Yak racing is a spectator sport held at many traditional festivals in Tibet, such as the annual Shoton Festival which usually falls in August every year and the the Harvest (Ongkor) Festival, which is usually held in September of October. Yak race can be one of the most entertaining parts of a Tibetan horse festival, in gatherings which integrate popular dances and songs with traditional physical games.

Yak racing is similar to horse racing. It takes a highly trained pro to ride a racing yak. Each of the competitors, which commonly number 10 or 12, mounts his yak, and the yaks run towards the opposite end of the race course in a sprint. Yaks can run surprisingly fast over short distances. The winner is usually given several khata (a traditional Tibetan scarf) as well as a small amount of prize money. Yak racing is also known to be performed in parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and in the Pamirs.

During traditional festivals of Tibet, the people dress in their best finery and sing and dance to celebrate the banquet. At the capital of Tibet, Lhasa hugs lots of yak-racing master-hand from all around Tibet. The yaks' massive heads are adorned with red flowers, their backs caparisoned with ornamented saddles. The yak jockeys' whip hands fly as they urge their mounts still faster towards the finish line.

At Yushu, a Tibetan area in Qinghai Province, yak racing has became an integral part of the Yushu Horse Festival and the nineteen-day Darma Festival in Gyangtse, and a comic highlight of the Damxung Horse Festival also known as the Dajyur. Yak racing is also a common sport in the farming and stockbreeding areas on the grand Tibetan Plateau. They hold yak racing events annually to celebrate the good harvest, and they pray for good weather during the coming year.”

Yak Festival and Bull Fights in Tibet

The Tibetan Yak Festival starts from the 15th day of the 8th month on the Tibetan calendar and lasts 10 days to a month, with thousands of people attending. Yaks are regarded as the best animals to sacrifice for divinities. During this festival, people ask a "heiba"(wizard) to recite scriptures and play yak horn horns while yaks and sheep are killed and heavy drinking takes place. Because of the high expenses, this large-sized fair is held only a few times a century.

The Yak Festival derives from Tibetans' awareness of the importance of yak in agriculture and life. During their daily labor, Tibetans develop strong feelings for their yaks, and consequently numerous phenomena of yak culture have come into being. People who take part in the Yak Festival are often blood relatives and elements of ancestors worship are incorporated into the event.

Yaks fight and bull fights are held during a bullfighting festival in Zhexia Township near Shigatse. Bullfighting has been held in Zhexia a long time and is listed as an intangible cultural heritage in the region. During the festival, herds of yaks and wearing traditional decorations are driven to the bullring to fight for the crown.

Horse Races and Sports in Tibet

In Tibet, skills on horseback, such as mounted marksmanship or snatching a khata silk ceremonial scarf from the ground at full gallop, are much celebrated. The participants dress in fancy clothing (including big red hats) from an earlier era and ride gaily decorated horses festooned with copper bells. Horse races are held every year in the northern grasslands and in some other farming and herding areas. The ordinarily dressed participants, mainly young people and adults, race bareback over a ten-kilometer course. In some places people play polo or polo-like games [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 17, 2005]

Attending horse festivals, horseback riding and raising horses are popular activities among many Tibetans. Because of bad road conditions, sometimes horses are the best or the only way to get around. Although these days many Tibetans are using motorcycles rather than horses. But it is hard to love a motorcycle the same way you do a horse. Some herders treat horses as closest friends and intimate family members. Horse racing festivals are a time for Tibetans to mingle and have a good and for Tibetan riders to show off their manliness and bravery.

During big horse races the racing ground becomes a huge campsite, with tents pitched everywhere. Herders attach great importance to the races, and they make preparations well in advance. Among other things, they stop riding their horses to give the animals a chance to rest up. On the coldest day, they bathe the racehorses in icy cold water in the morning. Usually the horses are fed with goat milk, ideally with some crystal sugar added.

