All around the world, horses are often the star athletes of best-loved sports that go way back in history. Derby-style races, rodeo competitions and team sports like polo may seem like hallmarks of Western culture, but, in fact, they trace their roots to the ancient equine traditions and horsemanship originally practiced in Asia and the East.
We’ve taken a look at some of the most fascinating horse sports in Asia – tournaments, games and traditions that are often not well known to the Western world. In each case, knowledge of the sport has been passed down through the generations and even helped define the local cultures of which they are still an integral part today.
Horse Games of Kyrgyzstan
For the nomadic people of Kyrgyzstan, riding a horse is thought of the way Westerns drive cars. Every Kyrgyz man is comfortable in the saddle; it’s a skill passed down from father to son, and horses are very much a part of the culture. The annual Kyrgyzstan Horse Games are therefore not just for entertainment. They are a fierce test of talent and skill, speed and balance, flexibility and precision.
Watching the Kyrgyz Horse Games will not leave you in want of excitement. There’s Kurosh, essentially fierce wrestling on horseback, or Ulak Tartysh, where two teams of horsemen struggle to claim a goat carcass (like Buzkashi in Uzbekistan). For the more dexterous, there’s the Tyiyn Emmei, where the horse rider attempts to pick a coin up from the ground while moving at full gallop. For the romantically inclined, there’s the Kyz Kuumai, where the male rider must catch the female rider in order to win his prize: a kiss. And of course, there’s plain old-fashioned horse racing at Chaybash.
While admiring the thoroughbred Kyrgyz horses and their rides is the main event, there are plenty of other ways to experience Kyrgyz culture at the Horse Games. Sample some local Kyrgyz food or explore the nearby historic town of Krakol. Anyone interested in folk music or traditional performances will not want to miss the festival’s regular national folk shows.
Horse Dance at the Pushkar Fair, India
Every year in November, in the town of Pushkar in northeast India, locals celebrate with a camel fair. It’s a tribal gathering that coincides with the full moon of Kartik Purnima, a holy day on the Hindu calendar. As word has gotten out internationally about the the colour and spectacle of the camel fair, it has grown in scale. The tiny lakeside town becomes a huge tented fairground that now attracts some 300,000 people, including livestock-traders, religious pilgrims and tourists. Estimates are that between 25,000 and 50,000 animals are exchanged each year.
Camels are the livestock focus of the fair. Their tradesmen dress them in ornate costumes for camel beauty contests, and they even compete in artful camel-shaving competitions. For a brief moment of the festival, however, the camels are upstaged by the breathtaking performances of dancing horses. In this competition, the handlers stand next to their horses, guiding them in dances to the changing rhythms of traditional music.
Pasola Harvest Festival in Sumba, Indonesia
The island of Sumba, one of the lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia, has an athletic horse ceremony that attracts crowds of people each year, usually around late February. The equestrian competition is called Pasola, and it takes place as part of a joyous annual harvest festival – a celebration that culminates in a harrowing face-off of blunt-sworded men on horses.
In this sport, horsemen are divided into teams of two. Suspense hangs heavy in the air as different pairs align at opposite ends of a playing field. Then, they wait for a cue to charge toward each other at full force while wielding unsharpened spears. As they approach each other, they launch their weapons. The crowd goes wild.
A pasola tournament is not child’s play; it is not uncommon for athletes to be wounded and/or shed blood. For local onlookers, this is actually an encouraging sign of life: legend has it that blood spilled during a pasola will cleanse and purify the playing fields and ensure a bountiful harvest during the coming year.
To learn more about the full legend and ceremony behind Sumba’s Pasola festival, read Pasola: The Heart-racing Horse and Harvest Festival of Sumba, Indonesia right here on The Travel Word.
Buzkashi in Uzbekistan
The action-packed horse sport of Buzkashi has thrived for centuries on the open terrain of the central Asian steppe, including in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan (see more above), Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and northern Pakistan, as well as in Uzbekistan.
The main object of Buzkashi is for a horseman, called the chovandoz, to carry a boz, or goat carcass, from one point (a circle of paint 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.
While the rules of Buzkashi may sound simple, the game is difficult and extremely technical. Athletes spend decades in long and persistent training, which is why the most skilled chovandoz are around 40 years old. Equally intensive training is given to the horses; valuable steeds are prepared for no less than five years with special nutrition and care.
Buzkashi is a thrilling spectator sport.
Read all about Buzkashi in Buzkashi: One Against All on Horseback in Uzbekistan right here on The Travel Word.
Naadam Horse Races in Mongolia
Horses have a very important place in the history of the Mongolian people. As early as the 12th century, the country’s mail relay system, known as the Yam, was a network of horseback postmen who could travel at high speeds over hundreds of kilometres per day. It was on horseback that emperors such as Genghis Khan conquered vast territories during the same time period. Today, horses are still a vital part of the culture. To put things into perspective, Mongolia is home to approximately 20 million steeds, compared to a population of only around 2.8 million people.
It is no wonder, then, that the annual Mongolian festival of Naadam features a horse race as one of the ‘three games of man’ that are the festival’s major events (the other two being Mongolian wrestling and archery.) Unlike the hardened athletes that compete in Uzbekisan’s Buzkashi, the contestants in the Naadam horse races are of all ages and sizes. The horses can be as young as two years old, and their child jockeys can start competing as early as age five or six. The races unfold with festive customs of songsinging and the placing of wagers.
Read more about Mongolian horse culture in Horsing Around in Mongolia right here on The Travel Word.