Rituals, holidays and festival have traditionally been linked to the Mongolian calendar, which is essentially the Tibetan lunar calendar with additions made for Mongolian nomadic life. The Mongolian calendar is also closely related to the Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese lunar calender.

As is true with the Chinese and Tibetan calenders, each year is named after an animal on the Mongolian zodiac mostly in accordance with the 12 Chinese zodiac symbols (rat/mouse, cow/ox, tiger, hare/rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, hen, dog, pig). Together with this cycle of twelve years is a cycle of ten years in which two subsequent years are indicated with one of five elements (iron, water, wood, fire, earth). These cycles combined give a sixty (12x5) year period of unique combinations of an animal with an element.

Every year is divided into lunar months which usually have thirty days but might be shorter because unlucky days are not counted and some holy days are counted twice. In accordance with Buddhist beliefs each month has four special days of worship: the 8th, 10th, 15th and 25th. The Mongolian lunar New Year, Tsagaan sar, is celebrated during a few days at the end of the 81 days winter period. [Source: Guido Verboom, “A Fire On The Steppes: Religion and public celebrations of Greater Mongolia” ]

Winter is divided into nine nine-day periods for a total of 81 days (nine is in auspicious number for Buddhists). Each nine-day period has a name like “Lambs Must Be Covered” or “Not Cold Enough to Freeze to Soup.” At the end of the 81 days New Year (“Tsagaan Sar”) s celebrated. Periods that occur after New Year include “Dairy Goods Are Plentiful” and “The Animals Cast Off Their Hair.” [Source: Lonely Planet]

There are auspicious days and even hours for conducting business, traveling and taking care of other matters. The horse hour is an auspicious time for meetings. Hair-cutting rites have traditionally been important life cycle events.

Mongolian Holidays and Festivals

Traditional Mongolian fairs like Naadam have traditionally been trade, marriage and entertainment fairs and huge social events, attracting large numbers of Mongolians who bring along their gers and create tent cities in the middle of vast grasslands. The fairs are usually held in mid-May and are believed to be modern versions Ovoos-Worshipping Festivals. An ovoos is a sacred pile of stones or bones with a place for offerings, often situated in the middle of nowhere. Traditional people who gathered at fairs placed stone on the ovoos.

Although Buddhism was suppressed in the 1930s, much traditional custom and celebration survived in the 1980s, with either the encouragement or the acquiescence of the government and the party. During the Soviet era, Communist holidays such as Labour day on May 1st and the day commemorating the Russian revolution in October were introduced. Women’s day which used to be celebrated on March 8 remains an important holiday in Mongolia. [Source: Guido Verboom, “A Fire On The Steppes: Religion and public celebrations of Greater Mongolia”]

Celebrations related to religion often take place near ovoos, often formed on stone altar by the remains of sacrificed animals at sites believed to be inhabited by local spirits. “ In the 19th century, western Buryats held these rituals to coincide with saints’ days of the Orthodox calendar. Mongolians that followed Tibetan Buddhism held similar rituals, often without blood sacrifices, according to the Tibetan Buddhist calendar.

Tsagaan Sar: Mongolian New Year

Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian lunar new year celebration. It is one of the most important events for all Mongols across the country. It lasts fifteen days during which families gather to renew and solidify ties, particularly between young and old, and to repay debts and resolve disagreements. People dress in traditional clothes, tell stories that transmit traditional knowledge, consume traditional dishes, play games, and practise customs that reinforce Mongolian identity, solidarity and continuity. Transmission occurs primarily within families. [Source: UNESCO]

