We’d been in Kyrgyzstan for roughly 32 hours when we stepped out of the car in the town of Cholpan Ata. Still drowning in jet lag after a 42-hour cross globe transit, we looked around at the very modern parking lot we had just arrived too and took in the towering buildings that stood before us.
As my eyes followed the length of the building to the top, it took only a quick observation to realize there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun was doing it’s best to beat aggressively down on our faces through a haze that clung to the air. Jet lag is a fickle mistress.
Tired and slightly out of it we made our way through the entrance and into the gaming complex. Our cameras hanging from us, we were ushered in by the gate security agent and directed towards the field. As we rounded the corner the strength of the sun beat its way into the building and the view opened up to a large stadium.
Walking forward we realized there was already a game in play and that the haze that clung to the top of the building was a direct result of the dust being kicked up.
We had been told the event was called the Manas Games, an official Olympiad type tournament that is held at the end of every summer. It was used as a qualifier for bigger tournaments.
It was explained to us that we would see a series of games that were typical to the Kyrgyz culture. Having never traveled to Kyrgyzstan before, you can imagine our surprise when we entered the stadium to see two teams on horseback, running up and down a field…. with a dead goat.
Wrapping Our Heads Around Kok Boru aka Dead Goat Polo
Think of a game on horseback similar to polo, played more like the rules in soccer and then add a dead goat as the ball. You can’t make this kind of thing up, trust me. Kok Boru is a time-honored tradition among the nomadic tribes of Central Asia.
The object of the game is to pick up the goat carcass from the ground, race it down the field and throw it into their own teams Kazan, a round container that acts as a goal at one end of the field. In doing so, the team earns a point. There are 3, 20-minute rounds to each game.
Much of the game revolves around a face-off scenario where a player from one team defends the goat and the player from the other team attempts to grab it off the ground. This can last for a long time before anyone makes a move. Sometimes, the whistle is blown and they swap out players if the referee thinks it is a draw.
Once a player picks up the goat, the excitement escalates quickly with horses racing, turning and stopping all along the field. It seems all is fair in love and Kok Boru, with riders pushing, pulling, grabbing onto the other riders horses and any other distracting tactic they can conjure up to prevent the holder of the goat from being able to make a run for the goal.
However, once that breakaway happens the goat holder is free to position the goat onto his horse, either by laying it across the saddle in front of him or placing it under his leg between him and the horse.
They are not allowed to wedge the goat onto the horse in any way. Of course, they can also hold it in hand if they choose although this makes steering the horse a challenge, especially at high speeds.
With the race on to the Kazan, it’s all about blocking, diverting and making a clear path for a point. Of course, reaching the Kazan is only half the battle. Heaving the goat into the center of it can be a struggle if not done with enough force.
It is possible for the other team to intercept the goat while trying to toss it in as well. As you can imagine, this part of the game is intense and the whole crowd seems to hold their breath for the result of the play.
We stood at the railing for quite a while trying to wrap our heads around all that was unfolding in front of us. It was so foreign, so exciting, so bewildering and so fascinating all at the same time.
History of Kok Boru in Kyrgyzstan
Documentation as early as the 10th to 15th centuries show that horse games have been a stable part of the nomadic culture in Central Asia.
Not only in Kyrgyzstan but in the neighboring countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Western China, where the same game is also called buzkashi, kokpar, kupkari, ulak tartysh (translating to ‘pulling carcass’) and gokburu.
The literal translation of the term ‘Kok Boru’ is a grey wolf. I know what you’re thinking, what a strange thing to call a game that involves throwing a dead goat carcass into a goal, but hang with me.
Founded in the wilds of Central Asia, Kok Boru originated when men would return to their village after hunting down wolves that had been feeding on their herds of cattle and horses that were left to graze.
The men would entertain themselves by trying to take the wolf carcass away from each other on the return to their village. Whoever had possession of the wolf, when they arrived back to the village, would then throw it at the elder’s yurt in a show of triumphant victory amongst his peers.
This practice evolved through the generations into the game we are able to witness today. Instead of using a dead wolf, the game is played with a goat carcass. Instead of throwing the carcass into an elder’s yurt, it is thrown into a goal.
Kok Boru is recognized as the National sport of Kyrgyzstan and is the main event at the World Nomad Games. It comes as no surprise that Kyrgyzstan took the gold medal in the 2016 World Nomad Games and before you start to think this is a sport only recognized in the far reaches of the globe, the USA had an official team play in the last games held in Cholpon Ata, on the shores of Issyk Kul Lake.
Let’s Talk Horses
During the intermission of the Manas Games, I insisted that we should head over to the stables for a glimpse at the ‘behind the scenes’ life of a Kok Boru horse. What we found was astonishing.
Oftentimes I see horses in my travels that absolutely break my heart. They are underfed, abused, tied up without water and receive no amount of routine care to assist them in comfortably performing the daily tasks they are burdened with. I am no stranger to this.
