15 July 2016

Mongolian Horse Racing - Your Introduction

There's horse racing. And then there's Mongolian horse racing - specifically  the Naadam horse racing.

‘They gallop like the wind and their power is that of a mountain avalanche.’ 
(Song Dynasty Annals) 

The finishing line of a Naadam horse race, Mongolia
Image by our guest Volker Mueller

Horse races in Mongolia are a test of speed, stamina and strength. Tradition dictates that race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. 

In all Mongolian horse races, the jockeys are children - both boys and girls. At the National Naadam, the children have to be over seven years of age. Protective clothing is now law).

So. What constitutes a long race in Mongolia? Anything from 10km up to 27 km depending on the age of the horse. Yep. You read that correctly. 10 to 27km.

Here's the break down:

Race Categories In Brief

Horse racing is completed in age groups and only male horses’ race. 

  • A two-year old horse is called a Daaga and they race roughly 10-12km 
  • A 3-year-old horse is called a Shudlen and they race 14-16km
  • A 4-year-old horse is called a Khyazaalan – racing 18km
  • A 5-year-old horse is called a Soyolon – racing 22-24km
  • A stallion more than 5 years old is an Azarga and they race 22-24km
  • Castrated horses more than 5 years old are known as Ikh Nas and they cover roughly 25-27km

Just so you know, professional level observers in Mongolia don’t like to miss the 3 and 4 year old races and mixed breed races as they want to pick good horses for future races and trading. 

Participants of the five year old horse (Soyolon) race approaching the finishing line, Naadam, Mongolia
Image by our guest Egon Filter

Race Training

Mongolians believe that the qualities of a Mongolian race horse are handed down through the maternal side, by the mares that give birth to them.
Horse trainers are experts at detecting future racehorses by observing external and internal signs that characterise the promising horse. According to old chronicles:
‘A good horse must have a narrow forehead, thin mane and tail, a wide chest, a horizontal back and steady back legs. The pelvic bone must be near the floating rib. Being  constantly at the herd is a sign of valour. Small and straight white teeth show a saddle animal but one who would be ill-suited to long distances.’
The training of the race horses is meticulously carried out in stages, taking into account the age and characteristics of each animal. The aim of each three stages is first to ensure weight loss, then the acquisition of a minimal speed, and finally progression on to the maximum speed.
The determining factors that indicate whether a horse is ready for a race or instead needs to continue training are the consistency and colour of the sweat and droppings as well as the regularity of the breathing.

Weight Loss
The training begins two or three months before Naadam. The horse is left out to graze on the best pastureland but must not put on any weight. For two days it remains tethered. For the third day it is covered with a felt blanket and, at the hottest time of day, led up a slope. 
Proper training regularly alternates with periods of scraping of the sweat with a ‘khusuur', a long wooden pallet often carved with the twelve animals of the zodiac. This is the main method used to eliminate the excess food and increase blood circulation and muscular activity. 

The Tar
The ‘tar’ is a race run as fast as possible over a distance of about one kilometre, used to train the horse to develop regular breathing and the fastest rhythm when running. The distance run is gradually increased. When the horse’s breathing becomes stable again after these races, the time has come for the next stage, called ‘sungaa’ – training over a medium distance.

The Sungaa
Ten days before the competition the horse must run a distance of 10-13 km. Four or five days before the race it runs 15km. This race is meant to develop the horse’s breathing pattern and to determine the results of the training. 

The Winners And The Losers

The top five horses in each class of race are awarded the title of ‘Airgiin Tav.’ Every category has its own total prize money.  Usually winners up to the 10th place receive a prize. 

This image is of the 2016 mixed breed 3 and 4 year old horse race (National Naadam held at  Khui Doloon Khudag). We were at the finishing line watching as they came in. We were told that the winning horse in this specific race would be awarded  Tg 30 million.

Image by EL friend Anne Camille Souris
At the National Naadam, the horses are blessed with airag and a song of praise sung to each. Each horse and  jockey riding those horses receives presidential awards and gifts.The horse trainers will receive monetary awards (see above) and state titles. In order to qualify for state titles, the horse trainers must go through a rating process conducted by the Horse Trainers’ Association. 

It is believed that touching the sweat from a winning steed and being blessed by the dust the horse creates brings good luck and fortune. Mongolians flock to the Soyolon (5-year old horse race) always help on July 12th. The Soyolon is considered the fastest horse and Mongolians believe that by taking in some of the dust of the racing horses, they are then connected to the spirit of the strongest horses. 

If you're considering experiencing the Naadam horse racing, here's a tip: Get there early for the Soyolon race on the 12th - as in hours before the race starts - otherwise you just spend the race sitting in a car park of a traffic jam.

Actually, if you're interested in experiencing Mongolia's Naadam or one of the other annual festivals, why not have  quick look at the Mongolia Festivals page on my EL website. I'm always happy to answer questions so do get in touch. 

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