Where: Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia
What’s it about: Horses are both well-loved and essential to traverse the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan; people show off their skills and daring at competition at both national and local events
Horsemanship is a much-revered skill in Kyrgyzstan; due to the horses endurance and good co-ordination in the rugged landscapes, they are traditionally well-loved companions. In keeping with the Kyrgyz love of horses, and their importance in their lives and culture, they feature prominently in their national sports. These popular and unusual games feature at special events and give great pleasure and amusement to the local people.
Ulak tartysh (kokboru)
A great favourite of the Kyrgyz people is ulak tartysh – or kokboru – meaning ‘Grey Wolf.’ The name is said to have come from the herds of cattle exposed to possible wolf attacks while grazing on the steppes and mountains. The shepherds had no means to protect their livestock so brave djigits (horse riders) chased the wolves then beat them with sticks when they fell. The competitive aspect of the game evolved from the djigits trying to snatch the body of the wolf away from one another.
The game involves two teams of equal numbers on horseback fighting for a goat’s carcass. The winning team collects the carcass from the centre of the pitch and delivers it to the opponent’s gates, represented by flags. The game lasts fifteen minutes and players are allowed to wrestle the carcass from their opponent. Conversation is banned with your opponent but the game encourages fast-thinking teamwork between both friends and rivals.
Aht Chabysh is another popular game. The competitors race their horses over long distances, often over 30 miles, testing the horses speed and stamina. The winner and his horse gain honour and glory among the villagers. There are also races for younger foals who are entered for shorter distances; when they turn three years old they can be entered into the main race. Occasions such as holidays and festivals are times for an Aht Chabysh race, and the winner receives jewellery and cattle as prizes.
Another test of the rider’s expertise is Oodarysh, where one rider attempts to throw the other from his horse. This sport is ancient and widespread; the fastest and heartiest horses are chosen for the honour of competing. The aim of the game is to wrestle your opponent from his horse.
Jumby Atmai is a skilful game that requires the player to shoot at a target while galloping. A Jumby is a large bar of precious metal, usually silver, on a thread tied to an inclined pole. The aim is to break the thread by shooting it and bring the jumby down. Bows and arrows were traditionally used before being replaced by firearms.
In Tyin Enmei, the mounted contestant has to pick up a coin from the ground while galloping.
Falconry on horseback is also a common sport, hunting for foxes, wolves and pheasants with falcons and eagles.
These sports are concentrated on men’s participation, however, there are opportunities for women to display their riding skills. Growing up in the highlands where only a horse has the agility to conquer the rough terrain, women learn to ride in their childhood. When racing in kyz dzharysh you can tell the women and girls apart by their headdresses, where girls wear hats with wide trimming and the women wear pretty kerchiefs tied around their heads.
Kyz Kuumai (‘chasing after the bride’) is a beautiful yet unusual game. The man has to catch the woman on horseback and kiss her; if he fails, she can beat him with a whip. The attraction is the bright national costumes they wear and the game draws on ancient chivalry accompanied by the clamour of the crowds. It was traditionally played as part of the wedding ritual with the bride signalling the start of the race with a head start and the groom catching her up in order to prove his love and the right to marry her. The bride has the advantage with the faster horse, so her fiancé must use his skills as a horseman to win over her affections. If he fails, he is beaten with her kamchi (horsewhip) but she doesn’t reject him and they will marry nonetheless.
All these games are still alive and well-loved in Kyrgyzstan; you can get a ringside seat and even participate as a guest in the villages.
Kyrgyzstan Development Gateway
History and details of the popular traditional games.
Guide for traveller’s planning their first trip to Central Asia.
By Jenna Colbourne