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Kyrgyz Horse Sports

Horses are central to the traditional Kyrgyz way of life and so it is natural that the most important sports activities in Kyrgyz culture all take place on horseback. Most of the activities mentioned below take place at tournaments held on special occasions throughout the year, particularly Novruz on 21 March and Independence Day on the last day of August. Horse games also take place at the more informal chabana (cowboy) festivals that are not fixed events, but which take place at the pre-arranged location at a time that largely depends on the harvest and the pressures of work of the participants.

At chabysh This is a long-distance race that involves experienced riders and horses that are at least three years old. The race is generally held in connection with a public holiday or a festival, and the distant raced ranges between 4 and 50km, but is usually in the region of 20-30km. Although in the past participants included boys as young as ten, these days only those older than 13 are allowed to compete. The name at chabysh is now also given to an official annual cultural and sporting festival that is held in Bishkek and at Lake Issyk-Kul in autumn.

Dzorgosalysh These are horse races that are run at a gallop over a short distance in which speed is the essential ingredient, rather than endurance as in the case of at chabysh.

Jumby atmai This horseback sport involves shooting at a target whilst in motion, either with a bow and arrow or a rifle. Another variation that utilises similar equestrian skills is tiyin enmei, in which coins are picked up from the ground at a gallop.

Kyz-kumay Kyz-kumay ('kiss the girl') or bride-chasing has evolved from a practice that was once part of the traditional Kyrgyz wedding ritual. The object is for a male rider (the groom) to attempt to catch up with a young horsewoman who represents the bride so that he can kiss her. The groom is put at a disadvantage by being given the slower horse and, in addition, the bride is allowed to use a whip to defend herself from her pursuer.

Kyz-dzharysh These are horse races in which only women and girls are allowed to participate.

Oodarysh This is essentially a horseback wrestling competition in which two riders do their utmost to pull their opponent off their horse and throw him to the ground.

Ulak tartysh Otherwise known as kok-boru ('grey wolf), this team game is the Kyrgyz version of the game of buzkashi that is played in other parts of central Asia, particularly northern Afghanistan. The name is said to have come from wolf attacks on herds of cattle that grazed in the mountain valleys of Kyrgyzstan. When they saw wolves attack their herds the djigits (horse riders) would chase them away then beat them with sticks when they fell. The game eventually evolved as djigits tried to snatch the wolf's body away from one another in good-natured competition.

The game is played with a goat or calf carcass and loosely resembles a cross between polo and rugby. The object of the game is to grab the carcass from players of the opposing team and then pitch it into a target circle marked on the ground. Ulak tartysh is a rough, highly competitive game with players using more or less any tricks at their disposal to thwart their opponents. Because of this, participants usually wear heavy clothing and protective headgear (ex-Soviet tank helmets are a popular accessory) to cushion themselves from the whips and boots of the opposing team.

There are two principal forms of the game - Tudabarai and Qarajai. In the former, the simplest version, the goal is to grab the carcass and merely clear it of other players; in the more complex Qarajai version it is necessary to carry the carcass around a marker before depositing it in the scoring circle. Otherwise, the rules of the game are few. Teams must be of equal size - in formal competitions they are usually of four riders. Players may not tie the carcass to their saddles; horses are not permitted to rear up and you are not allowed to grab the reins of your opponent. The playing field is roughly 300m long by 150m wide and competition games are divided into three periods of 20 minutes each.