One morning in July, Mongolia’s president, Battulga Khaltmaa, prepared to take the podium at the National Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar. He was there to officially open the traditional summer festival of Naadam, during which virtually everyone in the country of 3 million celebrates feats of archery, wrestling, and especially horsemanship. Riding has been central to the national culture since the 13th century, when a tribal leader named Genghis Khan united a disparate group of steppe clans and conquered much of Eurasia.
A champion martial artist in his youth, Battulga is squat and powerful, with a thickly muscled neck and ears slightly squashed from years of grappling. He wore a dark fedora, leather riding boots, and a wine-colored deel—a fancy version of a traditional herder’s robe—cinched at the waist with a broad sash. As he awaited his turn to speak, two teams of riders in red-and-blue uniforms performed an impressive display of coordinated dismounts. After remounting their steeds in one swift movement, they tore away for a lap around the stadium, a rushing eddy of pointed helmets and bouncing tails.