Competing in the horse races at Naadam, Mongolia’s biggest annual celebration, is an important rite of passage for young boys. Though the biggest event is held in the country’s capital, Ulan Bator, smaller regional celebrations like the one I witnessed in Uliastai, western Mongolia, offer a chance to get closer to the action. There were no other tourists there, locals welcomed us effusively with mugs of warm vodka and salted yak milk tea.
The maximum age for a jockey is 12 – some of them are as young as five years old. Helmets have officially been introduced in recent years, but outside of the capital most continue to ride bare back and bareheaded.
The winning jockey clasps a handful of tips. Spectators run to touch the sweat of the winning horse after the race, as it brings good luck. Less fortunate jockeys shed tears of disappointment.
Horse riding skills and the wisdom to select a good horse are essential to the nomadic life, as is endurance. Racing at Naadam epitomises all of these strengths, and is symbolic of the fact a nomad’s life is not possible without his animals.