The second day of Naadam, I took a bus 40 kilometres out of Ulaanbaatar with Dimitri Kieffer (who is circumnavigating the world by human-power and I’d highly recommend following his journey), who is also in town, to where the horse-racing was taking place. The roads were congested with half the city making the exodus for a family day out.
There was sun, big sky, rolling green hills, crowds of people strolling among the men on horseback. There were food-and-drink gers, all selling Khushoor (deep-fried minced lamb patties) and Shashlik (lamb kebabs). It was a fun, friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
We arrived in time to see the stragglers of the first race crossing the finish line and then making their way hurriedly through the waiting crowds who all wanted to touch the horses because it is supposed to bring good luck.
It was then a long wait until the next race. First the riders (who are all around 6 to 9 years old) rode down to the start where they were given the go ahead (or not) to race. Six years may seem a young age to be racing, but Mongolians learn to ride as soon as they can walk. Besides, the Mongolian horse is small, standing only 12 to 14 hands high, and although strong and sturdy to carry a full-grown man, they would be much slowed by the extra weight.
[If you’re unfamiliar with horses, then they are measured in hands (where 1 hand = 4 inches), at their withers (base of the neck/shoulder) – I ‘outgrew’ my 13.2hh pony by the time I was fourteen, and I was a small child.]
Then they raced off over the horizon in a cloud of dust, followed by a number of 4x4s. We were left to watch the wrestling on the big screen until the cloud of dust reappeared and began moving steadily towards us. The race then showed up on the screens and that was when the crowds started jostling to get a better view … out of the dust the frontrunners appeared. The riders (all wearing the now-compulsory helmet, and some with back-protectors or knee and elbow pads) all willed their horses on with voice, leg and whip towards the finish-line.
You might also enjoy this video (not mine!) about the Naadam horse-races:
And if you haven’t already seen them, there are photos from the Archery and Knuckle-Bone Shooting competitions on the first day of Naadam here.