A horseman’s etiquette in Abkhazia
In Abkhazia the husbandry of cattle and other animals was one of the main economic employments for men from time immemorial up to XIX century. In various locations throughout the country archeological excavations reveal numerous remnants of domestic animals bones, as well as their images. From the Neolithic Period undoubted rudiments of animal husbandry, along with hunting and fishing, have been traced. In the monuments of Kolkhida-Kuban culture (XII-VI centuries BC) clay, stone and metal sculptural figures of dogs, goats, wild boars, deer, bulls, birds and horses (as well as their images) are widely represented. This reflects the value of animal industries and hunting in the economic and social life of the population, which is also proved to be true from the surviving works of ancient writers, as well as from items of both ethnography and folklore.
It is possible to mention, for example, that an exclusive role as a colleague and kind friend in the lives full of danger of legendary heroes of the Abkhazian national epos - God’s rebel Abrskil and Narts athletic trailblazers - belongs to a fighting horse.
The horse first appeared in Transcaucasia towards the end of the second millennium BC. Abkhazians and their far-off ancestors were engaged in horse breeding for at least three thousand years, in the development of which over such a long period they achieved rather considerable successes. This is expressed in various original ways by skill in the care of horses, and in the special love and affection of the people for these animals, which was particularly embodied in the proverb ‘A horse has human blood in its veins’, and in masterly horsemanship and etiquette.
First of all it is necessary to underline that horsemanship since ancient times has given Abkhazians a significant national character. Not only princes and noblemen were able to ride a horse, but peasants of all categories - not only adults, but also small children who were far less than ten years old, and not only men, but also women, who additionally used special female saddles.
Since long ago, unwritten rules have demanded specific items of attire from a horseman. A number of elements of the Abkhazian men’s outfit were called into existence by the military way of life, which included the requirement to ride constantly (some of these are retained up to now, but only as accessories or ornaments).
As a rule, a horseman put on a Circassian coat, which apparently developed from the suit of a cavalryman. In addition, a first-rate horseman wore a burka made from felt, which, with its wide and straight shoulder parts, gave to his figure a grandiose appearance and in addition covered and warmed the croup of his horse. A burka was carried by him in good weather too - just in case, but at that time it was carefully folded flat and tied behind the saddle with leather straps.
The climax of the etiquette rules for a polite Abkhazian horseman is a ceremony of real or symbolic help during the dismounting or mounting of a horse by any visitor in general, or an honourable horseman in particular. A long process of suggestion and refusal of help is necessarily followed by some special words of gratitude such as ‘Thanks’ (Itabup), ‘Let those who are stronger than you support a stirrup for you!’, ‘May much wealth be with you!’, and ‘Best wishes for a happy journey!‘(Meuuamsh ukulaait!).
This ceremony is basically repeated over and over again with each visitor on horseback. It is important that each of them takes their seat on their horse after having turned towards the hospitable house, delicately expressing by that action their gratitude and respect for all the kindness and generosity shown. To help a woman to mount, it is necessary to bring her a chair or a stool, and if this is not available near at hand, somebody seeing her off or accompanying her (usually a young man) kneels to offer her his knee to climb on, and she (supported also by his hands), climbs up onto the saddle and then takes a bridle and a lash given to her.
In general, a horseman’s etiquette, as well as other forms of Abkhazian good manners, is based on the principles of consanguinity, seniority, hospitality, attitude towards a woman, etc. These rules were developed in detail to the smallest subtleties - how to sit on or descend from a horse, how to hold a bridle and a lash and how to use the latter, how to choose the best horse for various purposes, how to treat and look after it, how to prepare and hold national horse-racing competitions, and so on. Any physical damage publicly inflicted on a horse was equated as a personal insult to its owner.
Abkhazians rode their tiny but strong and ardent horses very well, and not only on lowlands but also in high-mountainous places, without apparently fearing the dizziest of climbs or descents. It is amazing with what habitual dexterity and care a local sinewy horse bears a horseman along unimaginable slopes and how he, having seized the horse’s mane or by leaning one hand on the croup of the horse, keeps in the saddle. For trips over steep rocks, mules (which had a large distribution in old Abkhazia) were especially irreplaceable. Only in the most inaccessible and dangerous places was a saddled horse driven ahead of a horseman or led by a bridle.