Tsagaan Sar (the White Month) — is celebrated at the same time as the Chinese lunar new year, although contemporary Mongolians deny any Chinese origin or influence. In the 1960s, the government designated it as Cattle Breeders' Day and stopped celebrating it as an official holiday. In 1989, as part of the party's efforts to reaffirm traditional culture, Tsagaan Sar again became a public holiday. The festival retained its prerevolutionary character as an occasion when relatives come together to reaffirm their ties, and juniors honor their elders. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Tsagaan Sar marks the end of Winter and the beginning of the new yeaŕs cycle. Guido Verboom wrote in “A Fire On The Steppes”: The eve before New Years Day is known as Bituun, meaning “to close down”. There is a big amount of “covered food”, where the meat is covered by for instance a layer of dough. Everyone has to try all the dishes. Later traditional games are played. It is said that at Bituun Baldanlham, a local god, is riding her mule. She would be coming by three times so every family puts three pieces of ice on the top of the door of the ger, or on the balcony for people living in an apartment, for the mule to drink. [Source: Guido Verboom, “A Fire On The Steppes: Religion and public celebrations of Greater Mongolia”]

On the morning of the New Year traditionally the head of the family goes outside and walks in a direction which is prescribed in a book of Buddhist astrology. During New Years day itself the children honour their senior relatives. They start with their parents and then following the rules of genealogical seniority the other relatives, presenting them an amount of white food or pastry. White and blue scarves, khadag, are presented to the most honoured. The rest of the festival which goes on for several days, is a celebration of present kinship. It is a occasion to publicly define your kin. One Buryat says his kin-group is “all the people he visited at tsagaalgan”.

“The main shamanistic ritual called the Great sacrifice is held on the third day of Tsagaan Sar. With the Daur Mongols, as described by Caroline Humphrey in Shamams and elders: Expierence knowledge and power among the Daur Mongols, the tsagaan sar is very much related to shamanism. On the eve of the lunar New Year there is an offering to the Sky. In this ritual Seven Stars, also known as seven old men, and all of the spirits of a household are remembered as well. A small table is placed in the yard, on which nine bowls of water and sticks of incense are placed. A huge fire is lit outside the courtyard, its smoke rising to heaven. The heat of the smoke should melt the icicles on the whiskers of the dragon. Furthermore the shaman will have a communal ritual shortly after New Year in his home and there will be a “purifying body ritual” done by the shaman at the beginning of the first month of each lunar New Year. The breast mirror and some coloured stones are put in a pot of water and boils the water, transforming it into arshan – sacred water. And it is splashed over the shaman’s body with a kitchen brush, then over the clan members. The ritual is also to give protection.

“For the Buryats the lunar New Year is very much related to Lamaism. In the monasteries on New Year’s eve rubbish is burned, symbolising people’s sins over the past year and after this a service to Lhame, the protector of the faith. In the more religious families the Lamaist religious paintings are for the only time in the year. The paintings are done in canvas, with a wide silk border and have similarities with the thankas. In front of the paintings lamps of oil and incense are burned and small prayer wheels are turned. Prayers are said in honour of the dead kin and especially for patrilineal ancestors.”


Tsam (Tsaam) in old Tibetan Buddhist festival with religious dramas and mock exorcisms with symbolic characters in grotesque masks and a Buddhist-shamanist god of death in the starring role. Combining elements of a morality play, shamanist rituals and a Las Vegas floor show, it was staged outdoors in an area divided into a mandala. Throughout the performance the characters took turns stabbing a doll with knives. The doll was made of dough and sat in the center of the mandala. It slowly expanded and was cut to pieces and burned

All the roles were played by monks in masks. These included a host of Buddhist and shamanistic characters. Among them were Tserendug (the White Old Man), a former shamanist figure; Citipati (skeletal figures; the rotund Lash-Khan (the patron of art); the grotesque Begze Darma (the Buddhist protector spirit); the birdlike Hindu deity Garuda; and the God of Death and his henchmen. The tsam masks have traditionally been made of paper mache and painted with bright colors. Elaborate ones had precious stones imbedded in them.

In the old days many monasteries had their own tsam dancing troops each monastery had its own types of masks and dance routines. The art form suffered in the Soviet era as monasteries were destroyed and monks were killed. Similar kinds of dances have traditionally existed in Tibet but have also suffered under Communism. See Dance Under Tibet


Naadam is a multiday-day festival featuring the traditional Mongolian sports of horse racing, archery and wrestling. Nadaam (meaning "to play" or "have a good time") is the biggest holiday of the year. Usually held in mid July, it is a time when nomads have traditionally gathered at designated places in the country to enjoy long summer days, catch up on news with old friends and enjoy sports and other events. The biggest Nadaam takes place 50 kilometers or so from Ulan Baatar.

