Mongolian child jockeys – tradition vs business

We have been travelling through the vast and expansive steppe of the Gobi desert in Mongolia for more than two hours. The driver of our old Russan van was singing joyous traditional songs trying to entertain us. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we stumbled upon a group of about 200-300 people. We needed some exercise anyway, so we stopped. Several 4×4 were parked in line with a few Mongolian yurts (ger) and stalls with food on them. Friendly locals offered kumis (fermented horse milk) and barbecued meat. That was a local celebration of Naadam, the most famous Mongolian festival.

People celebrating the National Naadam somewhere in the Gobi desert; Naadam is the most important Mongolian festival

In that hot July of 2015, I led a small group in central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. I was planning on arriving in Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia, on the first official celebration day of the National Naadam. The idea was to attend and enjoy the National Naadam at the National Stadium for a few hours. I didn’t plan on attending a local edition of the Naadam, as our time in Mongolia was limited. However, luck seems to have been with us.

We approached a group of 15-20 children on horses wearing helmets and race bibs – the jockeys. The festival scene looked like a children party. Some of the participants seemed too young, looking tiny and fragile on the big saddles. Our guide shared that these children horse races are traditional but a bit controversial nowadays because of kids age. Later I read that child jockeys could be as young as five, especially in the rural areas. 

Most of the children horse races are organized during the National Naadam Festival (July). More than 10,000 children participate in 395 horse races across the country at that time.

A girl jockey on her horse participating in the National Naadam somewhere in Gobi desert, Mongolia

A group of child jockeys on their horses participating in the National Naadam somewhere in Gobi desert, Mongolia

We had arrived just on time when the competitors approached the start line. The jockeys leaned forward, gathering the reins in close to the saddle. With a few sharp kicks, the horses launched ahead, disappearing fast into the distance. The scene was emotional, and the crowd started to scream loudly, encouraging the racers.

I became curious to learn more about these contests. Thousands of young jockeys compete every year in Mongolia’s horse races. Several NGOs, UNICEF and child rights advocates say that child jockeys suffer painful injuries and even die in some of the world’s most challenging horse races (the distances are about 24 or more km). Statistics show that 600 children were thrown out of their horses, 169 wounded, and 2 killed for just one year. 

Apart from the Naadam festival horse races, child jockeys are used as entertainment at private parties, illegal races, or participating in winter competitions. This obviously borders exploitation. As poor families often push their very young children into the sport for money, it could also be classified as child labour. Several years ago, human rights organizations and separate individuals started to raise a concern about the issue. More than 1,500 child jockeys were injured in the last several years, and 10 have died in horse races (the figures might not be entirely correct since new cases are added every year). 

When the race was over, the crowd gathered at the finish line, eager to see and congratulate the winner. People were trying to touch the sweat of the racehorses, believing it would bring good luck. I looked at the red-cheeked jockeys, trying to read from the expression on their faces how they were feeling. I could not recognize any unusual emotion, although some of them looked tired and bored. 

A girl jockey on her horse participating in the National Naadam somewhere in Gobi desert, Mongolia

Child jockeys are frequently injured and handicapped in falls. Yet, horse racing is a big deal in Mongolia and thousands of years old tradition, so banning practices or even attempts to influence them would be challenging. Western media emphasize the sad part of the races and children’s rights abuses, which is understandable. The reality, however, is a bit different. Mongolian nomads still have their traditional lifestyle, including children riding horses, which will not disappear any time soon, I think.

Although some individuals and organizations are demanding a total ban for underaged children to participate in all kinds of horse races, most human rights advocates understand the real situation well. Their efforts are practical and aim to reduce the most harmful practices like the illegal and winter races. They also try to prevent young children from participating in private parties where wealthy Mongolians hire child jockeys for entertainment purposes. This is right, I believe! The efforts to be banned the winter races for underaged are important because children tend to suffer from frostbite while they ride in the cold. In wintertime, the visibility is lower, so the risk for children getting lost or thrown out of a horse is much higher. Admirable are also the efforts to be enforced the law calling for jockeys to be at least seven years old and to wear safety equipment. However, all of this is difficult to be controlled in rural areas.

A boy jockey on Historic buildings in old town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria horse participating in the National Naadam somewhere in Gobi desert, Mongolia

Cash prizes for horse racing can reach thousands of dollars. However, jockeys receive only a small part of the money, as big money goes to the “patrons” or the horse’s owners. The main concern is that horse races are becoming more like a business and less like sport or cultural event. In my opinion, this is actually the most important thing – the commercialization of the beautiful tradition. 

Mongolia is going through a deep economic crisis. During our trip, the people we met looked jaded and overworked (35 per cent rural poverty rate). “Tsanlig Battuya, the spokesperson for the group The National Network Against The Worst Forms of Child Labour, believes child jockeys are often exploited, with children from poor families sometimes pushed into the sport.” (quotation from an Aljazeera article). Children who help their parents through hard labour is not a new or unique practice for Mongolia. I have been exploring the subject in countries like India and Bangladesh, where the situation is even more complicated. The question here is whether it would be possible for the old horse’s tradition and culture to survive and be preserved despite the greed and poverty?! 

A group of child jockeys on their horses participating in the National Naadam somewhere in Gobi desert, Mongolia

“No child is obliged to put food on the table,” says Baasanjargal Khurelbaatar, a lawyer based in Ulaanbaatar, who was engaged in the issue. The work of NGOs, UNESCO and all human rights lawyers and advocates for the protection of child jockeys is invaluable. Regardless of all the efforts, the situation with child jockeys remains complicated. 

In conclusion, I would agree with the former Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba:

“If we are pushed to take the children completely off the horseback, it will be non-Mongolian. I think every Mongolian would want to make their children learn to ride horses … we have to draw a line between what is a traditional race and where we have to stop our children.” (quotation from an Aljazeera article). 

References:

UNICEF’s story on child jockeys in Mongolia has received international and domestic media attention. Read the story – http://bit.ly/1tBiuXe.

Mongolia: Born To Ride (video)

A research report “The Rights Of Child Jockeys In Spring Horse Racing” 

Riders on the storm: protecting child jockeys in Mongolia (UNICEF)

Aljazeera tweets and other materials from this news agency.

PHOTO SLIDESHOW

A girl jockey on her horse participating in the National Naadam somewhere in Gobi desert, Mongolia
A group of child jockeys on their horses participating in the National Naadam somewhere in Gobi desert, Mongolia

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Lonely Planet Guide for Mongolia

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