adventure travel & photography
Destinations: Pakistan ◦◦ India ◦◦Turkey ◦◦ Egypt ◦◦ Bulgaria ◦◦ Mongolia ◦◦ Bangladesh ◦◦ Jordan ◦◦ Russia ◦◦ Turkmenistan ◦◦ Iran ◦◦ Kazakhstan ◦◦ Japan ◦◦ Hong Kong ◦◦ Greece ◦◦ Ukraine ◦◦ Syria ◦◦ Morocco ◦◦ Italy ◦◦ Mauritania ◦◦ Oman
Type: Photo stories ◦◦ Places ◦◦ Documentary ◦◦ Black and White ◦◦ Fine Art Prints ◦◦ Seascapes ◦◦ Urban
Tours/Expeditions: List with all our scheduled tours and expeditions
We had been driving through the vast Gobi Desert in Mongolia for more than two hours. Our old Russian van driver was singing cheerful traditional songs to entertain us.
Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we spotted a crowd of around 200-300 people. We decided to take a break and stretch our legs, so we stopped. There were several off-road vehicles parked in a row, with Mongolian yurts (ger) and food stalls. Friendly locals offered us kumis (fermented mare's milk) and grilled meat. It was a local celebration of Naadam, the most famous Mongolian festival.
In July 2015, I led a small group to central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. We planned to arrive in Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia, on the first official day of National Naadam. We intended to spend a few hours at National Stadium to experience the festival. We hadn't planned to attend a local edition of Naadam, as our time in Mongolia was limited. However, luck was on our side.
We approached a group of 15-20 kids on horses, wearing helmets and bibs - the jockeys. The festival scene looked like a children's party. Some of the participants seemed too young, and looked tiny and fragile on the big saddles. Our guide told us that these children's horse races are traditional, but somewhat controversial nowadays due to the age of the children. I later read that child jockeys can be as young as five, especially in rural areas.
Most children's horse races are held during the National Naadam Festival in July. More than 10,000 children participate in 395 races across the country.
We arrived just in time to see the competitors approach the starting line. The jockeys bent over, taking the reins close to the saddle. With a few sharp kicks, the horses shot ahead and quickly vanished into the distance. The atmosphere was emotional, and the crowd shouted loudly to cheer on the racers.
I became curious to learn more about these competitions. Thousands of young jockeys participate in horse races in Mongolia every year. Several NGOs, such as UNICEF, and child rights activists have reported that child jockeys suffer painful injuries and even death in some of the most demanding horse races in the world (distances of 24 km or more). Statistics show that in just one year, 600 children were thrown from their horses, 169 were wounded, and 2 were killed.
Horse racing is a popular activity at the Naadam festival, but child jockeys are also used for entertainment at private parties, illegal races, and winter competitions. This is a form of exploitation, as poor families often push their young children into sports for money, which could be classified as child labour.
In recent years, human rights organizations and individuals have drawn attention to this issue. Over 1,500 child jockeys have been injured, and 10 have died in horse racing. This number may not be accurate, as new cases are added every year.
The crowd had 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 rosy-cheeked jockeys and tried to decipher their emotions. There was no visible sign of excitement, although some of them looked tired and bored.
Child jockeys are often injured and disabled in falls, which is a cause for concern. However, horse racing is a big part of Mongolian culture and tradition, going back thousands of years. Banning the practices or even trying to influence them would be difficult. Western media often focuses on the sad aspects of the races and the disregard for children's rights, which is understandable. But the reality is more nuanced. Mongolian nomads still maintain their traditional lifestyle, including children riding horses, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Human rights activists understand the reality of horse racing and strive to reduce the most damaging practices, such as illegal and winter racing. They also work to prevent children from attending private parties where wealthy Mongolians hire child jockeys for entertainment. It is essential to ban underage winter racing, as children are more prone to frostbite while riding in the cold. Furthermore, the lack of visibility in the winter increases the risk of children getting lost or falling off their horses. It is admirable that efforts are being made to enforce the law requiring jockeys to be at least seven years old and to wear safety equipment. However, this is difficult to control in rural areas.
Cash prizes at horse races can reach thousands of dollars, but jockeys only get a small portion of the money. The majority goes to the "patrons" or owners of the horses. This raises the concern that horse racing is becoming more of a business and less of a sporting or cultural event. In my opinion, this commercialization of the beautiful tradition is the most important issue.
Mongolia is in a dire economic state. During our trip, the people we encountered appeared exhausted and overworked (35% poverty rate in rural areas).
"Tsanlig Battuya, the spokesperson for the group The National Network Against The Worst Forms of Child Labor, believes child jockeys are often exploited, with children from impoverished families sometimes coerced into the sport," (Quote from an Aljazeera article).
Helping their parents through labor is not a novel or singular practice for Mongolia. I have researched the issue in countries such as India and Bangladesh, where the circumstances are even more complex. The question is whether the ancient horse tradition and culture can endure and be preserved despite avarice and poverty?
"No child is obligated to put food on the table," says Baasanjargal Khurelbaatar, a lawyer from Ulaanbaatar. NGOs, UNESCO, and human rights lawyers and advocates have worked tirelessly to protect child jockeys, yet the situation remains complicated.
UNICEF's story on child jockeys in Mongolia has received international and domestic media attention. Read the story - http://bit.ly/1tBiuXe.
Aljazeera tweets and other materials from this news agency.
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More about Mongolia
We usually have one or two small groups (max 7/8 participants) per year traveling to Mongolia. If you are interested in joining a group setting out from Europe, please drop me a line. We will provide more information, like dates, a program, and other details.
I organize and lead small groups to Mongolia through my licensed travel agency "Thousand Voyages" Ltd. You can find out more about the guided tours here. A list of all scheduled tours can be found here.