In 2010,Naadam was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: Naadam is a national festival celebrated every year from 11 to 13 July across Mongolia that focuses on three traditional games: horseracing, wrestling and archery. Mongolian Naadam is inseparably connected to the nomadic civilization of the Mongols, who have long practiced pastoralism on Central Asia’s vast steppe. Oral traditions, performing arts, national cuisine, craftsmanship, and cultural forms such as long song, Khöömei overtone singing, Bie biyelgee dance and Morin khuur fiddle also feature prominently during Naadam. Mongolians follow special rituals and practices during the festival, such as wearing unique costumes and using distinctive tools and sporting items. Festival participants revere the sportsmen, sportswomen, and children who compete, and winners are rewarded titles for their achievements. Ritual praise songs and poems are dedicated to the contestants in the events. Everyone is allowed and encouraged to participate in Naadam, thus nurturing community involvement and togetherness. The three types of sports are directly linked with the lifestyles and living conditions of the Mongols and their transmission is traditionally undertaken through home-schooling by family members, although formalized training regimens have recently developed for wrestling and archery. The rituals and customs of Naadam also accentuate respect for nature and the environment [Source: UNESCO].

The first day of the festival is marked with a parade of horsemen dressed like Genghis Khan’s soldiers. Most of the sporting events take place during the first two days. The horses races are big events. There are several categories of horse race, depending on age of the horse, with the main race being the last one, held towards the end of the second day. Two or three hundred riders between the ages 5 and 12 compete at distances of 15 to 35 kilometers. Often, thousands of spectators watch and hundreds of horses and riders compete Food stalls and yurts are set up where the races takes place. Archery contests tale place in an archery field, where men and women aim at a target of fist-size baskets, Men shot 40 arrows at a distance of 75 meters and women shoot 20 arrows at a distance of 60 meters. The wresting matches go on all day the first days. Many Mongolians don’t get really interested until the final round.

History of Nadaam

It is said the Nadaam Fair originated in the Genghis Khan era in the 13th century. At that time, a big "Huli Letai" (a big meeting) was periodically held by Mongol leaders. Many activities conducted at these meetings, such as making laws and regulations, appointing and removing officials, and giving prizes and dishing out penalties. For entertainment wrestling, horse racing and archery contests were held. During the Qing Dynasty, Nadaam were held in league, banner or Sumu unit every half year, year or two years. Winners of the three sports events were given horses, camels, sheep, brick tea, and silk as awards. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

The explorer Roy Chapman Andrews described the Nadaam he saw in 1922 as "an amazing spectacle.” "All the elite of Mongolia gather on the Tola [Tula] River, dressed in their most splendid robes," he wrote. "The archery, wrestling, and horse racing are famous throughout the East.”

In the Soviet era, the Mongolian government sponsored the summer celebrations of Naadam, the traditional Mongol sports of horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Naadam celebrations were held in every somon, in every aymag seat, and in the great stadium in Ulaanbaatar on National Day, July 11. The celebrations attracted large audiences and were one of the few occasions for the normally dispersed pastoralists to gather in large crowds, renew old acquaintances, and make new friends. Wrestlers, archers, and riders dressed in traditional costumes, and a large bowl of ayrag, fermented mare's milk, was poured over the head of the winning horse in a form of libation practiced on the steppes for more than 1,000 years. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

According to UNESCO Naadam was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) Naadam has been passed down from generation to generation and is recognized by Mongolian communities as an essential expression of their nomadic cultural identity; 2) Inscription of Naadam on the Representative List could contribute to the visibility of the intangible cultural heritage while promoting intercultural dialogue as well as mutual respect for cultural diversity and human creativity; 3) The nomination outlines recent and current efforts to safeguard the festival and proposes a coherent plan including the establishment of training centres and the inclusion of teaching programmes in the education system to ensure its viability, supported by the strong commitment of the State and the communities. [Source: UNESCO]

