Racing in Mongolia

Lining up for the Naadam

We’ll never see a Mongolian horse racing over here in Britain. At a height that rarely exceeds 14 hands they are too stocky and short. But when they run at Mongolia's major cultural festival – the Naadam – they make quite an amazing spectacle.

The first thing that strikes you is the jockeys, aged anywhere between five and thirteen. The second is the distance of the races, 10 miles for the two-year-olds, 17 miles or so for a seven-year-old. The horse breed has been around since the time of Genghis Khan, and the Nedaam for pretty much the same length of time.

The rituals are hundreds of years old too. The night before a race the trainers stay up all night with their horse to keep an eye on its well-being. They're also looking at the dawn sky, because there is a belief that the colour and shape of the clouds will tell you which horses are going to run well. You want a match with your own horse. There are traditional songs at the start and end of each race, and the jockeys have their own song, the Gingo.

There's no discernible track marked out for the race. It's straight across the plains in the heat of the sun. The trainers drive alongside in their pickup trucks urging their jockeys on, and just as it is wherever racing takes place, those few minutes of action marked the culmination of months of training to bring horses to peak fitness.

The expectation of the young boys who are riding is huge, and there’s a fine judgement to be made about when to rein the horse in, to let it go, or to urge it on with the whip (no eight strikes limit here). At the end of the race spectators crowd around the winner believing that if they can touch the horse they will share its strength for the next year.

The winning jockey earns the title of ‘leader of ten thousand’ and there's also particular recognition for the horse finishes last in the Daaga race for two-year-olds. It's awarded the honorary title of ‘bayan khodood’, which means full stomach. You sense there's no ill will felt towards him, as the special song sung to him is one wishes him good luck to be next year's winner.

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