Prepared for tourists and guides by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Mongolia
You are in Mongolia, the land of horse riders and horse lovers. There is one horse for every Mongolian. By the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015, Mongolia is expected to have 3 million people and the same number of horses. If there is a horse racing event during your visit to Mongolia, we recommend you attend as Mongolian horse racing is unique.
Horse racing is an important part of Naadam, Mongolian traditional games that also include wrestling, archery and ankle bone shooting. If wrestling makes the Mongolian viewers passionate, horse racing makes them cry. Viewers cry either over the horses that endured the long ordeal to reach the finish line, or over the small children that overcome the hardships of the long race with composure and stamina. They even cry over the last tired colt to trot across the line. Therefore, horse racing is a naadam’s soul-touching show. But before viewing the climax of the heartfelt event, spectators must understand the nature of Mongolian horse racing.
Horse-racing takes place outside the city or town you are visiting. Every Mongolian town, village or city including Ulaanbaatar, has a ‘horse field’ which is usually an immense open space designated for naadam horse racing. Such a field must not be urbanized, and must be kept open as much as possible so that the town or city can organize a 25-30 km route that will accommodating all of its dwellers as spectators.
Every Mongolian knows the locations of the horse fields well beforehand, but visitors may wish to know where are you going and when they need to leave the city to view the races of their choice.
So, please learn from your guide the following locations for the races you wish to watch: Location of the send-off ceremony; Location of starting line; Location of Finish line; Where you can eat, use rest rooms and spend time while waiting for the horses; And the locations of particular horse trainers’ camps or gers;
Even though all these places are located in one general area, Hui Doloon Hudag in Ulaanbaatar’s case, please note that the name of the area expresses an entire valley of something like 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. So be prepared to walk a bit to truly enjoy the horse race.
Navigating around the horse field while keeping the group together requires preparation (like wearing similar T-shirts and establishing a rendezvous place to meet at a fixed time, etc.). The entire valley and open space which has turned into a temporary three-day, nomadic city has minimum urban rules. There will be no streets, no signs, no maps, no motor vehicles (except in designated parking areas) and people will be roaming freely on foot or on horseback, while others sit here and there picnicking and enjoying the spectacle. There will be many similar-looking gers and tents everywhere too. Some services including food, toys, drinks, and culture shows are available, as well. In a word, stick together and designate an easily identifiable rallying point and time to reassemble. And bring a camera for the races and the many colorful Mongolian cowboys galloping here and there.
So, how to find the right locations in such a chaotic place?
First of all, the finish line is always fixed and easy to see. There will be chairs and pole for announcing race progress. So, after you park your car, walk toward the finish line with your group and from this location people usually pick a nearby site where they will find each other at a certain hour. Some prefer to buy a ticket and sit and wait for the horses that way, but most prefer to wander around and enjoy horse field life. Because people want different things, it is always a good idea to give each other some freedom of movement and reassemble at the chosen spot at the chosen time.
It’s impossible to see all the horse-races, as other events will be happening in town and you’ll miss them all if you spent all your time on the horse field. So, most spectators go to one or two races of the six main races of pure Mongolian breed: Azarga (Stallion), Ikh Nas (full aged gelding, or 6-year old and above), Soyolon (5-year old), Hyazaalan (4-year old), Shudlen (3-year old), Daaga (2 year-old). Additionally, there are mixed breed races (thoroughbred horses are considered to be mixed breed in Mongolian traditional races).
Each age group races for a different distance. Stallion races are 22-24 kilometers, Ikh Nas are 25-27 kilometers, Soyolon are 22-24 kilometers, Hyazaalan are 18 kilometers, Shudlen are 14-16 kilometers, Daaga are 10-12 kilometers. The exact length of the races are set by the Horse Racing Commission each year.
Viewers have their own favorites. Most men like to see the Stallion and 5-year old horses. Women and families generally favor the Full Age Geldings and 2-year old horses.
Professional level observers don’t like to miss the 3 and 4 year old races and mixed breed races as they want to pick good horses for future races and trading.
The youngest four ages, 2, 3, 4, and 5 year old horses, are called ‘lower ages’, and stallion and full aged geldings are called ‘higher ages’. The lower aged horses race on their particular age group only for one year. But higher aged horses race for their category for up to 10 years. Therefore the latter races are called as the race of “colts of 10 years”.
