Horses fared better than other livestock, both because of their adaptability and their military usefulness
When the political scene gets rough, society can suffer. When the climate gets rough, populations can suffer. When both politics and climate become simultaneously unfavorable, though, they can wreak havoc on essentially everyone—including horses.
Recent historical analysis of combined political and climactic challenges in 20th century China shows that the duo is devastating for horses and other livestock. And history could repeat itself, said Ang Li, PhD, researcher in the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Botany, in Beijing.
“The environmental history of modern China is very important for our future,” Li said. “We wanted to apply this knowledge in favor of the public and the nation.”
Li said Inner Mongolia became an area of extreme political unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. Nestled between greater China and the communist Soviet Union, it endured the tense struggles of socialist revolution. This led to four main subperiods of social movement: the socialist education movement period (1964–1965), the most chaotic anarchy period (1966–1969), the military controlling period (1970–1976), and the standstill period (1977–1978).
At the same time, Mongolia falls in a geographic area of extreme climactic challenges, including severe droughts in summer and extreme blizzards in winter.
Li and colleagues analyzed data on political situations, climate, and livestock population demographics (horses, cattle, camels, sheep, and goats) from 1961 to 1986 in Inner Mongolia. This time frame included years of political unrest as well as peace.
They found that climactic hazards resulted in a rise in deaths of both adult and young horses and a drop in the number of births, Li said. But when political unrest was compounded with the climactic problems, those effects became more pronounced.
That was mostly related to the fact that the political environment prevented people from managing their herds in ways that had been practiced for years to deal with bad climate. “In the peaceful period, herders relied on many useful traditional ecological experiences to resist the climate hazards, such as keeping the mobility of livestock, raising high ratios of adult animals, adjusting pregnancy rates, and culling certain weak neonatal individuals during hazard years,” the researchers stated in their report. “These traditional strategies and practices provided the optimal way to survive in the harsh and unpredictable environment.”
They also went to local leaders for production and management advice based on current climactic conditions, they added.
However, these options disappeared in times of political unrest, when new leaders forced management decisions that were inappropriate for that climate. “Outsider revolutionaries had made many arrogant policies in livestock husbandry, and management leaders used some modern methods to replace the traditional practice of local herding,” the researchers stated. “These livestock practices included improving pregnancy rate, improving the proportion of young individuals, etc. Although they were economically efficient for modern livestock husbandry, they were impractical in the nomadic periods.”
Essentially, political decisions caused greater “vulnerability,” the research team said. “We suggested that such interactions intensified livestock vulnerability to climate hazards.”
Even so, horses fared better than other livestock, both because of their adaptability and their military usefulness, Li said. “Mongolian horses are stronger than sheep and goat in the cold periods,” he said. “They can find forage in ice-locked pastures. But also, during the threat of the Soviet Union, horses were put at high priority in order to meet the demands of the national defense. China was poor and weak at that time, and mounted cavalry was better than infantry in the grasslands.”
The study, “Political Pressures Increased Vulnerability to Climate Hazards for Nomadic Livestock in Inner Mongolia, China,” was published in Scientific Reports.
About the Author
Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.