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About Mongolian Horse head fiddle and Mongol horse

Updated: Jul 18, 2019


The horse-head fiddle is the emblematic musical instrument of traditional Mongolian music.

The horse-head fiddle, or morin khuur, is one of several Mongolian fretless spike fiddles. The horse-head fiddle, as its name suggests, has a horse head carved on the scroll. It has two strings and lateral tuning pegs called “ears.”

The body is a trapezoidal box with the thicker end downward. A movable wooden bridge or string loop is used to modify the pitch. Traditionally, the body was covered with the hide of suckling camel, sheep, or goat or sometimes snakeskin. The strings are made of horsehair from a gelding, preferably a champion racer. The average modern fiddle is a little over 1 meter or about 3.5 feet long.

The horse-head form is traditional among the KHALKHA and INNER MONGOLIANS, but not among the OIRATS. Mongolian two-string fiddles are traditionally played with the musician seated on the ground and the instrument between the legs.

The fiddle’s base is placed in the field, and the sound box is rested against the left thigh face outward. The strings are not pressed against the neck, but rather pushed lightly, by a knuckle or nail, from the side, above, or below. In bowing, the tension on the bow hairs is governed by the bow hand’s pinkie finger.

The horse-head fiddle was traditionally used to accompany long songs (urtyn duu). In YURTS it was kept in the honored khoimor (rear) section on the western (male) side, with a KHADAG scarf tied to the bridge. Menstrual taboos prevented it being placed between a woman’s legs, barring them from playing it.

Legends of the origin of the first horse-head fiddle speak of a man, sometimes of celestial origin, who travelled to his fairy love on a magical winged horse. When his jealous ordinary wife clipped the horse’s wings, the horse died; the first horse-head fiddle was made as to the horse’s memorial.

The horse-head fiddle’s status as the emblem of Mongolian tradition was marked in the painting Old Fiddler (1958) by ÜRJINGIIN YADAMSÜREN, one of the path-breaking works in the neotraditional MONGOL ZURAG style. In visits from 1966 to 1968, the award-winning Russian violin maker Denis Vladimirovich Iarovoi trained Mongolian fiddle makers in new ways to make the horse-head fiddle more effective as a concert hall instrument.

Iarovoi and his Mongolian pupils established the new standard in the fiddle’s construction, in which the sound box was made entirely of wood, with two f-shaped sound holes, and the bow was flat, not arched. The tuning and fingering were also changed to accord with Western instruments. The social role of the instrument also changed. Women began to play the fiddle, and the Ikh Chuulga folk orchestra was created with horse-head fiddles, ranging in size up to that of the contrabass, as one of the main instruments. A parallel process of modernization, influenced by Chinese performance ideas, took place in Inner Mongolia.

Further reading: Peter K. Marsh, The Horse-Head Fiddle and the Reimagination of Tradition in Mongolia (New York: Routledge Press, 2004).


Horse racing is one of Mongolia’s “three manly games,” although ironically it is today most often performed by young boys and girls. Mongolian horse racing was one of the important games (NAADAM) connected with summer religious ceremonies, such as the libation of mare’s milk, the OBOO sacrifice, and the DANSHUG ceremonies offered to INCARNATE LAMAS. In both Mongolian EPICS and in the Tibetan versions of the GESER epic the hero wins the hand of his bride by winning at a horse race.

This seems to indicate that at the time of the crystallization of the epic tradition, around the late 17th–early 18th centuries, young men were the only riders. Today adults race only in special races to test amblers (joroo mori), which attract considerably less interest than the fast children’s races.

In many ways mongolian horse racing is more a test of the horse than of the rider and is an expression of the deep love and admiration that country-bred Mongols have for beautiful and strong horses. In fact, even if the jockey falls off, the horse is still considered as having completed the race if it crosses the finish line.

In the National Holiday Naadam, the national championship in Mongolia, horses are divided into age categories, with only those six years and older racing the full 30 kilometers (19 miles). The youngest horses are only two years old and have a five-kilometer (3.1-mile) course. In provincial naadams in western Mongolia, younger horses are sometimes banned on the grounds that premature racing can ruin their promise. Mongols usually ride only geldings, and mares are not allowed in the race. Dark colored horses are preferred.

The horse trainer, or uyaach, begins training and conditioning the horse a month or two before the race, paying special attention to its weight. The proper child is also selected. Before racing, the tails and manes of the horses are tied, both to make it easier for the horses to run and to excite the horses for the race. The harness and saddle are also given ornamental studs. Today the jockeys are children from six to 10 years old, whose light weight permits the horses to go farther and faster in the grueling cross-country race.

Instead of the wooden Mongolian saddle, jockeys traditionally ride on light felt pads without stirrups to ease the horse’s running. Today, however, the children in Mongolia’s national naadam ride with regular saddles and stirrups. Jockeys wear a special coloured shirt and a cap with a conical front. Emblematic symbols on the cap include the SOYOMBO, a red star (common in the days of communism), a blue star (common today), or the “endless knot” (a Buddhist symbol). About 1,300 to 1,600 horses compete in Mongolia’s National Holiday Naadam. The various age classes each begin the race with an elder leading the children in several clockwise circumambulations of the starting ground. The children sing a particular song called the giingoo and slowly build up speed until the signal is given, and they sweep off at a gallop.

