This post is part of a four-part series on Mogolian Naadam (Three Manly Sports). Naadam is a festival traditionally held within the first half of July every year in Mongolia. You can read the other sections here: Wrestling, Archery, Ankle Bones.
“Summer, when there is least work to do and the pasture is at its best, is the horse-racing season.”
-Owen Lattimore (Nomads and Commissars, p. 17)
Horse racing is the first of the three manly sports I wish to talk about. Each sport is played in order to make a better soldier, and since the Mongolians were known for their equestrian skills, it should come as no surprise that they cherish the horse race.
Horses are divided into differing ages and breeds, and given a very long distance to traverse. People usually show up to see the start, leave, and then return to see the finish several hours later. Races usually are at distances of 25 or 50 kilometers, seeing racers start at daybreak (most races start around 5AM). The bigger Naadams, such as the one in Ulaan Baatar, have cars with TV crews following the racers for the entirety of the race, allowing most to watch the lengthy races from home or at a small restaurant.
The riders are always young boys. I have heard that some girls used to race, but I have yet to see a female rider in my time here. The boys are usually very young; I don’t believe anyone who has reached far into the double digits is considered to be a serious contender anymore. They are also very compact, as one would expect a good jockey to be. A few of my smallest students have told me they race in the city’s Naadam, and during a lesson I observed about that very topic, they beamed with pride as they explained the intricacies of the race (all of which were lost on me, as my language skills could not keep up with their quick tongues).
At the conclusion of the race, the winning horses (top 3) are brought to the main announcement booth/stage area. The riders are presented with a bowl of airag (fermented mare’s milk), from which they drink, and then, much to the horses displeasure, the horse’s hindquarters and splashed with the milk as well. A poem is then recited about the horse while the boy is awarded his medal. With that, the race is officially over, and the jockeys take a well deserved rest.