Before the horse race begins, the horses entered are trimmed with fancy colors. The young jockeys also put on a festive look by donning gaudy silk gowns with matching trousers and accessories like those worn in Tibetan dramas; some even dress in traditional military attire. After circling round the incense burner in the racetrack center, the horses gather at the starting line. There are short and long races, with the long ones covering a distance of three to 10 kilometers.

The moment the colorful specks appear in the far distance, a commotion begins in the eager crowds, standing on tiptoes and craning their necks, while a medley of cheers, whistling, catcalls, and laughter floats in the air. The climax comes as the horses sprint to the finish line. The winner receives instant acclaim everywhere.

In addition to long- and short-distance horse races, there are horsemanship exhibitions and contests. Track events include races for children and adults; field events include tug-of-war, jump rope, long jump, high jump, and weight lifting. At some places, there are yak races.

Horse Racing Festivals in Tibetan Areas

Horse festivals are big events in Tibet and Tibetan areas of China. The Tibetan Festival in Yushu in Qinghai Province in July lasts for five days. The Khampa Summer Festival in Gyegu in Qinghai Province is one of the largest gathering of Tibetan people, attracting Tibetans from all over western China. In recent years the Chinese government has tried to promote it as a tourism event. The Horse Festival in Lithang in Sichuan Province in August is another large gathering of Tibetans. All these festivals features dancing, folk performances, open air markets and horse racing

The top three horse racing festivals in Tibetan area are: 1) The Yushu Horse Racing Festival, 2) the Ngachu Horse Racing Festival and 3) the Litang Horse Racing Festival. Tibetans camp, party and dress up in their best clothes. There is a lot of dancing and Buddhist ceremonies. Tibetan food can be bought cheaply. You can buy Tibetan herbs and handicrafts and watch the Tibetans do various sports and games. Horse racing festivals and fairs also serve as a traditional occasion for horse-trading. The buying and selling attracts Tibetans from near and far.

The festival riders begin to select their favorite horses many days in advance. Some even buy horses from Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. On the first day of the festival, all the locals dress up and gather together to have fun. Even the horses are decorated with colorful ribbons and flags. Audiences stand by the track, cheering and applauding for the competitors. All riders spare no effort to show their skills and sporting spirit. The horses are raced to see who owns the best horse. The winners receive a lot of honor and prestige. This festivals lasts for about one week. Besides horse racing there is singing, dancing, running, tug-of-war competitions. Tibetan people from local villages and from far away gather together to watch the games and competitions and do business.

Tibetan men and women wear their most beautiful folkdresses and most valuable jewelry. During the festival, people talk about which girl is the cutest, which boy is the most handsome, who is the best dancer and who has the best horse. Many Tibetans have found their husbands and wives at horse festivals. The races and events include single-person-single-horse races, archery on horseback, double-men-double-horse races, shooting on horseback, flower-basket catching on horseback Horse race are also held at large traditionally festivals such as the Shoton Festival, Gyantse Darma Festival, Onqkor Festival and Saga Dawa festival.

Chinese Presence at a Tibetan Horse Festival

On Chinese presence at the Yushu Horse Festival in Qinghai in 2015, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Tibet being Chinese-ruled Tibet, the Himalayan rodeo also had a display of martial force. On the second morning, between races beneath an azure sky, two dozen ethnic Han members of a Chinese paramilitary unit marched through the middle of the race grounds. They held batons and wore helmets and black body armor over green camouflage fatigues. An officer with a walkie-talkie barked orders. As they walked once around the oval track, the mostly Tibetan audience stayed quiet. Then the soldiers marched off. Minutes later, the next race began, with young jockeys clinging to galloping steeds that kicked up clouds of dust. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 19, 2015]

“These days, horse festivals on the Tibetan plateau are not just about equestrian prowess. They are political affairs with a propaganda goal — Chinese officials hold them to signal to people here and abroad that traditional Tibetan culture is thriving, contrary to what the Dalai Lama and other critics say. The image of Tibetans showcased by the festival is one that China has long promoted of its ethnic minorities, that of dancing, singing, happy-go-lucky, costume-wearing, loyal citizens of the nation. But there are dissonant notes, including the presence of Han soldiers, who have been posted to horse festivals across the plateau since a Tibetan rebellion in 2008.