I am not saying that I was expecting to see this but it wouldn’t have surprised me. So you can imagine how I felt when I approached the security gate to the stabling area and saw a shiny, fat horse standing there with his groom. I didn’t keep it a secret, I was elated.
Seeing my excitement, the groom started chatting with our guide in Russian, wanting to know more about us. He asked the routine questions, where are you from, etc and then commented on how I ‘looked like I knew something about horses.’
The horse gleamed in the sun, his shiny black coat a true reflection of the quality of his care. His mane was trimmed and his tail combed. His feet were donned with shiny, well-fitted shoes and he didn’t shy away when I pet him on the face. He was a tried and true sport horse, treated like a real athlete.
Shaking me back to reality, our guide asked if I would like to ride him. “What?! He’s offering me a chance to sit on his horse? Sure!” I exclaimed. How could I pass up that opportunity? I moved to the other side of the gate and he gave me a leg up.
Sitting on top of the horse was like sitting on one of the many expensive show horses I have owned and cared for in my lifetime. The groom explained to me that these horses are highly trained, very sensitive and responded to not only traditional aids but voice commands as well. This makes sense considering that their Kok Boru riders spend most of their time hanging out of the saddle trying to pick up a goat carcass.
If I wanted him to go forward, I should squeeze my legs and say the command “choo”. If I wanted to stop, I should pull back on the reins and make a “purring” sound. Satisfied I understood, he sent me on my way.
It was only a short ride, but I was happy to have experienced it. I learned that the horse I had ridden was a stallion of top quality and was worth around $15,000USD. I also learned that Kyrgyz people do not ride mares and they also never geld the male horses.
For people that have not grown up with horses, I can understand how it could be terrifying and concerning to see horses being raced up and down a field in pursuit of a dead goat. I completely understand why this would concern you.
However, as a lifetime horsewoman that has spent many years working for Olympic riders and caring for sport horses, I can spot a well cared for a horse from a mile away. Let me tell you, the Kyrgyz people know how to take care of their horses.
Some Words About the Dead Goat
Knowing that the use of a dead animal for sport can be a sensitive issue, we’d like to shed some light on the practices of goat used in the playing of Kok Boru.
At the start of each game, a spiritual ritual is held that involves praying, promises of fair play and ultimately ends with the killing and beheading of the goat that will be used for the upcoming game. The body is sewn up and then placed on the field for the game to begin.
The selected goat will weigh between 70-75 pounds (imagine picking that up while mounted on a horse!) and will be the ultimate prize at the conclusion of the game.
The winning team has the honor of consuming the honorary goat in a celebration feast. It is also widely accepted to prepare a meal with the game goat for any guests of honor in attendance.
Being able to consume a goat that has been used in a Kok Boru match is considered an honor. Now I know many of you may be grossed out by this practice, perhaps some of you may find this brutal or inhumane, however, it is important to try and wrap your head around the culture.
The Kyrgyz people hold their animals in the highest regard and have an immense amount of respect for them as living beings. When the animals are alive, they believe in the concept of a free life for them and let them wander. When they take their lives, they are sure to honor the animal by not wasting it in any way.
This may be a hard concept to grasp when faced with something that comes off as shocking and completely out of the norm for you, but for them, this is part of their culture and a long-standing tradition of their people.
While it might not be your cup of tea, it is important to respect other cultures and not judge them for the way they live their lives.
For us, we don’t go either way. We are not vegetarians or vegans; we have no illusion about the process of harvesting animal meat for consumption in any part of the world. We love to travel, see new places and experience new cultures.
Everything we come across has its own learning curve and we’ve learned that education about how others live far outweighs any time wasted on the judgment. The world is so different and we consider ourselves privileged to be able to experience so much of what it has to offer.
Final Thoughts on Kok Boru
Our introduction to Kok Boru was an abrasive one that took us completely by surprise. Yet, it gave us an insight into the culture of Kyrgyzstan that was able to help us form an intimate bond with the country during our visit.
Kok Boru is more than just a game, it’s a legacy to the Kyrgyz people. What we witnessed at the Manas Games was only our first taste of the sport and as we continued our travels around Kyrgyzstan we found the game in every corner of the country.
It’s not only played at the upper levels but in fields behind villages and in the mountains behind yurt camps. It’s in the blood of the Kyrgyz people and a passion that continues to be passed down through the generations.
As Americans, we know that passion all too well. We’ve seen it in the streets of small towns, the playgrounds at schools and the parks throughout our nation in the form of baseball. A time-honored sport, a tradition through the ages that is played in every school and celebrated from the grassroots, all the way to the professional level.
It is a game that ties together a nation through the good times and the bad; a game with icons that your kids idolize and a game with heart and strategy. America has baseball and Kyrgyzstan has Kok Boru.
Our visit to the Manas Games was hosted by Discover Kyrgyzstan and USAID. This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government. All opinions are 100% mine, as always.
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