Mongolian Sports: Skills of Men"

Mongolians enjoy archery, horse racing, and wrestling. These are known as “Eryn Gurvan Nadom”, or “Three Manly Games.” Skills in his sports were valued by Mongols of the Genghis Khan era as essential for living on the steppes. Wrestling is a male-only event. Women sometimes compete along side men in archery and horse racing events and often win. Sport competitions are the featured events of Mongolian fairs and prizes range from a goat to a well-bred horses.

Since ancient times, the "Three skills by men" — wrestling, horse racing, archery — have been regarded as the three skills that man should possess. The three manly Mongolia sports can be played any time and everywhere. No special fields, specified equipment or a fixed number of people are necessary to enjoy them. Therefore, the three sports are not only the major fixtures of Nadaam and other fairs and festivals, they are also often enjoyed as weekend entertainment and are ejoyed when people get together for a wedding or summer time in the pastures. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

After work and school Mongol males have traditionally gotten together to wrestle. For a match, they wear a black vest, heavy boots, and sing as they wrestle. There are no weight classes, and the object is to knock the opponent off balance, causing him to touch one knee and one elbow to the ground. In archery, the target is made of a row of small woven leather rings.Some of the rings are painted red. Women often join in. Men shoot 40 arrows from about 75 meters (215 feet), and women shoot 20 arrows from about 60 meters (180 feet).

Mongolian Archery

Mongolian archers engaged in traditional archery use a composite bow made of glued sinew and horn, which can shot arrows up to 350 meters. The bow has no sight and the arrows are made of thin willow twigs and the feathers of the griffon vulture. The points are made of bone, the strings of bull tendons. The target consists of 360 small leather rings fixed on a wall 40 to 50 centimeters high and four meters wide.

In Naadam the men shoot at leather balls that are 75 meters away and women shoot at the same targets at a distance of 65 meters. Men shoot 40 arrows and must score at least 15 to 18 points. Women shoot 20 arrows and must score at least 13 to 17 points. When a targets is truck a short song of praise called a ukhai is sung by a several men standing on either side of the target.

Traditional Mongolian bows are made with ibex and reindeer horn, bamboo and fish guts. They take two months to make and only 40 sets a year are made at a special factory in northern Mongolia.

There are two main archery types: shooting an arrow while standing and shooting while riding. The arrow's pattern, weight and length and the pulling force of the bow can be chosen freely without any limitation. Generally, each one has nine arrows to shoot and three turns and the result depends on the numbers of arrows that hit the target. For standing events the distance from the target to the archer is in accordance with specific conditions, and is usually fixed for a given competition. In shooting while riding the rider draws his bow and shoots while riding a galloping horse on a special track. Generally, the track is a special channel that is four meter wide, eighty-five meter long and half a meter in depth. There are two targets: one the left side and one on the right. Coming into the first target the rider draws his bow while the horse is speeding up and shoots while the horse is galloping at full speed. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

Mongolian Wrestling

Buh (or bukh, traditional Mongolian wrestling) is regarded by many as the national sport of Mongolia and a symbol of Mongolian regional pride. Round-shouldered Mongolia wrestlers often appear abroad in parades dressed in traditional costumes, displaying their medals. It is said the sport was created by nomads based on their wild-horse-breaking techniques. Boys wrestle almost as soon as they learn to walk and are told to settle disputes with bukh.

Mongolian wrestlers wear a traditional “zodog” (open-fronted, long-sleeved leather vest that fits tightly over the back and chest) and “shuuddag” (Speedo-swim-suit-style shorts) and “gutuls” (high riding boots) and a belt. The garments of made of durable silk. High ranked wrestlers wear a “jana”—a collar that symbolizes their ranking. The zodog is made of cowhide or canvas. In some places a pair of loose wrestling trousers are worn instead of the bathing-suit style trunks. A colorful cloth chaplet is often worn around the neck.

