Three Visual Narratives

Natasha Fijn

Photograph of horse's head

Broad Mongolian plain with horse in foreground

Bloodletting in Mongolia. Herders actively practise this ancient medical tradition across the species boundary—on both humans and horses. It involves the piercing or lancing of the skin at key points to encourage blood to flow from the body. If someone has an aching head or a horse requires a boost in immunity then bloodletting is readily applied.

Broad Mongolian plain with horse in foreground

Mongolian practitioners, including knowledgeable herders, strive to bring the body into equilibrium in relation to three separate components: wind (khii), bile (shar) and phlegm (badgan). Illnesses are further divided into opposites: hot and cold, good and bad. Bloodletting can be used to cool the system when the body is too hot, tapping into specific blood vessels to let out ‘bad blood’. These hot and cold states are connected with extreme temperature fluctuations across the seasons in Mongolia, particularly in spring.

As an anthropologist who focuses on more than humans, I wanted to observe the different bloodletting techniques used on horses and how herders connect health and wellbeing with the seasons. Here, the focus is on three experienced practitioners, Dogsom, Galsandorj and Ganbaa, and their treatment of horses through bloodletting.

Broad Mongolian plain with horse in foreground


Dogsom and the correct time for bloodletting

Mongolian plain with tents, people, and livestock

Mongolian herders employ a pluralistic approach to medicinal treatment, often accompanying bloodletting with other measures, such as medicinal herbs, moxibustion (the burning of herbs), bone massage, ritual ceremony (em dom) and, if available and affordable, modern medicine. The more traditional forms of treatment stem from ancient nomadic practices, often a combination of both shamanic and Buddhist philosophical principles.

Mongolia healer

In 2017, I spent the Mongolian spring and autumn in the countryside documenting different forms of medicine used beyond humans, including the bloodletting of horses.

Close up of the healer's hands

When enquiring about health practitioners in the region, herders kept mentioning the knowledgeable elder Dogsom and his bloodletting skills. I travelled to visit him at his spring encampment.

Dogsom talked about how he regularly travels to other herding encampments to let the blood of horses—‘like a lama’ (Buddhist monks who specialise in traditional medicine).

According to Dogsom, ‘the Mongolian traditional method is mainly the letting of blood and treatment with medicinal herbs’.

Mongolian herder with horse

Bloodletting is generally performed when there is new grass in spring and before the air becomes too wet, from late May until mid-July.

Although the timing was right, as it was spring and a warm fine day, Dogsom did not want to perform a procedure without one of the horses actually requiring treatment. He explained: ‘I blood-let on a warm, sunny day like today. On a cold, rainy day the blood becomes thicker and doesn’t flow. Horse blood is only let on a good, auspicious day for the horse.’

Herder standing by horse, preparing to let blood

Dogsom willingly demonstrated key points on one of the horses that was already saddled for herding the sheep and goats: ‘Horses with blood accumulating in the lower leg tend to stumble.’

Close-up of bloodletting from horse's leg

Dogsom learnt bloodletting through a form of apprenticeship and by practical application as a herder. He initially learnt the skill from his father and has continued the practice for over 40 years. He admitted that he has only passed on the fundamental skills to his youngest son, who has remained in the same encampment. Dogsom’s young grandson watched his demonstration on the horse with interest.

Boy watches herder letting blood from horse's leg

According to Dogsom, his son ‘practices the basics: the hard palette, the forelegs, the bottom of the hoof. He doesn’t try hard though, maybe because I’m still around. I hope he will continue to learn.’

Herder standing by horse after treatment

Mongolian herder with sheep, and tents in background


Galsandorj and the release of ‘bad blood’

Horse standing with some blood visible at its hooves

Herder with his herd of horses

This section features herder Galsandorj arriving to carry out bloodletting on a horse that had been shedding his coat too early, losing condition and stumbling as it walked.

Older man instructing youth

Because of the strong, biting wind, the herder sat down in the lee of the yurt and began sharpening the knife he would use to puncture the horse’s legs. While using the grindstone, Galsandorj explained: ‘In theory, there are four kinds of bloodletting knives.’

Man sharpening blade

The young herder watching Galsandorj’s knife preparation joked with him: ‘You haven’t been sharing your secrets. You’re better than me after herding horses for so long.’ Galsandorj replied in jest: ‘How could I compete with you all?’

Herd of horses
Herder herding horses

The young herders reminded me of reckless cowboys, but were respectful to the knowledgeable herder, viewing him as a skilled elder. When instructed, they caught individual horses by throwing a leather lasso. The herd was restless in the spring wind, resistant to the energetic antics of the young men.

Older and younger herders with their horses

Galsandorj commented: ‘Shirhdene means moulting and losing hair, a condition when the grass is poor in spring. This horse is getting bad blood from the poor grass and losing hair when he shouldn’t. That’s called Shirhdene. Secondly, blood is accumulating in both legs. So we’ll let the blood out now.’

Bloodletting from the horse's leg

Galsandorj jabbed the upper leg until the blood flowed properly, expelling ‘bad blood’ from the body. After puncturing in four places, he massaged the legs to encourage the flow of fluid.

Horse standing with blood visible at base of hooves

To treat injuries from heavy riding or a poorly placed saddle, a different knife is used to puncture deep into the shoulder. ‘In the upper body, between the shoulder blades, the blood vessels are not easy to find’, Galsandorj explained.

