ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 2 ‘Mongolian Horse Racing’

Mongolian Horse Racing: tradition or tragedy?

By Melissa Duffy

Photo: ‘Naadam’ by Paulo Fassina (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Attending The Naadam

According to the Mongolian Tourism Industry, Mongolia is ‘the land of horse riders and horse lovers with at least one horse for every Mongolian, meaning there are over 3 million horses (MTI 2017).

I was fortunate to attend a local Naadam festival event and for the first time witnessed one of the epic Mongolian horse races. Mongolia’s horse races are between 15-30km long, depending upon the age of the horse. Jockeys are often children between seven and twelve years old and the horses must have a high level of endurance and stamina.

I spent quite a bit of time standing back absorbing the atmosphere, watching the Mongolian riders parading around in groups (I assume herding families and friends enjoying the catch-up time), showing off their riding skills and their horses. They were having such a great time just being together and enjoying the community event. The traditional clothing was beautiful, people were relaxed and smiling and even the horses seemed to be ‘talking’ to one another.

When someone got word the jockeys were nearing the end of the 20km race everyone ran or rode to the finish line and waited with much anticipation. A group of young boys and men gathered on their horses. As they were mounted up high they were some of the first to see the racehorses appear over the horizon to which in chorus they started calling loudly. Exhausted jockeys and horses responded to the calls and pushed hard to the finish line.

According to Mongolian tourism, at the National Naadam, the five winning horses from every official race receive awards and medals. The riders receive gifts and the trainers, significant monetary awards and titles. Mongolians do not bet on horse races, it is all about the pride and victory of continuing a long tradition. It is also more about the horses than the riders. Names and titles are important and can indicate if the horses have won a race before. If a horse has won more than four State Naadams, which is very rare, then the horse is said to belong to all the people of Mongolia and given the title State horse.

Environmental challenges linked to Mongolian herding culture, such as harsh winter weather and living conditions, highlight the traditional importance of being a skilled rider to a family’s survival. I therefore thought it was only natural to hear Mongolian children from an early age learn to ride and it seemed like a natural progression that a national sport would be centred on this craft. However tensions arise between the beautiful traditions of Mongolian culture, modern day racing and global human rights agendas.

Photo: Bulgan Naadam, by ‘WhatsAllThisThen’ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The welfare of the child

As part of our intensive field course, during visits to the Mongolian Red Cross and Save the Children, we were briefed on issues concerning child poverty, child labour, abuse and living standards. Some believe that, around the time of transition to democracy and a market economy, Mongolia’s horse racing tradition has been tainted by greed, corruption and ambition at the expense of vulnerable children and poor families. Many human rights activists are now expressing concern over the rise and proliferation of commercial horse racing involving child jockeys.

An academic article by Rebecca Empson emphasises the accumulation of wealth and the dangers of excess in a market economy in modern day Mongolia and the subsequent increase in morally suspect practices (Empson 2012). To many, Mongolian horse racing is a growing example of a morally suspect practice. International organizations such as UNICEF continue to voice concern over child jockeys in horse racing (Brown 2014). In May 2006, for the first time, the issue of child jockeys was discussed at the National Forum of Child Jockeys, organised jointly by the National Department for Children, National Human Rights Commission and National Sports Committee of Mongolia with financial and technical support from ILO’s International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour (IPEC) (ILO 2006). 

According to the National Human Rights Commission Mongolia (NHRCM) more than 30,000 child jockeys compete in horse races each year (ILO 2006). It is now law that children below the age of seven are no longer allowed to ride in the Naadam, although many children still know how to ride horses by the age of three. In Naadams, officially organised by the Mongolian Horse Trainer’s Association, all trainers are now required to provide riders with helmets, protective clothing and accident insurance. However, there are many reports describing the lack of adherence to such laws in the countryside and a blind eye is often turned when younger riders’ race and things like provision of accident insurance is ignored.

Broken legs, head injuries and facial damage are common and child deaths occur with added risk of being trampled after a fall during a race. With no insurance for jockeys that can no longer ride, already desperate families can be thrown into further economic and psychological despair. According to child rights defenders, children can be hired informally to take part for as little as a bicycle, a set of schoolbooks, or up to 150,000 tugriks (AUSD110) and, while the rider goes uninsured, winning horses may be insured for millions of tugriks (Brown 2014). Ownership of livestock is an important measure of success for rural voters, many of whom continue to lead traditional pastoral lives. Riders are often sponsored by local politicians, who also promote their personal ownership of race horses during their campaigns (South China Morning Post).

I can see that, as a country with strong cultural heritage and identity, it is important to acknowledge Mongolian traditions, but at the same time in my view, exploitation of children is not acceptable and it appears further advocacy is required in Mongolia when it comes to horse racing.

 

References

Mongolian Tourism Industry 2017. Naadam Festival Horse Racing Brochure.

Empson, Rebecca 2012. ‘The Dangers of Excess: Accumulating and Dispersing Fortune in Mongolia’ Social Analysis 56.1 (2012): 117-132.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.
International Labor Organization (ILO), 2006. ‘Mongolian child jockeys- balancing cultural heritage with safety’ < http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_071483/lang–en/index.htm>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Lkhagvasuren, Nomin 2013. ‘Mongolian child jockeys race to danger’ < https://www.news.com.au/world/breaking-news/mongolian-child-jockeys-race-to-danger/news-story/f59f14305c80530ae93e733c753d8773>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.

South China Morning Post ‘Conflicts of interest keep Mongolian child jockeys in the saddle’ <http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/2077844/conflicts-interest-keep-mongolian-child-jockeys-saddle>, viewed 10 July 2017.

 

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