Buh reportedly has its roots in shamanism. In the old days, wrestlers were viewed as representatives of local power. A Mongolian professor told a Japanese newspaper, “When a local wrestler becomes weak, it means the strength of the region is also lessened, When he retires, an old wrestler passed down is jana to a promising young wrestler in his hometown to bring the power back to the region.”

Mongolian wrestling is different from Olympics wrestling, Chinese wrestling and sumo wrestling in Japan. There is no fixed number of particpants— as long as they are even numbers such as two, four, six, eight, 16, 32, 64 or 128. All the matches are arranged by drawing lots under the supervision of judges who enjoy high prestige and command universal respect. Tournaments are generally single- elimination competitions in which losers are not allowed to compete again. Half of the people are eliminated every round. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

Hasu is a new kind of wrestling with a five minute limit and a wrestling area similar to sumo. Dog fighting is a sport with elements of boxing and wrestling and performed by humans not dogs.

Nadaam Wrestling Matches

Large matches held at large Nadaam fairs begin with 500 or so wrestlers and have nine knockout rounds. The final 16 are dubbed “Nachin” (Falcons”). The final four are named “Xaan” (“Elephants”). The two finalists are “Arsian” (“Lions”) with an “Avraga” (“Giant”) emerging as the final champion.

In the Soviet era. each wrestler was accompanied by a herald or bard, who chanted verses extolling his hero in a centuries-old format. There was a hierarchy of contests, with the winners at one level going on to the next, so that the national Naadam in Ulaanbaatar brought the champions from all over the country. The winning wrestler was a national hero, and, while the contests had no obvious political content, they provided an opportunity for the political elite and the ordinary people, the herders and the urbanites, to reaffirm their common Mongolian identity and culture. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Wrestling matches begin with ceremonial dances and warm up routines in which the wrestlers leap, dance and flap their arms like great eagles. The dance helps the wrestlers get psyched up. After a match a winner shows off his strength by doing an eagle dance around the loser. If a wrestlers carries the title of an animal he also performs the dance of that animal to begin a bout.

The wrestlers begin the match standing up and the object is for a wrestler to throw his opponent off balance. Like sumo, a wrestler loses if any part of body other than his feet touches the ground. Grabbing and hold on to an opponents clothing is allowed and this is often an essential element of both offense and defense. Traditional buh does not have a ring or time limit and is done outside. There are no weight categories or age limits. The are 600 identified techniques in Mongolian wrestling, including throws, holds and strikes. Many are throws: over the hip, over the shoulder and over the back. Some of them are based on techniques used to bring down horses.

In a match, As soon as the judge gives an order to start, the opponents first shake hands to show respect to each other, and then begin wrestling. There is no limitation of time and the opponents can freely choose any methods they want: such as a pull, kick, trip, push, hold, lift. However, it is not allowed to wrestle while holding the opponent’s legs, kicking arbitrarily, or pulling on trousers. The field for wrestling is relatively small. An area of lawn or soft space is all right. The spectators can sit around on the ground. Before the wrestling start, a challenging song is sung in order to build up momentum and power. Moreover, whenever wrestlers enter or exit the wrestling ground, they have to imitate the action of a bird of prey which jumps to go forward full of power and grandeur. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

Horse Racing

Mongolian horse racing can generally be divided into two: walking race and galloping. In walking (pacing) horse racing, horses are competing for the speed, resistance, steadiness and beauty by letting the horse to run by pacing—the two legs on the same side of the horse move forward together. The horses that run these races are generally older than five years and the riders are always adults. The race require a highly degree of skill among the riders, who aims to rein the horse to walk as steadily, beautifully and as fast as possible, without galloping. Galloping races mainly tests the horses' speed and resistance. Therefore, the winner is the first one who reaches the finish line. The way a horse moves its hooves for galloping is quite different than the pacing used in the walking race. Most of the riders are male children around twelve or thirteen, who are regarded as nimble but light. Galloping horses are often not equipped with saddle or stirrups, for sake of lightening the load of the horse. The horses wear colored uniforms so they can be identified and riders have a red ribbon tied around their heads. The distance of the galloping race is usually 25 to 35 kilometers. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

