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Horses as weapons: the ancient sport of kok boru in Kyrgyzstan

James Montague June 5, 2020
The ancient sport of kok boru in Kyrgyzstan

The twelve horses that galloped down the hill were the last to enter the hippodrome, their hooves throwing up sand and dirt that swirled and morphed like a mirage in the early morning sun. The men from Mongolia’s kok boru team – dressed in maroon shirts and wearing shallow, fur-lined caps – struggled to reign their unfamiliar and newly acquired horses into some kind of order. In front of them, on foot and dressed in a bright blue traditional shirt and matching blue fedora, marched Meirambek Mushelbai, giving his team some last minute tactical instructions.

“Keep in line, press them from the beginning,” said the affable team coach encouragingly, before spinning around and pointing to one of his top players, a young man wearing number six on his jersey who was joking around behind his back. “You hear, Bazarbai!” he shouted. “You go first. Make the horse angry!”

Around them, a hundred other men and their horses were doing much the same. They were about to parade in front of the crowd before the start of the most eagerly anticipated event at the World Nomad Games. The games are held every two years in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous central Asian country of lakes and steppe that is as beautiful as it is difficult to spell on a first attempt. The tournament celebrates the sports and pastimes of ancient nomadic cultures. There was, for example, Er Enish, a form of horseback wrestling. And Toguz korgool, a board game that literally translates as “nine sheep droppings”. But these were sideshows. As with the 100 metres sprint in the summer Olympics or the ice hockey in the winter games, everyone wanted to see Kok boru.

Photo credit should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

Kok boru takes many forms and many names; kok par by the Kazakhs and buzkashi in other parts of central Asia like Afghanistan. It is a form of horseback polo that has been played for thousands of years amongst the Turkic tribes of the region. But rather than use sticks and a ball, they play with a recently slaughtered, headless goat that weights 35kg. The matches can be vicious. “The trick,” one member of the Kazakh delegation told me, “is to use your horse as a weapon.”  The stakes were high too. “There’s a lot of pressure on these games,” explained Ulan Bigozhin, an academic from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan who studies kok boru. “The coach is telling you to win. The minister of sport is telling you to win.” The final of a tournament last year between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan ended in a social media war that became something of a diplomatic incident. Kyrgyz players claimed they’d been illegally horse whipped. Death threats were issued. “There was hot blood between the guys,” said Bigozhin. As the World Nomad Games approached the Kazakh team were still fuming, and  refused to send their full team.

But that didn’t mean there would be no Kazakh representation. The vast majority of the Mongolia team come from Bayan-Ölgii, a province in the far west of the country that is 90 per cent ethnically Kazakh. They were drawn to play in the opening game of the tournament against the hosts, where kok boru is virtually a professional sport. As the Kyrgyz team entered the arena they were given a rock star welcome, on stallions that looked sleek and better fed than their Mongolian counterparts. A few moments later, once the parade was finished, the umpire hauled the headless goat on to his horse and galloped into the distance before stopping and dumping it on the floor. He blew his whistle, the crowd of thousands roared, and eight horses and riders – four from Mongolia, four from Kyrgyzstan – sprinted towards a distant pile of fur lying on the sand.

Photo by VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

**

The crumbling hotel complex where the Mongolian kok boru team were staying was a throw back to a Soviet age when Cholpon-Ata was something of a high end beach resort for the local Soviet nomenclatura. The city, which was hosting its third World Nomad Games, can be found six hours drive east of the capital Bishkek on the shores of lake Issyk-Kul. A silver statue of Lenin greets the guests as they enter. “It’s the black cold, a hard cold with a lot of wind that beats you down,” explained coach Meirambek. It’s 6am, on the morning of their opening match, and Meirambek is outside waiting for his players to emerge. They came out sheepishly, one by one, surreptitiously puffing on cigarettes when they thought Meirambek wasn’t looking. It’s cold, but nothing like the minus 40 degrees the players were used to in Bayan-Ölgii. “The steppe produces great players,” Meirambek added. “Our steppe origins means a life on horseback. The mother steppe makes these players.”

