Several weeks ago, I started talking horses with a woman I’d just met and she told me about a horse game she’d witnessed on a visit to Kyrgyzstan. I’d never heard of it and was immediately intrigued and decided to do a bit of digging (thank-you Google).
Horses have played a central role in the Kyrgyz culture since ancient times—proving a crucial companion to their nomadic lifestyle. Evidence shows that in the 3rd century people were buried with their horses and in the past, children were given names of horses because it was believed that evil spirits were afraid of horses. Today, horses remain an integral part of the Kyrgyzstan culture and are frequently used in games—some similar and others very different to ones we’d play here.
There are many horse games in Kyrgyzstan and one of the most famous is ulak tartish. One theory for how the game came about is that it originated in antiquity when herds of cattle grazed in the steppes and mountains year round, exposed to possible attacks by wolves or other large predators. Not having firearms, nomads defended their herds by beating attacking wolves with large sticks while mounted on horseback. Their ultimate aim would be to break the wolf’s bones, and to facilitate this, they would try to grab the wolf and throw it against a hard surface.
The story goes that people wanted to be ready for such cases and practiced by wrestling on horseback for a goat’s carcass—which evolved into today’s game of ulak tartish. The goal of today’s game is to seize the goat carcass and deliver it into the gates of the contesting team. It’s a pretty rough game where riders use their horses like bumper cars and fight over a 40kg headless goat carcass. Yum.
While ulak tartish is the Kyrgyz name, the game is also known by other names, such as “buzkashi,” (literally translates as “goat grabbing,” “goat killing” or “goat dragging” depending on the source—at least the goat part is consistent) which is the Afghan national sport. You may have heard of buzkashi in the Khaled Hossini book, The Kite Runner, where it was briefly mentioned.
Unlike the “defending the herd” explanation for how ulak tartish came about, buzkashi is said to have originated from the times of Genghis Khan, when the Mongol horsemen were adept at advancing swiftly on enemy campsites and, without dismounting, swooping up sheep, goats, and other pillage at a full gallop. One theory is that in retaliation, the inhabitants of northern Afghanistan established a mounted defence against the raids—and it is this practice that might be the direct forbearer of today’s Buzkashi. Seems more likely than the wolf-bashing story…
Buzkashi is often compared to polo. Both games are played between people on horseback, both involve propelling an object toward a goal, and both get fairly rough. But then we get to the key difference… which is of course that polo is played with a ball, and buzkashi is played with a headless goat carcass. Many of today’s official tournaments are played with a cow calf carcass instead, which being stronger, holds up better to the rigours of the game. Oh, well that’s better.
How to play buzkashi: a hole is dug just deep enough for the carcass to fit so that it is level with the ground. Nearby, a “circle of justice” is drawn in the soil. To the right of the circle is a pole and to the left another. Modern day rules restrict the size of the field to about a mile apart, but there is no limitation set on the number of players. The riders encircle the pit containing the carcass and on a given signal attempt to grab the carcass and gallop away around one post and then the other before depositing it in the “circle of justice.” Seems simple enough.
Meanwhile, the other riders try to prevent this from happening by attacking the rider and trying to steal the carcass. The rider who deposits the carcass into the “circle of justice” is considered to be the winner – he may not have circled either post and may have stolen it a few yards from the “circle of justice,” but anything goes in this sport.
According to unwritten rules of the game, nobody can tie the carcass to his saddle or hit his opponent on the hand to snatch the carcass. Likewise, tripping the opponent with a rope is forbidden. Well that’s a relief. However, these rules are not strictly observed in local matches. A-ha, noted.
Traditional buzkashi may continue for days, but the regulated tournament version has a limited match time of about an hour. The game is very competitive and taken so seriously that it is not uncommon for riders to continue with cracked ribs, broken limbs and various head injuries. I guess that part is not unlike North American equestrian athletes.
Other traditional Kyrgyz horse games:
Aht Chabysh—long-distance race. Traditionally this game took place in connection with a holiday or festival. The distance was 100 kilometres. Very often the riders were young boys of 10-13 years age, sometimes riding without a saddle—ouch.
Oodarysh—wrestling on horseback. Still a popular activity where two riders try to pull each other off their horses. Apparently it’s totally legal to throw your rival together with his horse to the ground. Uh, yeah, nice.
Kyz–Kumai—chase the bride. Traditionally played as a wedding game where the groom would try to catch his bride, who would gallop away from him on horseback. The bride would get the better horse and the groom, in order to prove his love, would chase and try to catch her. The game ended when groom caught and kissed his bride. Since the groom got the less capable horse, he would often fail to catch his fiancée and she would get away. If this happened, the groom would ride back and his fiancée would follow him and get to beat him with her kamchi (horse-whip). (In the original text, this paragraph ended with “but the wedding would be held anyway.”)
While I’m always looking for new ways to inject enthusiasm into BIHORA’s activities, I’m thinking none of these activities would have quite the same appeal among our Bowen audience as it would in the ‘stans. What do you think?