During Chuseok, travel in modern Korea is an unbelievable nightmare of traffic jams and irate drivers. But what was it like over a hundred and ten years ago?
Travel during the late Chosun period was confined to
a) Sitting in a chair supported by a number of bearers;
c) Using one of the short, shaggy, Korean ponies, either as a mount or a packhorse.
The Korean riding/pack ponies were small and shaggy, always stallions (mares were used only on the farm), and always accompanied by a handler known as a “mapoo.”
The ponies only stood between 10 and 12 hands tall, but were extremely powerful, and able to carry loads between 160-200 pounds. They were so sure-footed that they were able to carry these loads 30 or more miles a day even over the roughest mountain path.
From the above description they seemed like a perfect mount or packhorse but nothing was further from the truth.
Those who chose the pony were, in the words of one British diplomat, “invariably afford(ed) an unfailing source of amusement and irritation according to the temperament of the traveler.”
No truer words were spoken and perhaps that is why so many foreigners wrote about their experiences with the Korean pony.
One young missionary, an American woman, wrote:
“two of those poor little pack-ponies which I had been pitying all along for the terrible way, with their relentless mapoos overloading them, began fighting (loads and all). After kicking each other in the liveliest fashion for some time, squealing like little fiends, while the poor mapoos were dancing and vociferating around them trying to bring about a truce, they finally scampered off in different directions, and then and there my heart hardened, and never since has pity for these animals entered it. They are, I firmly opine, as self-willed, spoiled, obstinate, quarrelsome, uncertain, tricky and tough little beasts as ever carried a load.”
Another missionary felt so strongly about the pony that he said it had more influence on his personal character than his professors or religious leaders had.
He went on to harshly admit, “I love to see the pony shod, see him pinioned teeth and nail, in one hard knot, lying on his back under the spreading chestnut tree, with the village smithy putting tacks into him that brings tears to his eyes.”
Another early visitor to Korea summed the ponies up as,
“They are indeed the trickiest little devils for their size I have ever seen; and for viciousness and love of fighting, [they are the] equine wickedness in the Realm of the Morning Calm.”