The crumbling hotel complex where the Mongolian kok boru team were staying was a throw back to a Soviet age when Cholpon-Ata was something of a high end beach resort for the local Soviet nomenclatura. The city, which was hosting its third World Nomad Games, can be found six hours drive east of the capital Bishkek on the shores of lake Issyk-Kul. A silver statue of Lenin greets the guests as they enter. “It’s the black cold, a hard cold with a lot of wind that beats you down,” explained coach Meirambek. It’s 6am, on the morning of their opening match, and Meirambek is outside waiting for his players to emerge. They came out sheepishly, one by one, surreptitiously puffing on cigarettes when they thought Meirambek wasn’t looking. It’s cold, but nothing like the minus 40 degrees the players were used to in Bayan-Ölgii. “The steppe produces great players,” Meirambek added. “Our steppe origins means a life on horseback. The mother steppe makes these players.”

Life was hard in Bayan-Ölgii with most of the players, like Bazarbai Matai, still making a living from hunting and husbandry. “I’m an eagle hunter,” Bazarbai said proudly. Eagle hunting is a dying art. “We catch whatever we can, sometimes even wolves, and take the pelts,” he explained. “Life is good there, it is a beautiful land. It is in our blood.” Eighty per cent of the world’s eagle hunters can be found in Bayan-Ölgii, and Bazarbai was considered one of the best. He was handsome, cock-sure and charismatic, always joking and making trouble when he thought Meirambek wasn’t looking. Perhaps it was youth, or the natural response to being the best player on the team. Or maybe it was thanks to his brief brush with fame. He had starred as himself in a 2009 Swedish made film, The Eagle Hunter’s Son, about a young boy who wanted to escape to the big city, but who eventually came home, back to his roots. He was difficult to control, but Meirambek knew the team didn’t work without him. “You need a brave heart to play this game,” said Bazarbai. “But we ride horses from the age of four. And this team has the best players from Mongolia.”

Photo credit should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

The players and coaches all went for breakfast together. Over a plate of white bread and egg, Meirambek seemed worried about the day ahead. He was a PE teacher back in his home village, which perhaps explained his paternalistic manner. Meirambek knew he had a good team, and in Bazarbai a great player, but he also understood it would be difficult for his riders to show their full potential without their own horses. It took them four days to drive here as it was, crammed into a tiny bus that rattled through Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, across three separate borders. “The guys are worried and nervous,” he said before the group left for the team bus. “Kyrgyzstan is a good team and we all feel the weight of representing the Kazakhs in Mongolia.”

The team, even Bazarbai, sat in silence as the bus rocked on the unpaved road towards the hippodrome and the near-by stables. It was a scene of chaos. All the other teams were here too, but Meirambek soon realised that the best horses had gone. As the rest of the teams mounted and left, the stable hands brought out the horses they had left. Meirambek inspected them, shaking his head as he did, before his riders argued about who should have which horse. “I’ve played a lot but this is my first championship,” said Arystan Shaitkhan, wearing number four, as he calmed his horse. A few moments before he had been practicing kok boru’s most important and dangerous move; sliding off the saddle, one handed. “I mostly play one against one,” he said. “It’s not like this. It is more like a wrestling match.”

The Mongolian team eventually trotted down the hill, led by Meirambek,  and towards their starting position. “How will we do?” said Meirambek. “Only God knows.”

**

Photo credit should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

It was immediately clear that the Kyrgyz horses were stronger, bigger and faster. Still, Bazarbai was the first rider to reach the goat. He slid out of his seat and hung low to try and grasp the goat, but  was immediately barged out of the way. “Up to 70 to 80 percent of success is the horse,” explained the academic Ulan Bigozhin, as we sat by the touchline next to the coach, sand and dirt swirling around us as Meirambek tried to shout encouragement. “If you compare an ordinary horse, it’s like driving a Honda Civic. But a kok boru horse is like driving a sports car.”