The short, stocky horses run surprisingly fast and are often whipped by their riders much of the race. The horses are trained to keep going even if the rider falls off. The fate of horse race, Mongolians believe, is more in the hands of the trainer than the rider. Describing, the finish of a Mongolian horse race, Oliver August wrote in the Times of London, “Clouds of dust on the horizon announce the racers’ arrival well before they are visible. As they approach, hooves make the ground tremble and whips and bridles lash the air. At the finish line the horses are tackled and halted by men in striped robes so the animals do not carry on into the next valley.”

As galloping horse racing is more common and widespread than the walking race, more people take part in races and come to watch. When the race starts, riders mount their horses and raise their whips and gallop off. The spectators jump and shout encouragement to the riders. After the race, Top-placing horses are honored in front of a podium and words of praise are recited and sung by distinguished elders. In addition, to traditional ways of horse racing, new types of horse racing have come forth in recent years, such as obstacle races and figure races. ~

Naadam Horse Race

The 28-kilometer children’s horse race is the featured event at Naadam. The race is limited to young boys between the ages of five and thirteen. Before the race starts judges check the age of the horses by examining their teeth and make sure the harness and saddles are tight. Trainers carefully groom their horse’s mane and tails are sprinkle koumiss on the mane for good luck. The riders sing a traditional songs, take a swig of koumiss and splash some on their mount for good luck.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: Naadam is “a gathering that matters more to Mongolians than the Olympics. Children as young as 5 ride in races that can be dangerous, with hundreds of horses thundering across the open plain at once, running at speeds of 30 miles per hour or more. All told, more than 1,800 horses will race over the weekend. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 11, 2008 /]

Describing, a horse race, Robert McCracken Peck wrote in Discover Magazine, "At the opening shout, the young jockeys exploded onto the course and thundered off across the steppe for a distance of eight miles. Then, at the signal to turn, they galloped the same distance back to the waiting crowd. As the roars of excitement subsided, the dust-coated riders and their lathered mounts were literally doused with “airag”. The winning horse was dubbed 'Tumny ekh,' the Leader of Ten Thousand, and the riders were given presents of freshly chopped cheese." [Source: Robert McCracken Peck, Discover Magazine, June 1998]

To start the race the fans sing traditional songs of encouragement and the riders sing a song called “gingo” before the start and shout “goog” while they are riding. After the winner is declared fans scramble to brush the sweat off the horse with a scraper made of pelican’s beak.

The first five horses across the finish line are regarded as winners. The horse, the trainer and the rider are all graded as champions and they are given a reward of koumiss, which the horses drink and the riders have sprinkled on their heads. The last place finisher has a special song sung for him called the “Bayan Khodood” (“Fat Stomach”). The song is about a young rider who tried his best but does poorly because the stupid trainer overfed the horse. The song then goes on to say that the horse will make a comeback next and glitter like gold.

Children and the Naadam Horse Race

Children are chosen over adult riders in the Nadaam horse races not because of age limits or rules but because of their light weight.. Some compete without shoes, saddles or stirrup to save weight. When they ride sometimes it looks as if they are holding on for dear life.

Children begin training the spring before the race on the fastest and strongest horses. Because the race takes place during the hottest time of the year, the horses are wrapped in sheepskins to prepare them for the heat. They are trained not to stop no matter how grueling the conditions are. In the months before the race they are given a special diet intended to give them strength but keep them light.

Sometimes the children are badly injured. They break bones and suffer severe bruising in falls. Some international children welfare groups have lodged complaints against children participating in these races. Mongolians admit the sport can be dangerous but insist the races build strength and character, plus they scoff at the idea of Westerners telling them what to do.