But even as they were swept up in the excitement of the races, for many the occasion was tainted by its role as a tool of government propaganda. “Many people might think Tibet is developing well and in the right direction after watching the horse race,” said Tashi Wangchuk, 30, a businessman in Yushu who is fighting to preserve Tibetan culture. “The government holds this kind of big horse-racing festival to advertise Tibetan people’s lifestyle to the outside world — that our life is very happy and joyful.” The government promotes this image, he said, even as it restricts the teaching of Tibetan language, tries to control Buddhism and presses Tibetans to assimilate into the dominant Han culture. “So much of our lives is controlled by the government,” said a Tibetan man from Sichuan. “This festival is no different.”

Chinese Control of a Tibetan Horse Festival

Reporting from the Yushu festival, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “The opening ceremony was held in town. Most residents could not get tickets because the event was limited to officials and government employees. Mr. Tashi said that had been the case last year, too. “In this way, they ensure that only reliable people can go,” he said. “The grasslands where the main events were held are by an airport about a half-hour drive south of Yushu. On the road there, Chinese flags fluttered from posts, and President Xi Jinping smiled at travelers from a billboard. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 19, 2015]

“Most of the announcements were made by a woman speaking Chinese rather than Tibetan, even though the only ethnic Han attending were a handful of journalists, photographers and tourists. They were ushered to front-row seats so they could get good photoss...Wrestling matches had been scheduled...But in the late afternoon, an announcer said the event had been canceled. People jeered. “They treat us like their children, but this is our land,” one man said. Police officers in black uniforms, most of them Tibetan, told spectators to go home and pointed to the main road back to town, which soon began filling with cars.

“In the early days of Communist rule, horse festivals were local affairs that had minimal government input, if any, said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, the festivals shut down. When that period ended, local governments revived the festivals and maintained control over many. “The political connotation of the government-held festivals was very strong,” Ms. Woeser said. “For example, the once-famous horse festival in Litang was chosen to be held on Aug. 1, which is the day to celebrate the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.” “From the outside, if people see there’s such a horse festival or event, the world thinks this area is very open and free,” Mr. Tashi said. “But it’s not like that.”

Major Horse Racing Festivals in Tibet

Xiangxiong Cultural Festival in Ngari in western Tibet near Mount Kailash usually lasts for the whole August . Xiangxiong is an ancient culture and kingdom of western Tibet that dates back more than 1300 years. The biggest events are horse events, divided into three categories: speed racing, endurance racing, and equestrian show. In 2013, a total of 87 horses participated in the games. The winner in each category receives a 10-thousand Yuan prize. But for most local people, taking part in the competition is enough of an honor. They also weave their horses’ hair into colorful braids and feed them special forage. The trade fair features jerked beef, dairy products and traditional handicrafts. There is also ethnic singing and dancing performances. Art troupes performed the "Xuan Dance", a traditional folk art that mixes dance with narrating and singing.

Ta Gyuk is a horseracing festival is celebrated in September and October at the end of the seventh month or at the beginning of the eight month of the Tibetan calendar every year. Riders in the colorful ancient Tibetan customs and with bows and arrows show their skills. brave. Horse races called dama are held in Gyantse. The most famous horse race is the Dam Jinren in Dam Shong grass land. It had a similar to the DAMA in Gyantse.

Chawalong Horse Festival is held in mid February in Chawalong Village in Chayu County, Nyingchi Prefecture, Tibet. Chawalong has very limited resources, with no access to electricity and phone signals. There are only four roads connecting Chawalong to outside world. However, whichever road you choose, you are going to need to ride horses though some rough sections. Thus, horse is a very important part of Chawalong villagers’ life.

