ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel knew even before he landed here that there was no way he could keep the horse.
In the vastness of landlocked Mongolia’s steppes, horses have always been a big deal, and when Mr. Hagel’s predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, made the first visit to the country by an American secretary of defense in 2005, his hosts honored him with the traditional gift of a horse. Mr. Rumsfeld named the black-maned gelding Montana, because the landscape reminded him of the state where his wife, Joyce, was born.
But along with Montana came some delicate issues of diplomacy, logistics and politics, not the least of which was whether American taxpayers would have to bear the cost of upkeep. After a great deal of head scratching, Mr. Rumsfeld ultimately had to leave Montana behind, to be watched over by the horse’s herder, the Defense Department said, “until his next visit.”
When President George W. Bush followed Mr. Rumsfeld to Mongolia a short time later, the White House quietly persuaded Mongolian officials not to give the president a horse, and they complied. Mr. Bush did partake in Mongolian horse culture another way, by drinking the local brew, fermented mare’s milk.
Mr. Hagel arrived here for his official visit on Thursday and received some milk curd, which he nibbled at the airport. But once again the question of a gift horse loomed.
As his motorcade entered the imposing grounds of the Mongolian Ministry of Defense, the animal stood off to the side of a ceremonial yurt, its tawny tail swishing idly in the breeze. A Mongolian herder stood beside it, holding the reins and peeking around the yurt at the dignitaries. There was excitement in Mr. Hagel’s motorcade.
But first things first. Mr. Hagel had to go through the protocol of meetings with his Mongolian counterpart about the array of issues that dominate American-Mongolian relations — namely, thanking Mongolia for sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bat-Erdene Dashdemberel, the minister of defense, spoke warmly about the strength of the American-Mongolian bond. “Mongolia is a peace-loving country,” he said of a land that still reveres its native hero, Genghis Khan. “This principle is the core of the relationship.”
With the diplomatic business done came the time for the gift ceremony. The herder brought the horse to Mr. Hagel, and Mr. Bat-Erdene gestured toward its mane. “This will be your horse from now on,” he said. “You can name it.”
“Well, thank you,” replied Mr. Hagel, a native Nebraskan. “I am honored.”
Next came the moment everyone was waiting for: “I’m going to name this horse Shamrock.”
Not Nebraska, or Omaha? Or even Cornhusker?
“Shamrock was the name of the mascot of the high school I graduated from,” Mr. Hagel said.
Then he turned sadly to address Shamrock. “You be good while I’m gone,” he said.