In any given race about 5 percent of the riders fall off. Some children receive life-long injuries. In 1999, one child was killed. In Ulaanbaatar some riders now wear helmets and knee and elbow pads. But there are many places in the countryside where people barely know that such things exist.

Nadaam in Modern Mongolia

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Nearby, in the family’s round felt tent, the boy’s father ran a wire from a satellite dish to a big-screen television. His mother paced around in high-heeled boots. “When I’m in the city, I miss my horses,” the boy, Munkherdene, 13, said. “When I’m in the countryside, I miss my friends and games. I really miss my PlayStation.” Such is the life of a city slicker turned child jockey in the wilds of Mongolia. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 11, 2008 /]

“Munkherdene and his family... are among a growing number of Mongolians from the traffic-choked capital, Ulaanbaatar, trying to get back to their nomadic roots. The boy’s father is a successful businessman, importing electronics, bicycles and mining equipment from Japan. But like many affluent Mongolians these days, he also breeds racehorses. “This summer, I was going to send him to Singapore to improve his English,” the father, Enkhbayar, 49, said of his son. “But he decided to stay with me to help with the horses.” /

“Other traditions are changing, too. Horse racing is among what Mongolians call the “three manly sports”(alongside wrestling and archery), but female jockeys have started to appear. At its heart, though, horse racing is still as rustic an experience here as drinking fermented mare’s milk, and as deeply embedded in the culture. /

“Enkhbayar, a father of four, watched as Munkherdene jumped off the stallion and hitched it to a post. He seems like any 13-year-old boy from any world capital. Last month, he stayed up late to watch matches of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament. He wears a red Manchester United shirt. His favorite PlayStation games are NBA Street and FIFA Street. Munkherdene turned away in disgust one night when a man slaughtered a goat and a sheep outside the family’s kitchen ger. Every teenage boy in the countryside learns how to do this. “I’ve never done it,” he said. “Sometimes I even want to beat the man doing it.” /

“His family is one of dozens that set up gers at midweek here, on the raceground called Khui Doloon Khudag, which means Navel of the Seven Wells. Some of the families are nomads arriving from hundreds of miles away with simple plastic tents and one or two racehorses. Others bring dozens of horses and erect elaborate gers larger than a typical Manhattan studio apartment. (They take several hours to set up.) By Thursday, the place had become the Mongolian equivalent of a state fairground. There were restaurant gers and souvenir gers and trading gers.” /

Nadaam Horse Racing Business

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Horse racing is becoming an industry across the same Central Asian steppes...As the competition intensifies, businessmen are importing larger horses from foreign lands to breed with the small Mongolian horses, the prize money is getting heftier and owners are transporting horses to competitions in trucks and trailers rather than riding them. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 11, 2008 /]

“A racehorse costs anywhere from $300 to more than $80,000, Enkhbayar said. One of his favorite horses is Jiinst, the stallion that Munkherdene was riding. Jiinst’s father was a prize-winning stallion, and Enkhbayar bought Jiinst for breeding purposes when the horse was just 2 years old. /

Some businessmen buy larger horses from abroad — Russia, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, China — for breeding purposes. “We have a belief that stallions and mares, if they’re from far away, they’ll produce fast horses,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if horses are from foreign countries. But the problem with foreign horses is taking care of them in the winter.” /

“Prize money can be big by Mongolian standards. The top prize at Naadam is 1,000,000 togrog, or $870. Prizes at smaller, more select competitions can be even larger — a sport utility vehicle, for instance.”/

The Munkherdene and Enkhbayar family “owns more than 100 horses, which they keep in Tov, a rural province that surrounds Ulaanbaatar. The horses graze on property where Enkhbayar’s grandparents once lived. His father, who worked in the capital for a state-run publishing house, took him there during the summers, teaching him to ride and care for the animals. “Horse owners usually don’t let their sons or daughters race their horses,” Enkhbayar said. “But I let my son start racing three years ago. It’s important to have him inherit the knowledge of horses from me. He’ll continue to train horses.”/

