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Asia travel

Photo essay: Mongolia’s fearless child jockeys race for glory at Naadam

We witness a rite of passage up close at Mongolia’s biggest annual sporting event, as children as young as five years old show off their horse riding skills racing across the steppe

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 July, 2016, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 July, 2016, 6:07pm

It’s 6am and raining when we crawl reluctantly out of our sodden tents, pitched late the night before in Uliastai, western Mongolia, where we have set up camp to watch Naadam, the country’s biggest annual celebration. Also known as the “three manly games”, the event is a chance for people to show their skills at racing, wrestling and archery, and many dress in their finest clothes for the occasion.

Though the biggest event is held in the country’s capital, Ulan Bator, smaller regional celebrations like this offer a chance to get closer to the action.

Crossing the Mongolian steppe in a mud-spattered van

We eat a hasty breakfast and get in the cars, as we’ve heard the horse race will start at 7am. A long, bumpy off-road wild goose chase follows, as no one we ask seems to know where or when the race will start – not even the tense trainers and jockeys standing around. One policeman snoozing by the barrier tells us he has no idea and not his responsibility, while another sends us in a massive circle which brings us back to our starting point.

Then, suddenly all the cars seem to start driving in the same direction, and trucks bearing race horses rattle behind us, overtaking us in their haste to get to the starting line. We soon find a car park where crowds of locals are gathering, crouching between cars drinking salted yak milk tea, mugs of vodka (both of which they generously share with us to take the edge off the early start) and chewing on boiled mutton chops.

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The clouds lift just in time for the race to start, and everybody makes their way to the finishing line to cheer the first jockeys galloping in. We can hear them from a distance shouting commands and see them whipping their horses vigorously to urge them on.

The maximum age for a jockey is 12 to ensure the horses don’t need to bear too much weight; some of the jockeys are as young as five years old. Helmets were officially introduced in the last couple of years in response to safety concerns, but outside of the capital most continue to ride bare back and bareheaded as they’ve grown up doing on the steppe. Races go up to some 40km long, and often cover challenging, mountainous cross-country terrain.

Competing in Naadam is an important rite of passage for the boys, who train for years, taking their horses to different altitudes. While not all children in Mongolia will have what it takes to compete, nearly all nomad children will learn to ride.

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Horse riding skills and the wisdom to select a good horse are essential to the nomadic life, as is endurance. Once the boys reach their twenties, their role will be to look after the family, and protect them from the cold winter, wolves, thieves and disease. Racing at Naadam epitomises all of these strengths, and is symbolic of the fact a nomad’s life is not possible without his animals.

The focus of these races is on the horse – more than the children, who are mere passengers. The jockeys and their coaches sing to the horses to honour them after the race, and bless them by splashing them with airag, fermented mare’s milk (white is a sacred colour for Mongolians and considered an auspicious symbol).

Even before the last few stragglers come in, the crowds climb over the barriers and rush to greet the triumphant winner, a beaming 11-year-old boy, and touch the sweat of the winning horse for good luck.

While about 50 horses compete, only the first five receive prizes. And while some of the younger, less successful jockeys struggle to conceal their disappointment, it’s clear that the point of this race is in the honour of participation.

Tessa Chan travelled to Mongolia with Tim Cope , author, filmmaker and wilderness guide at World Expeditions (worldexpeditions.com). Full story to follow soon.