Do you love to ride horses when you travel? Are you heading to Kyrgyzstan? Why not combine the two! Discover what it’s like to go horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan, specifically to the very beautiful Son Kol Lake.
Kyrgyzstan is a country made for epic outdoor adventures.
And there’s nothing like riding a horse through gorgeous scenery like the country’s northern mountains to leave you with a lifetime of memories.
Horse riding is a fun way
While I would recommend some prior experience when horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan, you can probably get away with not having ridden much at all. You may not want to go on a multi-day journey.
Depending on your route, you may end up picking your way along tiny paths and you’ll probably spend hours in the saddle.
Be sure to stretch and limber up before you ride!
My own horse trek was two days long and I used to ride fairly often as a kid, so this type of adventure in Kyrgyzstan was just plain fun.
I highly recommend it if you have any interest in horse riding and plenty of interest in Kyrgyzstan’s stunning natural sights.
Quick note: I’ve written this in mind for travellers who don’t speak Russian, may not ride often and are visiting Kyrgyzstan for the first time. There are plenty of interesting destinations you can trek to via horseback in Kyrgyzstan – this is the tip of the iceberg, or alpine mountain as it were.
What you need to know about horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Where to go horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
There’s a few places you can go horse riding in Kyrgyzstan.
The most popular destinations for three-four day round trip treks are Son Kol Lake and Issy Kul Lake.
To get to Son Kol Lake, you’ll leave from Kotchkor (where we departed from) or Kyzart.
For Issy Kul Lake, you’ll depart from Karakol.
All three places can be reached from Bishkek.
The Alay Mountains near the second biggest city of Osh are also apparently a good destination for beginner to immediate riders.
This area is home to one of the highest mountains in Central Asia – Lenin Peak (7134m). I’d absolutely want to trek through this region by horse on a return trip to Kyrgyzstan.
Let me tell you a bit about my experience horse riding in Kyrgyzstan, so you decide whether it’s the right experience for you.
Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan: the route
My horsey adventure consisted of a two day trek on horseback from Kochkor, in Kyrgyzstan’s north, to the very beautiful Song Kol Lake.
We’d be riding for at least five hours a day, stopping for breaks every now and then.
Our first night would be spent at a remote yurt camp, tucked in between the mountains.
I’d wanted to name my beautiful buckskin horse and soon christened him Tortoise.
He was slow (or just possibly lazy, he had a bit of an attitude to him, which I rather liked) but surefooted, picking his way carefully around the mountains.
We’d ride up incredible heights and as the rules of physics go, would then have to make our way down again.
I spent half the trip gazing around, marvelling at the sights and the other trying desperately to look straight ahead – not down, off the side of a very steep mountain.
After several hours, we stopped at our first camp of the night. A secluded trio of yurts, sitting in the middle of nowhere.
The Kyrgyz are still largely nomadic and spend the summer months camping in remote areas, fattening their animals up for the winter season.
Sleeping in a yurt
Similar to staying in a Casa particular (private accommodation) in Cuba, we were welcomed into a private home.
After the horses were tended to, we gathered in the ‘ladies’ yurt’ (women and men sleep separately) for dinner.
A full spread awaited us – stacks of bread and other pastry treats, heaps of cream, lollies and mug after mug of warm, comforting tea.
Equally enjoyable were the cups of kymyz we were served. This fermented mare’s milk is, let’s say, an acquired taste.
And acquire it I did, finding it to be particularly refreshing after a long day’s riding.
Previous to this, I’d stayed in a yurt exactly once – weird in Australia, in Victoria’s High Country.
After dinner, the yurt was transformed from dining room to bedroom.
Four mattresses were laid out, with blankets heaped on top of them. Despite the warmth of the early September day, the temperature plummeted once the sun disappeared.
I was wary about how effective the yurts would be at retaining warmth, but was surprised to find my bed for the night to be quite cosy indeed. All I needed was a nightshirt and a pair of warm socks. Exhausted from the day’s adventures, I slept like a log.