Photo credit should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

On either end of a wide field, 200 metres long, were two large, round pits, or kettles. The object of the game was to get the goat inside your opponents kettle to score a point. The opposition had to stop you, somehow grapple the 35 kilo goat carcass back and then race the 200 metres to the opposite kettle without being stopped. There were regional variations but this team version of kok boru – four a-side drawn from a squad of 12 – was a relatively new invention. The most common form of the game played in Bayan-Ölgii was an all-against-all Royal Rumble version where up to 300 people might be chasing the goat at the same time.

The game played out brutally. Horses were used as battering rams to try and unseat their opposing rider at speed. One of the Mongolian team was knocked clean off his saddle, before dusting himself down and remounting. When the goat was dropped by a Mongolian rider, a Kyrgyz player would swoop in, sliding himself off his saddle to one side, hanging inches from the ground with one hand. Galloping at full speed, he gathered the goat up with his other free hand, hauling the dead weight up to his saddle and sliding back in to his seat in what looked like one fluid, effortless movement. Earlier, back near the stables, one of the referees had shown me the recently slaughtered and beheaded goat. It wasn’t easy lifting it with two hands, let alone one-handed whilst hanging off the side of a galloping horse.

Whenever Mongolia got hold of the carcass they couldn’t go far. They were instantly surrounded by the hunting pack and a melee followed; a sound that mixed stomping, neighing horses with the gnashing of teeth and crunching bridles. Mongolia would inevitably lose every tussle before the Kyrgyz team swept up the goat and scored. And they kept scoring. The Mongolian team couldn’t match the speed of the hosts’ horses. The crowd cheered and even mockingly laughed whenever a Mongolian player dropped the goat. “Our guys are playing as hard as they can. But they don’t have good horses,” Meirambek explained when the first period ended and he tried to give an encouraging team talk. The players looked sullen as they dragged on their half time cigarettes. “Don’t be scared, don’t show cowardice,” he said calmly. “Stalk. Shout. The Kyrgyz side are giving you the opportunity to play. Show them. Push. Play with war shouts. With enjoyment.”

Photo by VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

The team charged out for the second period, but were again beaten heavily. “It didn’t go according to plan,” said Arystan as the second period ended. “I did enjoy it but I’m kind of upset. We scored, we tried our best.” Arystan, like the rest of the team, thought the game was over until they were all called back. In Mongolia they play two periods. In Kyrgyzstan, three. The punishment continued. The game ended 29-7, a record defeat in the World Nomad Games.

Everyone was exhausted and deflated. It had been a crushing defeat. “We scored 7!” said Meirambek, trying to put a positive gloss on the score. “In fairness they let us score seven,” he told me later. Bazarbai was not happy. “You noticed how fast the Kyrgyz horses were?” he said. “If we had the same level horses, we would have won.”

But this was Kyrgyzstan’s day. The next day, Mongolia would show what they could do, by beating Altai, a team from the Russia republic that borders Bayan-Ölgii, 1-0. It wasn’t enough to reach the semi-finals and there was no surprises when a packed hippodrome saw Kyrgyzstan beat Uzbekistan 32-9 in the final. Mongolia, at least, no longer held the tournament record for the heaviest defeat. But that was all to come. Bazarbai, Arystan and the team rode their horses back up the hill and to the stables. They would spend the rest of the day resting, and watching the wrestling. “We will start preparations for the next games,” Meirambek announced jovially, as his players boarded the bus back. “We are proud. We told the world who we are. We are Kazakhs, from Mongolia, from Bayan-Ölgii.” 

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James Montague is an award-winning journalist and the author of four books - When Friday Comes: Football, War and Revolution in the Middle East, Thirty One Nil: On the Road With Football’s Outsiders, The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners and 1312: Among the Ultras, A Journey With the World’s Most Extreme Fans. He has written for the New York Times, CNN, the Bleacher Report, World Soccer, The Guardian, The Blizzard and Delayed Gratification, among others.