Battle to stop Mongolia's child jockeys from racing to their death
Controversy grows over fiercely competitive contests in which riders as young as seven, often without proper protection, put their lives at risk
Just before little Baasanjav Lkhagvadorj was lifted onto a horse for a race across Mongolia's open steppe last week, he asked his father to bless him with a kiss.
Minutes later the seven-year-old was killed in a fall, the latest in a rising toll among the country's child jockeys.
As Mongolia's biggest national festival, Naadam, began yesterday, controversy is growing over the way unprotected young riders are risking injury and even death.
Horses are at the core of Mongolian culture. Children learn to ride almost as soon as they can walk. And horseracing is one of the "three manly sports" - along with wrestling and archery - that make up the Naadam activities.
The races are among the longest in the world, up to 28 kilometres depending on the age of the horse - four times the length of Britain's Grand National.
The contests are a legacy of the nation's warrior past, when Genghis Khan's forces would cover vast distances to wreak havoc on their enemies.
Mongolian horses are sturdy creatures bred for endurance.
But the demands are so tough that child jockeys are preferred for their light weight, and around 30,000 children ride in competitive races every year.
A health ministry study showed 326 children were treated for racing injuries at the National Traumatology and Orthopaedics Research Centre in Ulan Bator alone last year, up from 222 in 2010. But accidents in the countryside, where most people live, often go unrecorded.
Lkhagvadorj's death was the third recorded child fatality so far this year, said Baljinnyam Javzankhuu, of the National Agency for Children.
She said there had been more than 20 in the past decade. "Competitions have become very cruel," she added.
As well as the official Naadam races, newly wealthy owners - reportedly including lawmakers and state officials - have organised barely regulated contests of their own in increasing numbers. Private races have looser rules and can be held in winter when conditions are more risky.
And now that the country is enjoying a resources boom, betting on them is said to sometimes reach as much as US$60,000. But according to rights campaigners, children can be hired informally to take part for as little reward as a bicycle, a set of schoolbooks, or up to 150,000 tugriks (US$100).
Horses can be insured for millions of tugriks but their riders were either not covered - contrary to legal requirements - or for only a token amount of less than US$30, said Javzankhuu.
Helmets and protective gear are also mandatory, but the rules are often ignored.
Purev Oyunchimeg, one of Mongolia's three national human rights commissioners, wants parliament, the Great Khural, to class horseracing as child labour, or at the very least improve standards and raise the minimum age for Naadam riders from seven to nine.
"The rich should stop making children victims of entertainment," she said of the private races. "When children die [the families] don't even get any compensation."
Mongolia's culture, sports and tourism ministry is preparing a law that will ban children under 16 taking part in private events. But no decision has yet been made on changing the minimum age for official races.
"Traditional horseracing is the most democratic, liberal event," minister Tsedevdamba Oyungerel said. "But when money gets involved the races become fiercely competitive and dangerous for children."
But traditionalists defend the practice. Adya Bayarmagnai, adviser to the Mongolian Equestrian and Horse Trainers' Union, and an owner and trainer himself, said only "a tiny percentage" of children have accidents.
"Children fall from horses - it's the only way to learn horse-riding," he said.
"A Mongol child is put on horseback at the same time as he or she learns co-ordination and walking. Thus a child and a horse become one harmonious entity."