Nadaam Horse Racing Lifestyle

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Munkherdene and Enkhbayar spend their summers traveling across the country from race to race, sleeping in the family’s richly appointed traditional tent, or ger, one that cost thousands of dollars and elicits approving looks from passers-by. “The best thing is the air, and horse riding, and when it rains,” Munkherdene said one evening, as a double rainbow arced across the plains following a twilight thunderstorm. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 11, 2008 /]

“The family drove out to the electric-green grasslands of the raceground on Tuesday from their apartment in Ulaanbaatar. For this occasion they set up two gers, one for sleeping and another for cooking. Their eight racehorses were tethered to posts, brought here by a half-dozen men hired as trainers. When a cold wind blows across these plains, as it does even in the summer, Enkhbayar puts on a thick brown robe called a del. A broad man with a dark, creased face and a wispy goatee, he could play the lead role in a biopic of Genghis Khan. /

Enkhbayar said his horses had won more than 10 medals. Half are pinned to a swatch of red cloth he keeps in the ger. None were won by his son, however. “Now, there are lots of differences between city and country people,” he said. “For example, my son’s classmates want to ride horses in the countryside, but they’ve never tried before. They’re like foreigners because they don’t understand animals.” “My friends always ask me so many questions about horses,” Munkherdene said. “I was 8 or 9 when I first rode a horse. I was very eager to ride a horse, and if someone didn’t let me ride, I’d cry. My father had fast horses, racing horses, and I’d gallop on them. My father would get very angry.” While munching on sheep organs, Enkhbayar was weighing whether to let his son race this weekend. Had Munkherdene grown too heavy? Would he slow the horse down? /

“The next morning brought more concerns. A heavy rainstorm had swept across the plain. Enkhbayar and his horsemen threw plastic tarpaulins over the eight racehorses. “If it rains a lot, I worry,” he said. “The horses could catch cold. Their noses might run.” The normal training routine is to gallop the horses once a day to make them sweat. Heavy rains can prevent that, and it had rained seven of the last nine days. But by midafternoon, blue sky began peeking through the clouds. And Enkhbayar had decided that Munkherdene would ride in what was likely to be his last chance to race in Naadam. “If I place in the top five, I’ll be so happy,” Munkherdene said. “Maybe I’ll cry.” Enkhbayar had other hopes. Next year, he said, his 4-year-old son would start learning to ride.” /

Human Rights Concerns About Child Jockeys in Mongolia

International organizations continued to voice concern over child jockeys in horseracing. According to NHRC reports, more than 30,000 child jockeys competed in horse races each year. Children commonly learned to ride horses at age four or five, and young children traditionally served as jockeys during the national Naadam festival, where races ranged from two to nearly 20 miles. The state bans racing with child jockeys during the coldest period (October 18 through February 13), and there are regulations requiring adequate headwear. Despite greater government and public attention to the risks child jockeys face, enforcement of safety regulations was inconsistent. Observers reported good compliance with safety regulations at national-level races. In 2013 the NAC established a national database to register all jockeys who participate in officially sanctioned national and local races. This database allowed the NAC to monitor compliance with age and safety regulations. According to NAC data, as of September, 7,005 registered jockeys (6,697 boys and 308 girls) had participated in 108 registered races. In these races 13 jockeys received light injuries, while one suffered serious injuries. No deaths were recorded in these races. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Rights Practices for 2014: Mongolia” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State +]

GASI organized public-awareness campaigns on the rights of horse jockeys and reported that, as result of these campaigns, all but three provinces forbade children under seven years to participate in horse races during the year. GASI also signed tripartite agreements with horse trainers, insurance companies, and parents of children that helped all parties to pay more attention to the safety of children participating in races. +\

Community-level races in rural areas continued to present a challenge. According to the NAC, although very specific directions for races were sent to local governors, who possess the sole authority to grant permission for races, people seeking permission for races sometimes attempted to register races them as something else (e.g., a “family gathering”) as a way to avoid the regulations. The NHRC and NAC reported that winter races continued to occur. +\

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 October 2022

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