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The Kyrgyz Horse

If you're given only one day's life, spend half of it in the saddle.
Kyrgyz saying

For centuries the horse has personified the nomadic way of life. As well as providing koumys (made from fermented mare's milk) and horse-meat, it was a valued helpmate, carrying yurts and personal belongings as well as people. It was the horse that gave the nomads supremacy over sedentary societies in Central Asia for more than 2,500 years.

Over the centuries, quite a cult built up around the sturdy little Kyrgyz horse. Legends and tales feature horses almost as prominently as people and the animal dominates Kyrgyz sayings and adages ('only a horse and an agreeable conversation can shorten a long journey'). The Kyrgyz language abounds with words for horses of all ages and coats: warriors invariably went to war on 'flat-hoofed, bronze-legged steeds' white heroes of folk songs gallop on mounts that feed on cornflowers'. According to legend, the Kyrgyz horse has: 'eyes as big as bowls. Its muscles ripple as the waves of a great mountain river. Its eyes are keener than a raven's. Its lips are like a ladle. A fist can be passed into its nostrils. Each hoof is as big as a campfire that has burned out.'

Today the car is challenging the horse's centuries-old supremacy, although many people have returned to the saddle as a result of the economic collapse, which has halted vital road maintenance programmes and put petrol beyond many people's means.

In the past nothing was revered more than skill with horses, and equestrian games and races were performed at every festival and celebration. These include alaman-baige, a race involving boy jockeys over a 15-20 kilometre course, and tiyin-enish, in which riders must pick up a coin from the ground at full gallop. Odarysh is a wrestling match on horseback; the idea is to drag your opponent to the ground or, better still, onto your own horse. Competitors are often stripped to the waist and their bodies smeared in sheep fat.

Ulak-tartys or kokber is a rough game played by two mounted teams and involving a goat carcass. The aim is to carry or throw the carcass into the opposing goal (moroo). The battle of the sexes is played out in the kesh-kuumai, or 'kiss the girl', in which a man races across a meadow pursuing a girl on horseback, and tries to kiss her at full gallop. According to the rules, she does all she can to escape, fiercely whipping the unsuccessful man in scorn. If he succeeds, however, according to tradition, she cannot resist falling in love with him.

Equestrian races and games are still performed on special occasions such as Independence Day on 31 August and Nooruz, the spring festival. Other events are often organised al short notice, so it's worth asking around.