Yushu Horse Racing Festival

Yushu Horse Racing Festival is held near the market town of Yushu, or Gyêgu, in Tibetan,in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Region in Qinghai in the the Amdo Tibetan Area in the last week of July . It takes advantage of the warm weather, so the valley floor has lush green grass suitable for long-distance horse races and tent camping. In 2015 the festival was held on the Batang Grasslands, at 12,000 feet, near Yushu, or Gyêgu and drew thousands of nomads, monks and merchants.

Reporting from the Yushu Festival, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: Women came in finery, wearing bright silk dresses, silver belts and necklaces with turquoise and coral. Men sauntered across the field in boots and cowboy hats. Some nomads had ridden motorcycles for days from valleys in Sichuan Province. They came to this green-carpeted plain for the annual Tibetan horse festival, three days of horse racing, yak riding and archery. “Many people drove motorcycles or sport-utility vehicles. Some held tailgate parties in the parking fields. Entrepreneurs sold steamed buns, watermelon slices, bottled water and yak meat from the backs of their cars. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 19, 2015]

“In the crowd, too, were monks liberated that day from the obligations of monastery rituals. “You don’t want to miss it,” said one, Phuntsok. There were dance performances daily. The number that closed the first day’s events featured a wide circle of dancing Khampa men who wore traditional black robes and red tassels in their hair. The same men returned for a campfire performance at the festival’s end. Horse acrobatics on Day 2 opened with a Khampa man on a galloping horse holding aloft the red flag of the People’s Republic. Tibetan music played over loudspeakers. Other riders followed, one by one. Some shot at a bull’s-eye with a rifle while on a moving horse; others bent to the ground to pick up a white scarf as they raced past.

“The first of the recent government-run Kham festivals was held in the Yushu area of Qinghai Province in 1994 in an effort to “establish Khampa culture as an international brand, to continue the traditional friendship and to promote mutual development,” according to an official Yushu County news website. “Four counties took turns hosting it every four years. Recently, they began holding the festival annually, with Yushu hosting it both in 2014 and 2015, in part to show that the town has recovered from a 2010 earthquake that killed at least 3,000 people. “Lian Xiangmin, a senior researcher at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, said that “there is nothing traditional about this horse festival,” adding, “It’s a tourism event organized by local governments.”

Gyantse Horse Racing Festival

The Gyantse Horse Racing Festival is usually held in late June or early July in the fourth lunar month of the Tibetan calendar. It is said that the Gyantse Horse Race festival started as an athletic competition in the 1400s. As the years went by, it became an important inter-village competition. Buddhist worship and other events and festivities were added in. Events include horse racing, archery contests, wrestling, Tibetan Opera, music and dancing, athletic events and ball games. Religious activities also are part of the event. Tibetan people from different areas dressed costumes unique to their areas. Along with this, there is a swap meet and an open market.

While horse racing and archery is popular all over Tibet, festival organizers are proud of the event being the oldest. There are different versions of the origin of the festival. Some say it was first held in 1408, when the king of Gyangtse gave a decree marking the period from April 10 through 27 of every year for prayers and sacrificial ceremony for his grandfather with entertainment offered on the 28th. By the mid-17th century, the original ritual ceremonies became symbolic and contests of archery on horseback grew to be the most important events for the festival. Nowadays, with all kinds of entertainment and fairs organized it has become one of the most important festivals in Tibet.

Litang Horse Racing Festival in Kham (Maybe Closed)

The Litang Horse Racing Festival in Kham Tibetan Area is a traditional Tibetan festival held in the first week of August in Litang County, Sichuan province. It is the most celebrated holiday in the Eastern Tibetan Plateau. Khams from all over the Tibetan Plateau come to trade, celebrate and ride. Many Khams are nomads and herders.