The toilet situation on this sort of horse trek is interesting, but quite fun – at this particular camp, the toilet consisted of three sheets of metal, surrounding a hole in the ground.
No door and no roof.
I learned to sing loudly, just in case nature called for another camp member. It’s quite an experience to do your business in the dead of the night, while the light of millions of stars twinkle above your head.
Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan: day two
We were up early the next morning for a quick breakfast, before getting on our way.
I tried to complete as much of my morning routine as possible – brushing my teeth in the sink that had been set up outside our yurt and quickly washing my face.
Our belly’s full, we mounted our horses and rode off. We had quite some ground to cover before making it to Son Kol, which included the highest, scariest mountains as of yet.
I grit my teeth and pushed on, willing myself to look down every so often to take in the views. What a sight they were.
When we reached the top of the last mountain, we disembarked, rewarding the horses and ourselves with a break.
This is the only point in the trip with mobile phone reception – yet who cares? Sometimes it’s nice to simply switch off and enjoy the world around you.
We rode on, stopping briefly at another yurt camp for lunch. As our horses rested, we made friends with a couple of the local dogs.
Two of them seemingly enjoyed our company so much, they ran alongside us for the final two hours of the trip. As if I needed anymore convincing that dogs are the best animals ever.
Reaching Son Kol Lake
We arrived at Son Kol in the late afternoon, as a thunderstorm closed in around us. Safe and dry, we began to explore our home for the night.
Unlike our last “yurtstay”, this area was home to a collection of yurts, all running adjacent to Son Kol Lake – an alpine lake, which is the second largest in Kyrgyzstan.
Son Kol is only accessible from June to September due to weather conditions. The winter chill was already settling in, but the lake was as picturesque as ever.
While it’s possible to travel to other regions of Kyrgyzstan at anytime even in the colder months of the year, September is perfect for trekking by horse in Kyrgyzstan.
The days ain’t too hot, the nights not too cold. There’s a reason this month is my favourite to travel, a fact I was reminded of constantly during the two day trip.
The yurt that we were staying in that night seemed a little more permanent than the last, featuring a stove heater along with the piles of blankets and pillows.
We went exploring for awhile – checking out the lake, taking photos and befriending the local animals.
There are dogs everywhere here (including the cutest little puppy), as well as chickens, cows, horses, turkeys and even a trio of donkeys. They were fearless creatures, coming right up to us to say hello and hoping to receive a head scratch in return. We obliged, happily.
Last night of horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
The night ended with yet another feast of plov (a sort of stew with veggies) and bread, accompanied by cognac and spirits. One shot of vodka was enough to lull me off to sleep.
After another deep sleep, we were up again, for our last breakfast in a yurt. I said farewell to the various animal friends I’d made during my time at the lake and boarded the bus for the two hour drive to Cholpon-Ata – the setting for the 2016 World Nomad Games.
Are horses well-treated in Kyrgyzstan?
Horses are a key part of Kyrgyz life, so you’ll see plenty that appear well cared for.
The explosion in popularity of horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan, means some people will exploit them.
Check your horse is healthy before you agree to the trip. Does it look well fed? Does it have a shiny coat? How do the guides act around it? Does it appear lame, or have any visible injuries?
Do your research before you organise your trip.
I did not follow my gut on this when I went horse trekking in Cuba and had an awful experience, which left me feeling heart broken for the horse I rode.
Is it safe to go horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan?
I’ve ridden horses in a few destinations around the world (Cuba and Iceland too). I felt very safe while on this particular trek.
The guides were attentive and kept an eye on us. The horses were clearly well treated, knew the path well and were accustomed to strangers hoping on their back.
My advice? Wear a helmet, if you’re offered one. I grew up around horses, had many falls and broke bones. So, I can’t conceive of getting on one of these animals without one.