Elders also accompany the race to make sure no one is injured, and no horses are lost. When the horses finally pass the finish line, the judge chants a long magtaal (praise) of the winning horse (see YÖRÖÖL AND MAGTAAL) and presents the jockey with a handful of crumbly cheese before anointing the leading horse’s head and flanks with KOUMISS, or fermented mare’s milk.

Taking a sip of koumiss himself, he passes it to the winning jockey, who sips it and passes it to the horse’s owner, who also sips. This is then repeated with the second horse and so on. Different praises and titles are given to the leading horses in differing numbers, five in Mongolia today, nine in traditional ORDOs, and so on.

The very last horse called the bayan khodood (rich belly), is also given a magtaal and an anointing. Prizes are given to the owners of the lead horses, who generally share them with the jockey horses The horse was not only the basis of Mongolia’s ancient military prowess, virtually the sole means of human transport, and the source of nourishing KOUMISS (fermented mare’s milk), it was also the wise councillor in Mongolian EPICS; its hair supplied the standards that symbolized the majesty of the state, and its picture is a frequent adornment of Mongols’ homes.

Mongolia has 3,940,700 horses, the seventh largest horse herd in the world and is the only country where horses outnumber people. Traditional Mongolian regional breeds average from 130–131 centimetres (12.8–12.9 hands) high for stallions and 125–129 centimetres (12.3–12.7 hands) for mares and weigh from around 316–370 kilograms (697–816 pounds) for stallions and 296–350 kilograms (653–772 pounds) for mares. The head is large, the croup is sloping, and the belly of a range-fed horse is large.

Despite these (to the European eye) unattractive proportions, Mongolian horses are famous for their ability to run hard and long on very scanty fodder and are generally good natured. While shoeing has been known from the Middle Ages, it is done only on either very valuable horses or those used on paved ground.

Mongolian mares are milked six to eight times a day and with good pasture can produce about 7.5 litres (7.9 quarts) of milk daily. The hair of horse manes is used to make brushes, brooms, ropes, and the girths for Mongolian YURTS. Before Buddhism, horses were the most honoured sacrificial animal. The horse sacrifice and meal was a key part of Inner Asian funerary practice from the Bronze Age (1500–800 B.C.E.) through the great nomadic empires.

Horse sacrifices to the ancestors continued during the summer among the shamanist western BURIATS of Ust’- Orda and Ol’khon. Elsewhere missionaries of the SECOND CONVERSION to Buddhism in the 16th–17th centuries successfully aroused disgust with this killing and had the horse sacrifice banned. Since then, for most Mongols eating horsemeat has become somewhat disreputable. (The cult of CHINGGIS KHAN at the EIGHT WHITE YURTS was an exception.) The ancient practice continued of dedicating horses and other livestock to heaven (TENGGERI), the clan, or local spirits by having seter (Tibetan, seter), or coloured cloth strips, tied to them. Such animals could not be ridden or sold.

mongolian saddle
Mongolian saddle

The Mongolian saddle is formed of a wooden framework mounted on a leather flap and is placed over a felt saddle pad. The seat is high, with only a small space between the high pommel and cantle, and has an attached padded cushion. Leather strips hanging from the saddle in pairs are used to tie the game or other items.

Stirrups were anciently made of wood or bone but are today made of steel and have a round base. The stirrup leather is relatively short and usually not adjustable to the rider’s height. Saddle girths are usually made of a braided rope of wool or camel’s hair twisted with horse or cattle molt. Leather girths are sometimes used but are considered to be hard on the horse for long journeys. The Mongols use a snaffle bit.

Mongolian cowboys
Mongolian cowboys

Mongolian whips have a long wooden body, a thong for holding, and a strap of 25–30 centimetres (10–12 inches) at the end for whipping. Spurs are not used. For capturing horses, the Mongols use primarily an uurga, formed of a two-piece wooden pole 6–7 meters (20–23 feet) Long and a 1.5–2 meters (5–6.6 feet) long leather strip tied in a loop on end.

Sometimes a simple lasso is used. Mongols generally ride geldings, and riding a mare is considered unmanly. The gelded testicles of large animals are not eaten but either offered to the fire (see FIRE CULT) or hung on the horse’s mane or tail; in any case, they must be kept from birds and dogs.

After gelding the horse is fed on milk and cheeses for three to seven days. Countryside Mongols keep at least one horse always available at their camp for riding, while the other horses roam on the steppe in a semi-wild state. Since riding horses cannot graze well, they must be rotated every week or so. When horses need to be switched, gelded, or milked, the horse herd is brought to the camp or another convenient spot. Horse herding is considered men’s work.

Source: Encyclopedia of mongolia and the mongol empire, Christopher P. Atwood, Indiana University, Bloomington

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