Mongolia is perhaps best known as the homeland of famed 12th Century conqueror Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, whose dynasty amassed the largest contiguous empire in history. The secret weapon of the Mongols? The horse. Hordes of nomadic warriors on fiery ponies shook the world with fear.
Now, a team of Mongolian mobile developers is trying to innovate centuries-old herding practices with an iOS app called Уяач ("seller"), designed for horse breeders and herders, who typically own dozens—if not hundreds—of horses.
With a current population hovering around 3 million people, Mongolia remains one of the least-densely populated countries in the world. At the same time, most people in the rapidly-developing Asian nation live in urban areas. Coworking spaces, hackathons, and startup accelerators abound in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
In Mongolia, urban and rural lifestyles compete and complement one another in fascinating ways. Over a quarter of Mongolians lead rural pastoral livelihoods, though many have smartphones and access to 3G, and even 4G networks. Modern-day nomads raise the same livestock—goats, sheep, cattle, yaks, and horses—as their ancestors. However, many employ motorbikes in their daily duties and pack their lives onto used Japanese trucks instead of camels.
Still, the horse occupies an irreplaceable role in many herders' everyday lives and remains a national symbol of Mongolia's distinctive nomadic heritage. Horse racing is among the most popular pastimes of both urban and rural Mongolians. Each summer, scores of local, regional, and national races pit equine competitors against one another in grueling tests of speed and endurance that can last dozens of kilometers.
Which brings us back to Уяач (pronounced "uyaach"). Accomplished race horses are commonly sold for breeding by city slickers and herders alike. Often, many of the exact details of the horse's lineage and health are debated between the buyer and seller, but there are few if any records to verify the parties' claims.
The app enables horse owners to carefully document each animal they own by allowing them to upload up to 10 photos per horse and input data on their ancestry, race history, age, sex, and health conditions.
"We want it to become the Facebook for herders that they will use daily."
"We see the app as an important tool for herders, and also a news source for racing fans," Artur Byambadorj, one of the app's creators, told me over the phone.
Mongolia has an estimated 50,000 die-hard horse racing fans. There are a variety of Facebook groups and websites for enthusiasts, but the information is scattered and the online community is fragmented.
Perhaps Уяач's biggest innovation is the creation of an equine-centered social media network, allowing other owners, trainers, herders, and enthusiasts to follow their favorite stallions and mares.
"Users can first choose if they want their information to be shared publicly," explained Byambadorj, "but we have access to all the metadata."
The app, which can be downloaded for free on iTunes, was first released in mid-June and is still under development. Though still in beta, it has been downloaded hundreds of times.
"We want it to become the Facebook for herders that they will use daily," said Byambadorj.
Many users have already contacted the team with praise.
"One of the great things about the app is that you can use it when there's no service," said Sodnomtseren Batchuluun, speaking to a common issue for herders. Batchuluun lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but owns over 100 horses under the care of a professional herder in Ömnögovi province, located in the Gobi Desert.
Others have reached out with suggestions for improvements.
"I don't like seeing other people's horses on the application," said Buyanbaatar Tsagaanbandi, who owns over 200 horses. "I only need to see my own. A lot of herders in the countryside, they're not savvy enough to make use of the application. It needs to be simpler."
The app is still not an entirely fail-safe way to prevent fraudulent claims among sellers and buyers. However, the team eventually hopes to integrate a microchipping product to pair with the app, which will allow for the unique identification of horses as well as GPS tracking.
The developers have already raised two rounds of venture capital in Mongolia and plan to release an android version in September.
The Great Khan is probably smiling in his tomb.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.