People don’t like to wear them as ‘they ruin photos’ or some rubbish, but severe head injuries can also ruin your life. So…
Noting Kyrgyz people don’t tend to wear them and the nomadic Kyrgyz in particular look very comfortable on horse back.
Here’s some other tips for horse riding in general:
- never walk around the back of a horse. They’re liable to kick and can inflict some major damage
- don’t let go of the reins. Ever. You need to be in control the entire time
- make sure the stirrups are correctly adjusted to your body. You need to rest the ball of your foot in them. And never take your foot out of the stirrups, or you’ll lose control of the horse and probably fall off
- get your guide to tell you the commands for making your horse ‘go’ and ‘stop’. Horses are smart – they understand this sort of stuff!
- don’t canter or gallop unless advised to do so by your guide
- again, wear a helmet
- if you’re nervous or worried about anything, tell your guide.
You’ll be going up and down a lot of hills too. And sitting in the seat correctly is essential.
When you’re going uphill, hold the reigns in one hand. Grip the front of your saddle with the other hand and lean forward. When going downhill, hold the back of the saddle and lean a bit backward.
This will soon become intuitive.
Best time to go horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Due to harsh winter conditions, it’s best to go horse riding in Kyrgyzstan between May and September.
My trek took place in early September. Conditions were fine, but the nights were already starting to get quite cool.
Plus it’s not high season then, so we didn’t pass any other groups. I imagine it might be a different case if you’re horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan in July or August.
How much does it cost to go horse riding in Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan is not a very expensive country to visit, if you’re coming from somewhere with strong currency (so, USA, UK, Europe, Australia, NZ, etc).
The cost can be around 1200-1500 KGS (13-17 USD) for a day. On a multi-day trek, the cost will factor in food and yurt camp accommodation.
This may double the price, but it is extremely affordable if you’re on a western wage. Plus, yurts are warm and cosy and Kyrgyz food is delicious
Prices can also change depending on where you’re going and how long for.
Your best bet is to contact a travel agency in the town of departure and negotiate a fair price.
Tours are generally three days, but you can extend to a week or two. Just remember that horse riding is taxing on the body, if you don’t do it regularly. Those cowboys in westerns walk with bow legs for a reason.
You can also buy a horse and ride it around Kyrgyzstan to your heart’s content, but obviously only do this if you’re very experienced and it makes, I don’t know, financial sense?
I obviously haven’t done this myself, but prices range between $1000-2000 USD.
If this is the route you choose, it will still be wise to hire a guide.
Personally, I don’t recommend doing this unless you have somewhere to keep the horse and are sure you’ll sell it on after your time in Kyrgyzstan. But hey, you do you.
What to pack for horse riding in Kyrgyzstan
My advice? Be a minimalist on this particular trip.
You’ll be encouraged by your guides to bring only what you need. Any unnecessary stuff will be kept at the village, for your return.
Bring layers. You’ll be heading into alpine regions at high altitude. In my experience, it was very comfortable during the day but once the sun went down, it became much cooler.
Wear hiking boots that cover your ankles, or even riding boots. Comfortable trousers – avoid jeans. If you have hiking attire, you’ll probably find this helpful for horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
Here’s a list of what you should pack for horse riding in Kyrgyzstan:
- a small backpack to carry your gear in
- reusable water bottle, or even a hydration bladder.
- sunscreen, as the high altitude increases the UV of the sun
- snacks for the journey
- anddon’t go horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan or anywhere in the world without travel insurance.
Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan: in conclusion
While I’d love to go back and do a multi-day hike in Kyrgyzstan, horse trekking is excellent fun, no matter what your experience.
This is one of my favourite travel adventures, that I think of fondly. I’ll never forget those mountains – or the experience of peeing in a door and roofless toilet, under an expansive, starry night sky.
So if you’re thinking of going on a horse riding trip in Kyrgyzstan – thumbs up from this gal.