It means that the winning the race of Stallions and Full Age Geldings is extremely challenging for any horse, and it’s even more difficult to win such races repeatedly.
When we watch Mongolian horse racing we actually watch horses that are ridden by children. By law, no child below age seven is allowed to ride in the naadam although many children know how to ride horses by age three or four. Now the parliament of Mongolia is debating whether to raise the age minimum of horse riders to nine.
Because horses are very competitive, because yelling crowds excite the horses when they are close to finish line, and because children might lose control of excited horses and fall from them, naadam rules assure that horses reach the crowd of spectators near the finish line as calmly as possible.
Tradition dictates that race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. Another reason of such a long straight route might be the tradition of 13th century military cavalry tactics.
When the routes are straight, the horse boys and girls are required to do minimum navigating work during the race. They don’t need to change the course of the race, they don’t need to try to stop the horse, and they only need to let the horses run.
The requirement of a long and straight race route has been serving as the best safety rule for children for many centuries. Falling from a horse is rare but most often happens near the starting line when the horses suddenly all turn together and start moving fast. In naadams officially organized by the Mongolian Horse trainers’ Association all trainers are required to provide the young riders with a helmet, protective clothing and accident insurance. MHA nationwide network serves as the government’s main partner in naadam organizing.
Horses have star power in Mongolia. Star horses have monuments, songs, paintings, lyrics, music and dances dedicated to them!
Star horses have particular titles. If the horse’s name has an additional title such as “tumen eh” (meaning “leader of 10,000”), this means that the horse has won naadams in past. If the title is longer like ‘dayan tumen eh’(multiple leader of 10,000) or ‘darhan tumen eh’ (unbeatable leader of 10,000) etc, then it means the horse has won several important naadam races.
If a truly famous horse is racing, then the announcer will follow its title with the word “state”. When a horse wins more than 4 state naadams, which is very rare, then such a horse spiritually belongs to all the people of Mongolia and therefore deserves a title “state horse” (Turiin Ajnai).
However, people love to see when a Bituu (Unknown) horse wins a race. In each race at least 50 percent of the horses are unknown. To guess which unknown horse might win a race, people go to the Send-off ceremonies of races to assess the composure, look and temperament of the horses.
Besides star race horses, Mongolia’s greatest horse stars reside in our legends, songs and historic documents. For more than 2000 years Mongolia has produced legendary war horses. The most famous are the “Two Palominos of Chinggis Khaan”. Hundreds of songs and legends are dedicated to them. The most recent star war horse of Mongolia is “Sergeant Reckless”a US Army horse in the Korean War. Additionally, thousands of Mongolian horses fought and died in World War II in service to the Soviet Army. They remain under reported in WWII history.
To capture the most beautiful pictures of horses, children and horse-trainers, one must get up early and drive to the Horse Field. At seven a.m. of July 11, stallions will ceremoniously but slowly go off (or to be sent-off by good luck wishers) to their race starting line from the nearby finish line. The stallion’s start line is approximately 25 kilometers away from the ceremony spot.
From 6 a.m. the exotic crowd of over 500 stallions, children and horse-trainers will be gathering and standing at the send-off ceremony location. Horses’ mains and tails will be carefully bundled with leather, some of the mains will be clean cut, and very small saddles will be placed on the backs of the horses.
Children will be wearing helmets, colorful tops with numbers on them, and they’ll be holding small whips.
Horse trainers will be wearing Mongolian deels, boots and holding horse combs. Horse combs are not like really combs, it is more like dull cutters and are made of very hard woods with beautiful ornaments on them. Horse trainers’ hats are fancy. The hats of famous trainers will have red strips hanging down. The more white or yellow lines on the red strip, the more high ranking is the trainer. Some people mistake the horse-trainers’ hats with those of wrestlers. Actually, they are different. Horse-trainers’ hats have a horse shaped silver emblem on top.
In the low light of the morning sun, any photo you take at this ceremony come out magnificently. The most beautiful horse photos can be taken during this gathering. Horses will be gorgeous and shining. So shining that experienced viewers can measure the success of the horse in that particular race by the level of shiny-ness of the horses’ hair and eyes.
