Buzkashi, which literally means ‘goat fetching,’ is a traditional horse game of the steppe nomads in Central Asia. It has been played since the epoch of Genghis Khan, the 12th-century ruler of the Mongol Empire, and variations of the game are popular in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, northern northern Pakistan and Kazakhstan, as well as in Uzbekistan, where, having first found followers in rural villages, it is today a celebrated national sport.
Buzkashi competition is fierce. It’s the kind of sport that requires dexterity, courage and force from the athletes, while also presenting a fantastic and fascinating show for spectators.
Guard the Goat Carcass
The object of Buzkashi is for one horseman, called the chovandoz, to carry a boz, or goat carcass, from the centre of a circle painted on the ground to a designated safe zone – another circle called the hallal, or ‘circle of justice.’ He must avoid losing the boz to any of a group of opponents along the way.
What exactly is a boz? A few days before the game, a goat is beheaded. Its carcass is then soaked in cold water and sometimes salted, making it strong and heavy. The result is the cured trunk of a goat that weighs between 60 and 90 kilograms; merely lifting this boz from the ground and carrying the weight is a true feat of strength for the chovandoz. The curing process is necessary so that the boz survives the athletes’ rough handling.
A Minute to Learn, A Lifetime to Master
The rules of Buzkashi are rather simple. Without dismounting, a horseman must lift the boz from the centre of the painted circle and head toward the hallal goal zone. Meanwhile the other riders use both strength and strategy to attempt to steal the trophy boz. It is against the rules to tie the goat to the saddle, hit the rival’s hands in order to knock the goat carcass loose or use rope to unsaddle other riders. That’s why being a chovandoz is not easy – it requires pure sportsmanship: no cheap shots allowed.
Despite the simplicity of the rules, Buzkashi is difficult and extremely technical. The riders need many years of long and persistent training. It is no coincidence that the most skilled chovandoz are in their 40s. Similarly intense training is necessary for the horses; generally they are prepared for no less than five years with special nutrition and care, and the value of prize Buzkashi horses is measured in thousands of dollars. Horses bred for Buzkashi all have particular characteristics and not just any horse can train to become a champion. For example, if a chovandoz falls during the game, the horse knows to stop in the dust cloud and wait for him.
Dressed for the Part
Like any good national sport, Buzkashi is wildly entertaining to watch. If, somehow, the fans aren’t caught up in the sheer drama and suspense of it, the costumes add even more special effect. When the game begins, up to 50 horsemen enter the playing field in heavy, quilted jackets and protective headwear. Their high boots have heels that clip to the horses’ stirrups, allowing the athletes to stay attached to the horse while leaning low to pick up the boz. Much like polo, Buzkashi can get rough. In some variations, the players carry whips to ward off other horses.
The game is also high-risk, but the players are prepared. The passion, pride and prizes are well worth the risk. Prizes are always different, ranging from carpets to domestic appliances and even cars and large sums of money.
How to Watch a Buzkashi Match
If you’re planning on visiting Central Asia, be sure to catch a game of Buzkashi. The games are held throughout the year, usually for special occasions such as weddings and births. In Uzbekistan, there is an annual game every 21st of March. It’s the biggest competition, held during the celebration of Navruz, when local Uzbekistanis from all over the country (as well as foreigners and tourists) flock to Urgut, an area situated just 60 kilometres from Samarkand with one aim – watching this extraordinary, exciting and noble game of nomads.