Bridging the Gender Gap in a Male-Dominated Sport
It had been a particularly grueling day for Lauren McGough, her golden eagle heavy on her hand and her body sore from traversing miles of mountainous Mongolian terrain on her horse. She was searching for fox, but the light was fading, and it seemed that the day was going to end with an empty bag. Just when her spirits were at their lowest, Kukan, a falconer and her teacher, cried out as he flushed a fox.
McGough’s eagle bolted from the glove, powered across the darkening sky and slammed into the snowy hillside in a spray of powder and with a fox in her feet. Elated, Lauren whooped and galloped down to her bird. Once the eagle was fed and the fox attached to the saddle, Lauren fell into satisfied silence that held until her teacher asked no one in particular, “Why didn’t I ever take my daughters hunting?”
Getting to Mongolia
Lauren McGough fell in love with golden eagles when she was a child and was determined to get involved in the sport of falconry, hunting with birds of prey. When she became a falconer, however, she found she had a serious road block. She couldn’t find anyone in the United States to teach her how to hunt with a golden eagle. So, McGough applied and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Mongolia where falconers not only train eagles, but depend on their hunting skills for sustenance and fur.
Rather than packing a lot of gear, McGough said that she packed a lot of trinkets. “I brought lots of gifts like Western falconry hoods, compasses and knives,” she said. “Gift giving and guest culture are such a huge thing there. I did pack lots of uber-warm clothing like Northface, but ended up abandoning it. I actually ended up wearing a lot of fur. It was much warmer.” Just like choosing the right clothing to pack, there were many things that she simply could not prepare for in advance.
McGough found that getting to Mongolia was the easy part. Fitting in and making herself understood was much harder. “I looked like a tourist, and I had to get past that and convince them that I really wanted to learn, not just take pictures and ride around for fun,” said McGough.
There was nothing simple about the learning either. She had a translator with her, but the cultural and language barriers were still challenging. The Kazakh culture in Mongolia is unabashedly male-dominated, and the women do not hunt with eagles. McGough was going to have a lot to prove. McGough had to trap a young eagle, tame it, train it, and then learn to hunt successfully from horseback, and there were times when she thought about giving up.
“We were hawking in a whiteout snowstorm that came out of nowhere,” said McGough. “We had to go slow on the horse, so my feet became like blocks of ice, and by the time we got back to the yurt I knew it was going to be bad. One foot was in excruciating pain.” Her foot took weeks to heal and continued hunts in the cold aggravated it. “I remember staying awake at night and wanting to talk to my mom and have her tell me that it would be okay or to be able to go to the doctor,” said McGough. “I just wanted to go home.” She was determined to stay and learn, however, and didn’t give up. In fact, eventually, Mongolia felt like home.
McGough with her horse and eagle, once she gained the trust of both and felt at home.
Home is Where the Eagles Are
When McGough arrived, she had never ridden a horse, let alone ridden one across rugged wintery terrain while balancing an eagle on one hand. Just getting up on the horse while keeping the nearly ten-pound bird upright seemed impossible. “In the beginning I needed help with everything,” said McGough. Eventually all that changed.
“I remember this one moment really vividly of being out on the mountain and we got off the horses to survey the area,” said McGough. “Then I leapt on my horse with my eagle and headed out ahead of everyone. I was doing things automatically.”
This is when things really started to gel for her. “We had to cross vast expanses of steppe to the mountains where the foxes were,” she said. “When I could race and play games with everyone on the horse, I truly felt like I was a part of everything.”
McGough’s eagle soon became a highly adept fox hunter, making her a contributing member of the family. Every bit of the fox was utilized and benefited the family she lived with or helped to keep her warm. Because the Kazakh people are very poor, they depend on livestock and hunting to survive. “You go days without food and I had never experienced that before,” said McGough. “But as far as I could tell, they didn’t show any resentment and were willing to share. They have found amazing ways to coexist and utilize animals.”
McGough and her hunting party—which includes her mentor, Kukan—enjoy a successful fox hunt.
What You Take With You
On top of a deep respect for the Kazakh people, McGough discovered a few things about herself. “I learned that I can be assertive and confident,” she said. “There is no word for please in Kazakh. I would ask if it would be all right for me to train the eagle, and my translator would say, ’Lauren wants to train the eagle.’ I learned that I didn’t have to apologize. It’s my goal now to never apologize when there is no reason.”
McGough also feels that this is the key to not just surviving, but thriving in a sport or passion that is male-dominated. “If you are honest and genuine and truly confident about something, most barriers are going to fall away,” said McGough. “I never really did anything except stubbornly be myself. Don’t ask for permission. Do what you want to do.”
Lauren McGough is inspirational, as are so many other women who embrace the outdoors and wild pursuits with abandon. You can find your peers and other inspirational women here in the Prima community. Find your people and get outside!
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