horsemen started performing rudimentary equine dentistry to remove problem teeth after metal bits emerged over 3000 years ago. [12]

By the 13th century AD, the domestic horse of Mongolia had a recognizable type that closely resembles the breed standard today. Historical records from Western travelers described the local horses raised by Mongol tribes as small, but hardy and robust. [3]

Historic Use

The domesticated ancestors of Mongol horses became a vital part of nomadic life on the steppe. Mongol tribes used the horses for transportation, herding, hair, milk, and meat. Horse milk is also the main ingredient in many traditional fermented Mongolian drinks. [4]

Mongol horses gained notoriety as warhorses in the armies of Ghengis Khan. Soldiers relied on horses for battle, hunting, transportation, food, and more. Horses were also part of spiritual beliefs and were sometimes sacrificed and buried with warriors. [5]

While the breed was slower than other horses in battle, their hardiness and stamina made them well-suited for long campaigns over rugged terrain. After the fall of the Mongol Empire, horse racing remained a central part of Mongolian culture.

Many nomadic tribes in Mongolia still follow traditional ways of life and rely on horses for survival. A 1918 census reported a population of over 1.5 million horses in Mongolia. Large herds of horses, sheep, goats, camels, and oxen still outnumber the human population. [4]

Mongol Derby

The Mongol Derby is the longest horse race in the world. The course covers over 1,000 km of the Mongolian Steppe, recreating the routes messengers rode under the rule of Ghengis Khan. Exact routes change yearly to deliver an exciting equine adventure.

Entrants in the race cover the entire distance riding Mongolian horses. Riders swap their mounts at horse stations every 40 km to prevent exhaustion. More than 1,500 Mongolian horses participate in the event every year.

Breed Registry

There is no official breed registry or organization for Mongolian horses. Most of these horses live in semi-feral herds on the steppe, with natural selection as the primary guide for breeding standards.

Breed Characteristics

Only horses that survived the harsh conditions of their native land could reproduce. This selection is evident in the characteristics of the modern breed, which prioritize function over elegant conformation.

Conformation

Mongolian horses are relatively short, with an average height of 12 to 14 hands. They have stocky conformations with short but strong legs. The breed’s unique physical features include a large head and short necks, which give them a slight resemblance to Przewalski’s horses.

Horses from different regions of Mongolia have slightly different conformations. Mongol horses raised on the steppe are taller, while mountain horses are shorter.

Mongol horses grow long, strong hair in their mane and tails. These strands are often collected and used for instrument bows and braiding ropes.

Genetic studies of Mongolian horses in the Gobi desert found selection signatures for regional hoof adaptations. [6]  However, conformation studies of Mongolian horses found few abnormalities of the hoof and forelimb in the general population. [7]

Colours

Mongolian horses can be nearly any coat colour. Some breeding programs favour specific appearances over others, leading to regional variation in common coat colours.

For example, some breeders prefer grey horses, while others prefer black and bay.

Temperament

Mongol horses need tough, intelligent, and independent personalities to survive in semi-feral herds. Domestic breeding programs operated by herders prioritize speed over temperament. As a result, character can vary significantly between animals.

Although kept in free-roaming conditions, most Mongol horses are socialized with humans and handled since birth.

Disciplines

Mongolian families keep herds of horses to support their everyday lives. Not all horses are trained to ride, and some are raised for food. Herders ride horses in basic traditional tack to herd livestock and travel long distances.

Horse racing is the second-most popular event and is considered one of Mongolian culture’s three manly arts. Most Mongolian horse races cover distances over 30 km to showcase the breed’s endurance and stamina.

Mongolian Horse Health

Mongolian horses are a relatively healthy breed that evolved to survive in harsh terrain with limited human intervention. The breed has good genetic diversity, but horses are susceptible to health problems associated with traditional management.

Genetic Diseases

Comparative studies found Mongolian horses have higher genetic diversity than other horse breeds in Asia. Increased diversity in the gene pool results in a lower risk of inherited congenital disease. [8]

Recent research suggests some regional populations of Mongolian horses are genetically distinct from others. Regional adaptation to different environments is responsible for some of the genetic variation within the breed. [9]

Those environmental adaptations allowed Mongolian horses to avoid common problems associated with challenging conditions, such as hoof problems in arid climates.

Health Problems

Mongolian horses have developed an extraordinary ability to withstand conditions that would challenge many other breeds. Unlike many domesticated breeds, Mongolian horses require minimal human intervention to maintain their robust health.