During the Litang Horse Racing festival horse races are held with small but fast Tibetan ponies. The horse festival is significant because it helps to establish socio-economic hierarchy in Khams who participate. A lot of honor and prestige is placed on who owns the best horse. A very large tourism business has been built up on adventure trips and tours provided by companies who cater to individuals who are interested in horses and horsemanship. These companies travel around Tibet taking groups of tourists throughout the different villages hosting horse festivals. This benefits the nomads' economy as well as the rest of China's economy.

The Tibetans come from far away and set up tents to wait for the big days. The festivities also include jumping competitions and dancing shows. In the racing festival riders show their skills in horseback riding, shooting, and picking up objects while riding fast on horseback. It is a time to see Tibetans decked out in their best clothes. Both men and the women wear their most beautiful folk dresses and valuable jewelry. It is also a good time for trade. Various Tibetan living wares are put on the stands for sale.

The Litang festival in Sichuan was canceled after 2007, when a former nomad and father of 11, Runggye Adak, delivered an impromptu speech at the festival calling for the return of the Dalai Lama. Police officers later arrested him, and jailed him seven years. The festival was still shut down as 2015.

Nagchu Horse Racing Festival

Nagchu (Nagqu) Horse Racing Festival is the grandest horse riding event in northern Tibet. Tens of thousands of herdmen gather outside Nachu city on a vast grassland dotted with tents. The event is held in early August and lasts 5 to 15 days. The festival is an important folk festival in Tibet. People gather in Nagqu Town and construct a "tent city." Many dressing themselves and their finest horses in their best outfits, and thousands participate in the horse races, archery and horsemanship contests. Other folk activities and commodity fairs are also held. August is the peak season for Nagqu grasslands, with stiff winds and rain at night but the sun shining brightly during the day. In August the vast and beautiful green grassland is covered by flowers. There is a vast expanse of grassland on the north side of Nagqu, where thousands of tents are set up during the festival.

A few days before the opening ceremony traditionally dressed Tibetans gather in Naqu County to set up their tents around the horse racing track. Hundreds of tents are packed. Within a few days a crowded temporary tent city appears on the grassland. There are exhibitions, markets, dancing and singing performance, Buddhist activities, different kinds of interesting races, tug-of-wars, long jumping, stone raising, and of course horse racing. After grand opening ceremonies, various recreational and trade activities start, and the horse racing, yak races, tug-of-war contests, rock carrying challenges, sgor-gzhas (Tibetan group dances), and Tibetan operas perform. Dressed in traditional military attire, participants proudly display their riding skills, attracting enthusiastic crowds of locals and pilgrims.

Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “The weeklong event used to be held on the open plains, but ten years ago a concrete stadium was built so Chinese officials would have someplace to sit. When we arrive the next morning, Tibetans pack the stands: women with high cheekbones, high heels, and long braids heavy with silver and amber; men in felt cowboy hats and the long-sleeved coats they call chubas; sockless kids in cheap sneakers. Hawkers sell spicy boiled potatoes and cans of Budweiser. Blaring speakers announce each event in Tibetan and Chinese. It's a rodeo atmosphere, except for the Chinese policemen stationed every ten yards along the bleachers, marching in squadrons around the field, and lurking in plainclothes.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

Down on the field, horse and rider seem to defy gravity. A contestant gallops almost out of control, dangling like an acrobat off the side to pluck a white silk scarf from the ground. Clods of mud propel into the sharp blue sky. Holding the scarf aloft, the Tibetan cowboy wheels his rearing horse to the roar of the crowd. The Nagqu Horse Festival is one of the few surviving events celebrating Tibet's equestrian heritage. Through centuries of selective breeding, Tibetans created a premium horse called the Nangchen. Standing only 13.5 hands high (about 4.5 feet, smaller than most American breeds), fine-limbed and handsome-faced, with enlarged lungs adapted to life on the 15,000-foot-high, oxygen-starved Tibetan Plateau, Nangchen steeds were bred to be inexhaustible and sure-footed on snowy passes. These were the horses coveted by the Chinese centuries ago.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) “ Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China “, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese 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 September 2022

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