Herder showing bleeding site on the horse's shoulder

As an experienced herder, Galsandorj was sure that with the Shirhdene bloodletting technique—letting fluids flow from the upper legs—the horse would be healthy again. After release, the horse did not move away in a hurry but remained nearby with the rest of the herd.

Ambling horse after treatment

Galsandorj commented: ‘After a month, he will return to his usual horse self. He’ll look well and gain fat easily. When horses are in the previous state, they don’t gain any fat or strength regardless of whether they’re given supplementary feed. Horses with bad blood do not gain weight at all.’

Herder and running horse

Galsandorj had emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, on the windy steppe. After completing his task and instructing the herd to be released, he promptly mounted his horse and cantered away.

Herder riding horse

Herd of horses


Ganbaa on building immunity

Close-up of horse's head

In contrast to biomedicine, a significant aspect of Mongolian medicine among the herding community is its focus on prevention rather than cure. For the herders, it is better to build up the immunity of herd animals through appropriate herding practices and attention to the seasons and surrounding ecology, rather than wait to heal an individual once it has become sick.

Two Mongolian herder chatting with horse in background

It was spring and the ground was muddy from recently melted snow. Brothers Ganbaa and Sumiya often worked together on herding tasks. Both learnt bloodletting skills from their father. Their extended family herd comprised the largest number of horses in the river valley. Across the generations, their family has been known as horse specialists.

Horse following herder

Usually, when an animal is slaughtered for food, great care is taken to avoid any blood being spilt. Instead of cutting the throat, the Mongolian technique is to make an incision in the chest. The herder deftly snaps the aorta to the heart, then women carefully collect blood from inside the body cavity with a bowl for later consumption. In the case of bloodletting, because it is ‘bad blood’ (discoloured or not the correct viscosity), it is expelled and left to soak into the ground.

Herder with horse

On this occasion, Ganbaa was bloodletting as a favour to a neighbouring herder. A young, two-year-old horse hadn’t been drinking enough water and it was evident that his coat was moulting in patches.

Herder inspecting horse

Ganbaa also let blood from two of the extended family’s horses, with the intention of boosting their immunity and to get them into better condition for racing during the summer Naadam festival season. Ganbaa intended to repeat the bloodletting procedure on the three horses after a 15 day rest.

Inspecting the mouth of the horse

He commented that ‘only those that come through the spring fat and strong will be jabbed.’

Ganbaa punctures the third ridge along the roof of the mouth to let blood out from the correct point. He jabs the palate again when he finds that blood is not flowing enough. He then leaves the blood to spurt out, until its colour turns ‘pink’ and is no longer dark or viscous.

Inspecting behind the horse's ear

Ganbaa shows me the old, handcrafted knife he used for the bloodletting procedure. The knife is shared by the extended family. It was initially used by his father, but now is used by Ganbaa and his brother. In the future, it will be used by their sons. The knife is wrapped in a rag to ensure that the roof of the mouth is punctured at the correct depth.

Knife used for bloodletting

Bloodletting knowledge would have been expected of most male herders in the past. Ganbaa is modest about his skills and explains how he only knows the core bloodletting techniques.

Herder with horse

Mongolia is one of the few places where bloodletting remains an ongoing medical practice across species. Bloodletting is viewed as a necessary skill to ensure that individual horses retain a good level of immunity in spring, and also to ensure that they become strong and healthy during the season of growth. Prevention of illness is crucial to the herding family and the herd’s survival in an extreme environment. This is seasonal bloodletting.

Mongolian plain with running horses
Mongolian plain with horseriders
Mongolian plain with horseriders
Mongolian plain with horseriders
Mongolian plain with horseriders
Mongolian plain with horseriders
Mongolian plain with running horses

All images and video segments taken by Natasha Fijn in Mongolia in 2017

Field assistance: Shijir-Erdene and Ganbaatar Danaajav.
Translation: Shijir-Erdene and Delgermaa Altangerel.
Natasha Fijn’s field research was funded by:
    A Fejos Ethnographic Film Fellowship,
Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Herder riding horse

This essay should be referenced as: Natasha Fijn, ‘Bloodletting in Mongolia: Three Visual Narratives’. In Fluid Matter(s): Flow and Transformation in the History of the Body, edited by Natalie Köhle and Shigehisa Kuriyama. Asian Studies Monograph Series 14. Canberra, ANU Press, 2020.


and Impressum


Fluid Matter(s): Introduction
Natalie Köhle and
Shigehisa Kuriyama

1. Manipulating Flow

In Flux
Brooke Holmes

Whose Life is Water,
Whose Food is Blood

Lisa Allette Brooks

Bloodletting in Mongolia
Natasha Fijn

Fluid Feelings
Angelika C. Messner and
Shigehisa Kuriyama

2. Incorporating Flow

Life and Excrement
Shigehisa Kuriyama

Fluid Being
Yan Liu and Shigehisa Kuriyama

Intoxicating Transformations
James McHugh

3. Structuring Flow

Sunk from Sight
Lan A. Li

Spirit, Sweat and Qi
Natalie Köhle

Whence Cometh Sad Tears
Ya Zuo

Fat Matters
Nina Sellars


Epilogue: Fluid Matter(s)
Shigehisa Kuriyama


Fluid Matter(s)