One study found Mongolian horses have high numbers of pathogenic fungi in their gastrointestinal tract, without showing outward signs of disease. This suggests these animals have strong disease resistance. [10]

Animal health is a significant concern in rural herding communities due to the close relationships between humans and horses. One study found that zoonotic parasites in Mongolian horses posed a risk of disease transmission to humans through shared water sources. [11]

While human interventions with deworming medication can help manage internal parasites, other health problems can arise due to domestic managament practices. Research suggests the traditional bits used on Mongolian horses can damage the horse’s mouth and contribute to dental problems. [12]

Serological surveys in Mongolian horses also show a high prevalence of equine viruses. Effective vaccines are available for some viruses, and routine vaccination can help protect herds from outbreaks. [13]

Care and Management

Mongolian horses are generally self-sufficient and do not require intensive management. These horses are not usually stabled, blanketed, or shod, and live outdoors year-round.

Although these horses evolved to survive extreme temperatures on the open steppe, owners should ensure they always have access to shelter. Mongolian horses thrive with full-time turnout and outdoor group living situations that resemble their natural herd lifestyle.

Mongolian herders possess a wealth of traditional knowledge regarding the health and care of their horses. This knowledge, passed down through generations, is now being supplemented with veterinary medicine, providing a holistic approach to health care.

Farrier care is limited in rural Mongolia. While these horses have strong hooves, they may still need routine trimming to maintain soundness. [6]

Despite their inherent hardiness, modern challenges such as climate change and habitat loss pose threats to the Mongolian horse’s way of life. Overgrazing and competition for water have the potential to impact their health, as does the introduction of non-native diseases.

Conservation efforts are crucial to preserve both the breed and the delicate ecosystem they inhabit.

Mongolian Horse Nutrition

Most Mongolian horses have a similar lifestyle and diet as their ancient ancestors. For horses living in domestic environments, providing a forage-based diet is the best way to maintain gut health and support behavioural needs.

Mongolian horses that participate in endurance racing have special needs to support performance and post-exercise recovery.

Weight Maintenance

Mongolian horses graze on the sparse vegetation of the steppe as their primary food source. They efficiently extract nutrients from low-calorie, fibrous plants and lose up to 30% of their body weight during seasons when grass is sparse. [14]

This diet has led to natural selection for easy keeper horses with efficient digestion and metabolism. However, this also increases the risk of obesity when these horses are provided with energy-dense concentrates in domestic environments.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 330 kg (700 pounds) Mongolian horse with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 15 g (1 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 100 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 105%
Protein (% of Req) 127%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%

 

A forage-only diet is suitable to meet the energy and protein needs for most Mongolian horses. However, some Mongols in intense training for endurance races may need additional energy sources.

Forage alone will also not supply all essential nutrients required in the equine diet, so incorporating a vitamin and mineral supplement is recommended.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement that balances forage-based diets. Omneity provides nutrients required to support hoof health, digestive function, performance and more.

Omneity – Premix

5 stars
88%
4 stars
6%
3 stars
4%
2 stars
1%
1 star
1%

Learn More

  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
  • Our best-selling equine vitamin

Forage

Forage, primarily grasses and shrubs, constitutes the bulk of the Mongolian horse’s diet. The ability to process high-fiber, low-nutrient forage efficiently allows these horses to thrive in an environment where other breeds might struggle.

Constantly grazing on the natural roughage of the steppe also helps to maintain optimal gut health in free-roaming Mongolian horses. In fact, this breed has a more diverse population of gut bacteria than highly managed populations of domestic horses. [15]

Although Mongolian horses are well-adapted to their natural forage, there are times when supplementation may be necessary, especially for working horses or those in domestic care.

Selecting the right type of hay is important for digestive health in domesticated Mongolian horses. A 330 kg (700 pounds) Mongolian horse is expected to eat approximately 6.6 kg (14 lb) pounds of forage dry matter daily.

Choose a low-sugar, low-starch hay to reduce the hydrolyzable carbohydrates (HC) and support metabolic health. HC is the portion of non-soluble carbohydrates (NSC), namely ESC + starch, which is digestible in the small intestine and contributes to the insulin response.

The climate of Mongolia is one of extremes, with harsh winters and hot summers, resulting in variable forage availability with the changing seasons. Mongolian horses have adapted to these changes, developing the ability to store fat during the summer to sustain them through the winter months.

However, some horses may need supplemental hay during the winter when grazing is sparse. Extreme winter conditions in herding communities can lead to livestock mortality. [16]

One of the challenges facing Mongolian horses is the overgrazing and degradation of the steppes, which threatens their natural grass diet. Conservation efforts are essential to maintain this ecosystem and ensure these horses have access to forage.

