People Of The Horse

Part of the Horse exhibition.

yakut horse
Yakut horses in Siberia.
Brian and Cherry Alexander/Photo Researchers

The river- and lake-filled landscape of eastern Siberia holds the record for the coldest temperatures in the Arctic. Yet for centuries, a people known as the Sakha have called this region home. Their neighbors once called them "the people of the horse." Through most of their history, the Sakha have lived as horse herders, using horses for food, clothing, and transportation, and as sacred symbols of fertility and wealth.

Today, many Sakha live away from their traditional pastures, in the modern city of Yakutsk. But in music, stories, food, and spiritual life, they continue to celebrate their close connection with the horse.

Milk of Life

The Sakha milk their horses and ferment the milk to make koumiss, a drink that is rich in vitamins and mildly alcoholic. Koumiss is an important part of the Sakha diet, and at least nine different varieties are made, including a bubbly brew known as champagne koumiss.

At the summer solstice in late June, Sakha communities gather to pray, feast, sing, dance, perform dramas, and race horses in a festival honoring the height of light and life. Koumiss is tossed in four directions and fed to a bonfire as an offering to the spirits. Then goblets of koumiss are passed around and the drink is shared by all.

koumiss festival
Koumiss festival.
AMNH Library

Summer Celebration

Sakha villagers share fermented mare's milk during an yhsakh ceremony in 1902. In 1992, this summer rite became a state festival in the part of the Russian Federation known as the Sakha Republic.

Surviving the Cold

Sakha horses--known as the Yakut breed--have adapted remarkably well to life in the Arctic, where temperatures can drop below -58 F (-50 C). As winter approaches, they take on extra layers of fat and grow dense, shaggy coats. Their breathing slows down and their blood circulates faster. Yakut horses left to fend for themselves can withstand the cold without shelter.

Containers for Koumiss

To celebrate the renewal of life at the beginning of summer, the Sakha share koumiss, a drink made of fermented mare's milk. Traditionally, a container shaped like a horse's hoof is used to funnel milk into a leather bag, where it is churned with a stick and left to sit for many hours until it is fermented. During the festival, guests drink koumiss from carved wooden goblets with hoof-shaped feet.

Saddle and Horsewhip

A century ago, a wealthy Sakha woman might ride to a summer festival on a finely decorated saddle and carry a whip trimmed with silver.

Horsehair Fly Whisk

The Sakha once used horsehair for sewing thread and as a fiber for fishnets. Many of these traditional arts faded in the mid-1900s, but some are being revived. A horsehair fly whisk in the exhibition was made in the 1990s and sold in the capital of the Sakha Republic, Yakutsk.