It is said that a thin and small-stomach horse will do well if it is a very sunny day coming. However, if it is a rainy or cool day, then a fuller-stomach, thicker horse has a better chance of succeeding.
So, when you visit this send-off ceremony, you can discuss with other viewers which of the trainers fed their horses right the night before.
More important than a good meal, the shinier the hair and the eyes of the horse, the more charged and competitive the horse’s own spirit is said to be. Old timers will tell you that the best prepared horses do not attract flies, and if they poop, it doesn’t smell and when breathing, the horse’s nostrils become wider.
Unknown horses get noticed by expert viewers at this time and experienced announcers make notes of those seemingly well prepared, high spirited horses to watch more carefully during the race.
Horse trainers are usually very nervous during the send-off ceremony. They pray, and carefully attend to the child rider, and remind him/her of the best tactics such as when to whip and when to leave the horse alone, and when to hurry the horse. Horse trainers don’t speak loudly, in fact, they frequently whisper their advice to the rider so as to not be heard by a rival trainer or jockey.
It is not a good idea to ask questions from children and trainers during this short ceremony. It is best to leave them in their own world and just observe and take pictures during the send-off.
Such send-off ceremonies will take place for the full aged Geldings and Stallions at least an hour before the finish line arrival schedule. But for lower aged horses, the send-off ceremony takes more than two hours as all the horses will have to go through formal teeth inspection to confirm their age.
Most photogenic send-off ceremonies are early morning’s, that are: Shudlen for July 10; Stallions for July 11 and Soyolon for July 12 for the national naadam.
One of features of horse watching is to wait for the sent-off horses to reach the start line at their slow pace, and then gallop back toward the finish line. It usually takes an hour. Viewers may spend this hour as they please. They can wander around the kitchen gers (which are many!), visit open-air cultural performances, or pay a pre-arranged visit to horse-trainer gers, or just enjoy an outdoor picnic and play cards or dominos on grass. The whole valley becomes a relaxed picnic area under the horse music.
Yes, there are such melodies in which horse galloping is an inspirational rhythm. The Horse Field sound system will be playing all-time favorite horse praising songs such as ‘Black horse’, ‘Chinggis Khaan’s two palomino’, ‘Mirror Palomino’ etc.
If your tour company arranged a visit to a horse-trainers’ ger, please appreciate it as a special treat. Horse-trainers are very busy during naadam days, and they accept visitors to their gers between the races and right after the races. You’ll find a free drink of mare’s milk, some meat and other snacks in the horse trainers’ gers. You are not expected to pay any money and not expected to give gifts except you wish you give small little treats to children. But you are expected to have permission from the horse trainer if you want to come closer to the horses.
It is not recommended to ask for a ride of the race horses. Also, it is not recommended to touch the horses without the horse trainers’ permission. If you are wearing shorts, short-sleeves, or bright clothing, it is better to keep away from the horses so that they stay calm and give safe rides to the children.
However, chatting with horse trainers and their family members is a fun way to spend time while awaiting the horses. If you don’t know what kind of “horse talk” you could start, just ask “how was the horse pasture this year?” or “in how many naadams has the horse participated?” If you see some medals in the ger, you might ask when the medals were earned and which horses earned them. Such talk leads to a very happy discussions and horse-trainers share their beloved horse’s successes with big smiles.
If dust is unclean thing in the city life, horse field dust is considered wonderful stuff. If there was no rain recently, the horse field will be somewhat dusty. Having some horse dust is considered a naadam special treat.
So, if you are watching the horse race on a dry day, you’ll see horse dust from far away. Of course, horse trainers and naadam viewers prefer the naadam day soil be wet so the child jockeys do not have to breathe dust. But if the race cannot avoid dusty conditions, locals will refer to the old Mongolian saying: Everything in the universe has a reasonable explanation.
So, a good naadam explanation about you becoming somehow dusty and dirty during the horse race is that you’ll have a very good year. You might hear other seemingly ridiculous positive attitude superstitions in Mongolia at other times. In general such positive talk is called ‘good mouth’ or ‘mouth soul’.
Young men love to get dusted from a Soyolon as the 5-year old horse is the fastest. When Soyolon races, kilometers-long line of viewers hunt for places where the wind will blow Soyolon dust on them. Having such dust means the spirit of the strongest horses are connected to them via the race dust.
