Mongolian Horse Racing – An Unusual Cross-Country Event

Every year hundreds of spectators gather together at a stadium to watch the start and finish of a magnificent horse race. But this is no thoroughbred flat race – it is a hard-hitting cross-country race run on small, sturdy ponies that are jockeyed by young children. The event is known as Mongolian horse racing.

Every year during the Naadam celebrations, which fall between the 11th and 13th of July, the people of Mongolia gather together to participate or watch the national sporting spectacle. The traditional name for the event is ‘eriin gurvan naadam’ which means ‘the three manly games’. As such, the event features local versions of the sports of horse racing, archery and wrestling. While these games were traditionally participated in by men only, today woman also enjoy showing their skill in the horse racing and archery divisions of the nation-wide festival.

Horse racing lovers will find the horse-racing division of the event particularly interesting. The tradition is said to date back to the Bronze Age, so it is very old and is a firmly established part of the annual festivities. The horses are categorized according to age; there are groups for two-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds, and horses over five years and stallions. The distance of the race is determined by the age of the horse and may range between 15 and 35 kilometers. This is incredibly long – even for the sturdy little ponies – and a horse may die from a heart-attack if it is not properly prepared for the competition. Mongolian horses are short and stocky with robust feet, a large head and a thick neck. They bare a certain resemblance to the Przewalski’s horse and are said to be largely unchanged since the time of Genghis Kahn. This makes them an incredibly old breed of horse and many modern horse breeds seem to be genetically linked to these hardy little animals.

The horses are jockeyed by young children. Many find this disturbing, but to Mongolians it is a part of life. An old saying states that ‘the nomad is born in the saddle’ and the Mongolian way of life has centered on their horses for centuries. Thus, children between the ages of five and twelve are allowed to ride the horses during the race and may include boys or girls. Their racecourse takes the form of natural steppe where riders may have to deal with obstacles such as rivers, ravines and hills. If the rider should fall, his horse is trained to continue running until the race has been completed.

At the end of this horse race in Mongolia, the winners do a full circuit of the stadium where the other events are held. They are accompanied by a herald and the winner is awarded with an honorary title while five runners-up are awarded with medals. The loser is also rewarded and the day is greatly anticipated by young and old.