Horse Games: The Kok-Boru Way

While staying in Osh I was lucky enough to catch a game of kok-boru, often known as buzkashi. The sport, which is played in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, is a bit like rugby on horseback. Except the ball is a dead animal. You’ve heard of it before: hundreds of horsemen in a field wrangling over a dead goat. I recently spent a morning crouched on a hillside watching one of these fascinating matches and filed this breakdown of what exactly the sport entails.

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This here is what kok-boru is all about, and by “this” I’m referring to the headless cow slung over the back of that guy’s horse. Technically, kok-boru means “blue wolf”–referring to the players–and it’s typically played with either a goat or a calf. It starts when the calf is decapitated and converted into a football of sorts. (Sorry animal lovers. Don’t hate the player, hate the game). Matches can be played in a couple different ways, but what we saw is sometimes called tudabarai. That means players score points by securing the calf, breaking free of the tussle, and clearing the pack by at least 30 or 40 meters. Do this, and you’ve got yourself a point. Most points wins.

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Here’s what the scene looks like. There were hundreds of horsemen at our event, and things get pretty–er–unstructured. The game takes place in narrow valley shaped like a bowl, and there are no boundaries so the skirmishes can move up and down the valley. But they valley’s steep walls help contain things as horses will lose steam climbing the hillside. The slopes also offer a place for players to duck out for a rest (or for spectators like myself to watch). I noticed that occasionally a horseman would tear away from the pack (without the calf), whipping his horse, and then dive back into the tussle. “He’s preparing the horse,” our guide said. “He’s ready to get sweet,” he added with a bit of poetry. Five minutes later, one of those men burst out of the pack with the calf in his grip.

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When a player seizes the calf, and manages to clear the pack, he’ll be pursued by a dozen or more other horsemen. The standard technique once you’ve gotten the calf is to throw it over the horse’s back and straddle it. The rider uses his heals to hold the calf down, and this means he has to ride–and ride fast–with his feet up above his waist. Players (men only, unfortunately) have to be incredibly strong and agile, and the horses’ abilities are simply beyond measure. In this photo, a horse charges straight up a steep valley wall after his rider captures the calf.
IMG_8387If you show up to play in a bright yellow jersey with the number “1” on it, you’re probably a badass. This guy certainly was. He rode in from Osh (that’s more than 50km away) on what I was told is a $7000 steed. Our man in yellow got the calf more than a few times, but he also took a beating for it. In this photo, he clutches his shoulder after being bit by a horse during a scuffle (yeah, I said bit by a horse). Afterward he took a break and nursed the injury before jumping back into the game.

IMG_8431No, but seriously, the horses bite. The match is essentially a long series of scrums, and we watched this bad biscuit chomp his way through the competition. Some players train their horses to bite during the tussles. Players also frequently use their horsewhips to smack others as they struggle to grab at the calf. And that’s not the only way to get hurt. One unlucky guy made off with the calf only to tumble twenty meters later headfirst into a riverbank of large round stones (miraculously, both man and horse were okay). 
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Both pros and amateurs come to play. The game is dominated by grown men, but dozens of hopeful young boys linger at the fringes to get a feel for the game. They rarely get into the tussle, and never come away with the calf, but they learn the ins and outs of the game. Other players are full-on professionals and make a living at the sport. Our guide talked of a player named Erkin who he says is the best in the game. Erkin, he said, was once the winner of one of the sport’s largest prizes, a Toyota LC200 Land Cruiser. (Hmm, would Ronaldo play for Land Cruiser?)
IMG_8443Before we left, the host of our games–a fellow named Muhammad–graciously stopped by to introduce himself to us. Muhammad was footing the bill for the games in celebration of his father’s 70th birthday. Generally a wealthy patron sponsors the event, offering prizes to attract players. Today’s prizes included a number of rugs, two sheep, a washing machine, and a vacuum cleaner (c’mon, you didn’t really think it was going to be all cows and sheep and shepherds’ daughters). When I asked Muhammad who was his favorite player he paused for a moment and then responded with a smile, “Me.”

The Kyrgyz have a long history as nomadic people, so it makes sense that horses would have a place not only in their livelihood but also in their sports. The game’s history is actually more complicated than this and makes for an interesting read. In the meantime, try to catch a match and be sure to bring a helmet, because the riders we met were more than happy to invite new players into the match.

1 Comment

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