Festivals, weddings and other events often feature long distance horse races, acrobatic horse riding by both men and women and horse-mounted sports such as buz kashi and “udarysh”—horse-mounted wrestling in which the contestants are stripped to the waist and slathered with sheep fat and try wrestle each other to the ground. In one version of udarysh, two riders on horseback struggle to push their opponent off the horse while riding. The total time given is about 10 minutes. The person who succeeds in pushing his competitor off the horse, falling with or without the animal, wins the contest.

“Kes kumay” (“kiss the maiden”) is a popular sport in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. A man on horseback races across a meadow and chases after a girl on horseback and tries to kiss her while both are riding at a full gallop. The girl does everything she can to escape. If the man fails he gets chased and whipped. If he succeeds, he is regarded as a true “jigit “(master of horsemanship and embodiment of male virtue). It has traditionally been believed that no woman could resist falling in love with him. This sport is associated with the wedding traditions in Kyrgyzstan. Some say it began as an alternative to bride abduction.

Other popular horse-mounted sports in Kyrgyzstan include “chabysh” (a 20 to 30 kilometer horse race), “jumby atmai” (horse-mounted archery), and “tipin enemei” (picking up coins on the ground while riding at a full gallop). In the latter, contestants are permitted three tries and whoever manages to pick the coins is declared the winner of the competition.

Kyrgyz and Horses

Horses are like wings for people of the steppe. Children learn to ride around the same time they begin to walk. Kyrgyz people are no exception. When Kyrgyz children are 7 or 8 years old, they must take horses as their partners and grasp all skills of riding and training them. Kyrgyz people regard horses as holy animals. They ride them, but they generally do not make them pull cart or do farm work or other tough jobs. They treat their precious horses as own family members. In addition to regularly feeding them and providing them with drink, Kyrgyz adorn them with lavish care. Saddles and stirrups are made of the best materials by superior craftsmen. Sometimes their saddles were worth more that their horses. In the old days, Kyrgyz men gave presents of gems and gold to their horses as well as their wives. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities~]

Horses are prized as means of transportation, sources of food, investments and displays of wealth. People use them primarily to get around and herd sheep. They are bred and sold, milked and occasionally eaten. They are prized as sources of koumiss. Homemade horse sausages— said to be made from “the best part of the horse”— sells for about $3.25 a kilo. Even Kyrgyz who live in cities are expected to be excellent horsemen and have a horse and saddle back in their home villages. Manhood is often judged by horsemanship.

Making a Kyrgyz style saddle involves fixing leather to a wooden frame with tiny nails arranged in the pattern of a sheep's horn. Horse harnesses, particularly terdik, are greatly valued by Kyrgyz people. Craftsmen — including metal workers and jewelry makers — take great care and use all their knowledge and skill to create the best possible terdiks. Terdik-making is a complicated art integrating numerous functions that have been carefully developed over many centuries. In the horse harness, one can find harmonious amalgamation of different types of applied arts for which a variety of craftsmen are needed. Jewelers, blacksmiths, felt makers, needle women and weavers are equally important for the creation of the horse harness.

In addition to saddles, Kyrgyz people adorn their horses with various kinds of ornaments and clothes. Sometimes these cost more than its owner’s entire wardrobe. A horse’s appearance is regarded as a measure of status, economic level and skill of a housewife. Kyrgyz people think of horses as their close mates and confidants. When young men marry their wives, they must present their best horses to the wives' families; at the same time, brides must take their best horses to their new homes. Horses are viewed as precious gifts to present a good friend or seal a deal. ~

Kyrgyz Buz Kashi

Buzkashi (literally "goat dragging" in Persian) or kokpar is a Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to drag a goat or calf carcass toward a goal. A competition of power and wits, it has traditionally been the most popular sport among the Kyrgyz. Buz kashi tests people's boldness and their skill at horse training as well as riding. Generally it is played at festivals, important ceremonies and large weddings. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities> ~]

Buz kashi is called “ulak tartysh” in Kyrgyz, meaning “kid grabbing” In Kyrgyzstan, the sport is played with two team who try to throw a goat carcass into a goal defended by their opponents. There are few rules or restrictions. Before the competition, the head and innards of a lamb are removed and the body is soaked in salt water for an hour to tighten the flesh. Each team has six ot seven people at most and three or four in the least. Beside the match field, a 1.5-meters-deep pit is dug. The winner of the match is the team that drops lamb carcass into the pit. ~

To start, a referee puts a sheep in the middle of the match field. After start whistle is blown, all players rush for the sheep. Players display their skills on the field in their ability hold onto the lamb carcass or fight for it against opposing players. The struggles for the lamb are exciting free-for-alls. When a player gets a firm grip of the lamb, he gallops off, with opposing players chasing after him. Then the player might stop his horse suddenly, with the other players being unable to respond, and swerve off in another direction towards the goal. Sometimes the sheep is transferred between teammates just like basketball or soccer players pass the ball. The matches often draw large crowds.

The Kyrgyz have a legend that accounts for the origin of sheep catching (buz kashi). In the time of “Manasi”, the Kyrgyz people fought against the Kalmyk people. “Manasi” led 40 heroes to a battle against the Kalmyk. They found their enemies used many riding skills to steal their sheep and cows, attack their soldiers and kidnap their women and children. Then “Manasi” used a sheep carcass to train his soldiers. The 40 brave men were divided into two teams, They practiced attacking and defending the carcass. After 40 days' practice, they improved their riding skills, and were able to seize back their property from their enemies. From this start, it is said, sheep catching evolved into a sport.

Buz kashi winners are respected and envied. Once the competition is finished, a respected "Akeshaher" presents the headless lamb to the winners. It is said that those who eat one morsel of trophy meat gain the legendary 40 heroes' power and wisdom. Relatives and children of a winner greet him with hugs, kisses and gifts. If the winner is unmarried, many girls show their interest in him by presenting him with embroidered silk handkerchiefs.

Eagle Hunting in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has long tradition of eagle hunting. Although the practice came close to disappearing it is still practiced in certain regions of Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Westerners tend to think of this as falconry – and although hunting with hawks and falcons does take place, it is looked down upon by those who hunt with eagles as a pastime for children and dilettantes.

The season for hunting with eagles is from October to February. The larger eagles malt during the summer months and do not fly. So during the tourist season demonstrations of the art are limited to showing the magnificent birds and flying smaller falcons. Demonstrations can be arranged in Issyk Kul, in the Naryn region and near to Bishkek.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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