After the horses reach the starting line and turn around to race, an announcer will loudly inform all the people on horse field that the horses have turned. It means that the race has begun some 20+ kilometers distant. The fastest race finishes in half an hour from the announcement. So, people rush back to their seats alongside the finish line. If the seats are full, people line up alongside a race border line to watch for the arriving horses.
The loud-speaker music will become faster and more horse songs and horse rhythm melodies will be playing. Everybody will be attending to what the announcer has to say. Soon, the announcer will report on the color of the horses that are leading and color of the children’s shirts.
Meanwhile, tourists can observe the behavior of five mounted men sitting somewhere very near to finish line. These five will all have beautiful horses and fancy deels. These are the “horses collectors”. Each of these men is delegated to collect one horse from among first five finishers.
So, when the first horse comes, one of these men will gallop alongside and grab its reins. When the second horse comes, another man will collect it. In this way, the five mean collect the first five finishers – all of which will receive awards. However, special rules apply if two horses cross the finish line at the same time. In that case, the horse whose nose first crosses the finish line wins. If a rider-less horse is among the first five, then it shall be collected only after five horses with child jockeys have crossed the finish line.
When horses with little children ride toward the finish line in front of the crowd, the crowd yells “giin goo” or “guurriii gurriii” in support of the riders. Horse boys and girls whip their horses and sing “gii iin goo oo”. The horses run faster with the children’s call.
For a moment, nothing else matters but the steppe, horses and children. Nothing else is more important, it will seem. May the child carry on, and may the horse reach the finish line after so many kilometers of galloping…
These thoughts, this moment, of seeing the approaching horses makes every Mongolian cry. If you ask your Mongolian friends, they’ll tell you how none of us can watch this moment without tears.
The five winning horses from every race will receive presidential award and medals. The children riding those horses will also receive presidential awards and gifts, and perhaps a Sports Master’s Degree if the child succeeded in multiple competitions. The horse trainers will receive monetary awards and state titles. In order to qualify for state titles, the horse trainers must go through a rating process conducted by the Horse Trainers’ Association.
It is worth noting at this point that Mongolians do not bet on horse races. It is all about the pride of victory and pride of continuing a long tradition of horse-related culture of the Mongols. As well as people of moderate means, many wealthy Mongolians own racing horses and employ trainers. They may arrive at the race sites in fancy Lexus or Mercedes SUVs but their hearts are with their horses.
Horse racing takes place in every province and soum naadam (see the dates of these naadams in the Events Calendar on this website). Even the smallest naadams have good horse races.
The biggest horse race called “Ikh Hurd” (meaning Great Speed) takes place after the national naadam. In this race, the best of the best horses of all state and province naadams compete for high scoring. According to the Mongolian Horse Trainers’ Association scoring system for the best horses, best horse trainers and best horse riders, Ikh Hurd’s first 5 places score double the value of the scores collected at the national naadam.
The Mongolian Horse Trainers’ Association records and conducts most of the horse races in Mongolia. They maintain two websites www.morinerdene.mn and www.hiimori.mn.
The Association also conducts pre-naadam trial races. Such races are very important for predicting naadam results and many horse lovers visit pre-naadam trials.
Horses from the naadam races are not for sale and there is no horse trading activity during naadam. However, a tourist can collect a different kind of horse by visiting the Horse Field. It is called “hiimori” (meaning “wind horse”). The concept of horse exists in every level of physical and spiritual being, according to Mongolian beliefs. One form of horses are “air” or “wind”— the closest meaning of which is ‘spirit’ or ‘high spirit’.
If one has bright eyes, a shining happy face, toughness and composure, a Mongolian might say that you have a good ‘wind horse’.
So, when you visit a Horse Field and if you enjoyed all the races, the dust, cried over the racing children and horses, walked until you can’t walk any more and still remained upbeat and high spirited, then you collected a very good ‘wind horse’.
After all, the horse race’s main gift to spectators is not only the good show, but also lots of “wind horses”.
Many thanks to Tsagaandalai Lkhagvajav, Bat-Erdene Dashdemberel, Narankhuu Batsukh, Enkhbold Miyegombo and Davaasuren Tserenpil for providing information for this article.