As is clear by now, I really love the Mongolian horses, and one of the most fun parts of a small-town Naadam was having horses all around us. People just seemed to bring ’em along from wherever they came from and were riding all over town. Horses were tied up by the food tents like a row of parked cars, and The Husband kept goading me into making an offer for this one or that.
Horse racing is one of the three Naadam sports, celebrating the tough glory/glorious toughness of traditional Mongolia, and the horse racing now includes a ton of prestige and a whole lot of money. Not only is the prize money high, but people invest and spend huge sums on training and pampering their best horses. It’s no longer the pure, romantic gallop over the steppes, but it’s understandable. The problem is who’s riding those pampered race horses.
As young as five years old, little boys ride full-out for 30 or 60 kilometers/18.6 or 37 miles bareback. It’s horrifying. This boy below actually seems old for the sport — the idea is to minimize the weight on the horse in order to maximize speed.
Here’s another boy post-race:
I kept looking for some positive side to this, asking our guide what the jockeys gain by racing, and there’s not much for the boys. Apparently, all the prize money and prestige goes to the horses, so what families value is having a winning horse, not a winning jockey.
To me, this definitely meets the standard of “harmful traditional practices” (though I am aware the term is usually applied to female genital mutilation, child marriage and dowry-related violence) because it’s so shockingly dangerous. The UB Post published a paid message from some of the international NGOs here that talked about how they understand this to be a deeply-held tradition and want to be sensitive to that tradition, but, really, perhaps it’s time to reconsider? Mongolia signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1990, so there are grounds to argue that child jockeys violate an international treaty that Mongolia agreed to uphold. I’m not sure, though, what it will take to stop this. The rights framework is there, and certainly it would be easy enough to set minimum weight standards for jockeys to meet.
We actually saw very little of the race itself. There’s an old belief that following the dust of four-year-old racehorses is lucky (see what I mean about all status accruing to the horse? I guess it’s good that the best luck ISN’T associated with four-year-old jockeys.) and over time too many people were on the course. In their Land Cruisers. So, we watched from a hill above, then went to the finish when the little clouds had passed by.
Hard to see, in more ways than one.
(NB: The two middle photos were taken by our visiting friend with the good camera.)