Feeding Recommendations

Mongolian herders rarely feed their horses grain because these horses don’t need extra calories. High-starch grains also increase the risk of digestive and metabolic problems. [17]

Vitamins and minerals should be provided to ensure horses receive nutrients required for optimal health, particularly in environments where natural forage is scarce or of poor quality.

The feeding of Mongolian endurance horses is closely tied to their workload. Herders regularly assess the body condition of their horses and adjust their diet accordingly, increasing feed when the horses are working harder and reducing it when they are less active.

Racing horses need higher energy feeds to support their increased caloric expenditure. Consider adding highly digestible fibre such as beet pulp or soy hulls. Dietary fat can also be added to provide cool energy and reduce the risk of heat stress. [17]

While Mongolian horses are adapted to survive on limited water in arid environments, all domestic horses should have free access to fresh, clean water.

Adding loose salt to your horse’s daily ration is also recommended to meet sodium requirements and encourage hydration.

Nutritional Supplements

While Mongolian horses have survived for millenia on a natural forage-based diet, these horses often benefit from nutritional supplementation to address individual needs. In particular, working and racing horses

  • W-3 Oil is an essential fatty acid supplement that contains high levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. This fat supplement supports joint health, skin and coat quality, respiratory health and immune function.
  • Visceral+ is a comprehensive gut supplement that supports stomach and hindgut health. Mongolian horses that participate in endurances races benefit from extra gut support to keep them competition-ready.
  • Performance XL: Electrolytes support performance, stamina, and hydration in equine athletes. Electrolyte supplementation is important for endurance horses to replenish the electrolytes lost in sweat.

Have questions about what to feed your Mongolian horses? Submit their diet online and consult with our experienced equine nutritionists to get help with formulating a balanced feeding program.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Lau, A. et al. Horse Domestication and Conservation Genetics of Przewalski’s Horse Inferred from Sex Chromosomal and Autosomal Sequences. Mol Biol and Evol. 2009.
  2. Kusliy, M. et al. Traces of Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Mongolian Horse Mitochondrial Lineages in Modern Populations. Genes. 2021. View Summary
  3. Creel, H. The Role of the Horse in Chinese History. Am Hist Rev. 1965.
  4. Sinor, D. Horse and pasture in Inner Asian history. Oriens Extremus. 1972.
  5. Taylor, W. et al. Horse sacrifice and butchery in Bronze Age Mongolia. J Archeol Sci. 2020.
  6. Han, H. et al. Selection signatures for local and regional adaptation in Chinese Mongolian horse breeds reveal candidate genes for hoof health. BMC Genomics. 2023. View Summary
  7. Gordon, S. et al. The Forelimb and Hoof Conformation in a Population of Mongolian Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2013.
  8. Tozaki, T. et al. Microsatellite Variation in Japanese and Asian Horses and Their Phylogenetic Relationship Using a European Horse Outgroup. J Hered. 2003. View Summary
  9. Yun, J. et al. Genetic diversity and population structure of Mongolian regional horses with 14 microsatellite markers. Anim Biosci. 2022. View Summary
  10. Zhao, Y. et al. Diversity and functional prediction of fungal communities in different segments of Mongolian horse gastrointestinal tracts. BMC Microbiol. 2023. View Summary
  11. Barnes, A. et al. Zoonotic enteric parasites in Mongolian people, animals, and the environment: Using One Health to address shared pathogens. PLoS One. 2021.
  12. Taylor, W. et al. Origins of equine dentistry. Anthropol. 2018. View Summary
  13. Pagamjav, O. et al. Serological survey of equine viral diseases in Mongolia. Microbiol and Immunol. 2011. View Summary
  14. Tachiiri, K. et al. Application of a livestock weight model to the 2009–2010 winter disaster in Mongolia. The Rangeland J. 2016.
  15. Xhao, Y. et al. Comparison of Fecal Microbiota of Mongolian and Thoroughbred Horses by High-throughput Sequencing of the V4 Region of the 16S rRNA Gene. Asian-Australas J Anim Sci. 2016. View Summary
  16. Gros, C. et al. The effectiveness of forecast-based humanitarian assistance in anticipation of extreme winters: a case study of vulnerable herders in Mongolia. Disasters. 2020.
  17. Zeyner, A. et al. Effect of feeding exercised horses on high-starch or high-fat diets for 390 days. Equine Vet J. 2010.View Summary