- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

BAYANCHANDAMAI, Mongolia

The jockeys are boys between 4 and 12 years of age. They don’t wear helmets. Most of them don’t even use saddles, choosing instead to ride bareback. Some are shoeless, with threadbare socks hanging from their feet.

Though there are more motorcycles and cars these days, and fewer young boys who want to live out here, the centuries-old tradition of racing horses is still alive for the nomads remaining on the windswept Mongolian steppes.

More than half of Mongolia’s 3 million people now live in the urban sprawl of the capital Ulan Bator, and more young people are choosing the excitement of the city instead of the monotony of nomadic life.

Yet every summer, the boys that remain on the grasslands - along with their elder trainers - spend the warmer months readying their horses for the annual Naadam Festival, Mongolia’s most important festival, starting this year on July 11 in Ulan Bator. Running for three days, the festival features the three main Mongolian sports of horse racing, wrestling and archery.

After the major celebration, Mongolians spread out to smaller Naadam fests in their native provinces where the ritual takes place many times during the following weeks until the weather turns cold again.

On June 20, about 50 miles northwest of Ulan Bator, the village of Bayanchandamai held its own horse races and wrestling matches, partly to prepare for the coming main attraction, but mostly because this is what they’ve been doing here on the same day for as long as anyone can remember.

Urtnasan, 31, is a little anxious. Two of his horses are racing this day, and his young rider is untested. Urtnasan had almost missed arriving on time, having to hitchhike the final 15 miles to get here.

His 7-year-old jockey, Bembaduch, from the village is getting his horse ready for the first race. He is using a saddle today, but won’t use one during the Naadam races.

“I haven’t fallen,” says Bembaduch, looking a bit anxious. Asked whether he was afraid of falling off his horse, the boy answers: “A little bit scared.” For the past few weeks, Urtnasan and Bembaduch have been training another horse, a 7-year-old female Mongolian horse, for the Naadam races. That horse isn’t here this day. Instead, they’ve brought a 1-year-old and an 8-year-old, both females, for Bembaduch to ride.

Next year, Urtnasan hopes he can cheer on his 4-year-old son, who is too young to ride in races but old enough to begin to train. But now his hopes are on Bembaduch, who he’s been working with every day.

It takes about 26 days to get a horse ready for racing, he says. They put the horse on a special diet and restrict its feeding times. Most of all they run the horse into shape.

About 50 people gather at noon on a low hill around a pile of rocks with blue prayer flags flapping in the wind and around a small tent erected by monks from the local Buddhist monastery. They’d even brought their own loudspeaker so the mountain gods who they were honoring this day could hear them.

Prayers come before the races. People sing and toss bits of yak cheese and bread, and shake shots of vodka upon the stones as offerings to the mountain spirits. The riders mount their horses and circle the stones, singing songs about their horses.

“You can’t really tell if a horse will win or not,” Urtnasan says. “It depends on the horse and the relationship the rider has with the horse. At first, you have to find out the temperament of the horse. Sometimes this changes from year to year.” A pace car with a broad Mongolian flag flapping above it drives ahead of the 35 or so riders as they walk their horses out a little over 10 miles from the finish line. During the Naadam festival, as many as 200 riders race at once. The first race of the day is an ikh nas, a race of female horses over 5 years old, usually the longest of the Mongolian horse races.

Overall, there are six total race groups, the ikh nas; the daaga, for 1-year-old female horses; the shudlen, for 2-year-old females; the khyazaalan, for 3-year-old females; and the soyolon, for 4-year-old females. There’s also a race for males horses called the azraga.

In his younger years, Urtnasan took many medals during village Naadam races, but never the big prize in the capital.

He is coy about whether he has a good horse this year. He does say that first prize in the Ulan Bator races is about $1,400.

“I think we can win this year,” says Urtnasan, watching the riders fade into the distance.

After a half-hour, they disappear behind the south side of a low grassy mountain above the valley of Khurlin Tolgoi, and it’s another half-hour before they emerge again on the north side of the mountain in a distant cloud of dust. The name of the valley also happens to be the name of the local company that is giving away a brand-new Chinese motorcycle to the winner of the race.

“What’s the best motorcycle in America?” asks Urtnasan, checking out the bike. “I’d like to buy a motorcycle. I’d like to go to America and train horses.” In 15 more minutes, older men ride out to guide the lead horses in, spurring them on and over the next several minutes the riders make their way across the finish line to hoots and shouts from the onlookers.

Bembaduch comes in somewhere in the middle of the pack. No one really counts after the top three cross the line. In the second race of the day, a daaga, he also finishes midrange. There’s still work to do before the big races, and Bembaduch knows it.

“We’re training every day,” Bembaduch says. “You have to be very close to the horse to ride in the festival. You have to have a friendship with the horse. The training is very tiring.”

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