A Child Jockey’s Rise on the Steppes of Mongolia
By EDWARD WONG
Published by The New York Times July 11, 2008
Children as young as five ride in horse races in Mongolia. Jockeys at a race in Khui Doloon Khudag, Mongolia.
Photo by Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
KHUI DOLOON KHUDAG, Mongolia — The boy rode the stallion in a trot around the camp, cooling it down after a long gallop across the steppe. He was humming his favorite Mongolian hip-hop songs, by groups like Tartar, Flash and Guy 666.
Nearby, in the family’s round felt tent, the boy’s father ran a wire from a satellite dish to a big-screen television. His mother paced around in high-heeled boots.
“When I’m in the city, I miss my horses,” the boy, Munkherdene, 13, said. “When I’m in the countryside, I miss my friends and games. I really miss my PlayStation.”
Such is the life of a city slicker turned child jockey in the wilds of Mongolia.
Munkherdene and his family, who like most people here go by their given names, are among a growing number of Mongolians from the traffic-choked capital, Ulan Bator, trying to get back to their nomadic roots. The boy’s father is a successful businessman, importing electronics, bicycles and mining equipment from Japan. But like many affluent Mongolians these days, he also breeds racehorses.
“This summer, I was going to send him to Singapore to improve his English,” the father, Enkhbayar, 49, said of his son. “But he decided to stay with me to help with the horses.”
Horse racing is becoming an industry across the same Central Asian steppes where Genghis Khan and his warrior hordes once galloped. The biggest race of the year takes place this weekend 30 miles west of the capital.
It is part of the annual Naadam Festival, a gathering that matters more to Mongolians than the Olympics. Children as young as 5 ride in races that can be dangerous, with hundreds of horses thundering across the open plain at once, running at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour. All told, more than 1,800 horses will race over the weekend.
As the competition intensifies, businessmen are importing larger horses from foreign lands to breed with the small Mongolian horses, the prize money is getting heftier and owners are transporting horses to competitions in trucks and trailers rather than riding them.
Other traditions are changing, too. Horse racing is among what Mongolians call the “three manly sports”(alongside wrestling and archery), but female jockeys have started to appear.
At its heart, though, horse racing is still as rustic an experience here as drinking fermented mare’s milk, and as deeply embedded in the culture.
Munkherdene and Enkhbayar spend their summers traveling across the country from race to race, sleeping in the family’s richly appointed traditional tent, or ger, one that cost thousands of dollars and elicits approving looks from passers-by.
“The best thing is the air, and horse riding, and when it rains,” Munkherdene said one evening, as a double rainbow arced across the plains following a twilight thunderstorm.
The family drove out to the electric-green grasslands of the raceground on Tuesday from their apartment in Ulan Bator. For this occasion they set up two gers, one for sleeping and another for cooking. Their eight racehorses were tethered to posts, brought here by a half-dozen men hired as trainers.
The family owns more than 100 horses, which they keep in Tov, a rural province that surrounds Ulan Bator. The horses graze on property where Enkhbayar’s grandparents once lived. His father, who worked in the capital for a state-run publishing house, took him there during the summers, teaching him to ride and care for the animals.
Now he is doing the same for his son.
“Horse owners usually don’t let their sons or daughters race their horses,” Enkhbayar said. “But I let my son start racing three years ago. It’s important to have him inherit the knowledge of horses from me. He’ll continue to train horses.”
When a cold wind blows across these plains, as it does even in the summer, Enkhbayar puts on a thick brown robe called a del. A broad man with a dark, creased face and a wispy goatee, he could play the lead role in a biopic of Genghis Khan.
“Now, there are lots of differences between city and country people,” he said. “For example, my son’s classmates want to ride horses in the countryside, but they’ve never tried before. They’re like foreigners because they don’t understand animals.”
Enkhbayar, a father of four, watched as Munkherdene jumped off the stallion and hitched it to a post. He seems like any 13-year-old boy from any world capital. Last month, he stayed up late to watch matches of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament. He wears a red Manchester United shirt. His favorite PlayStation games are NBA Street and FIFA Street.
Munkherdene turned away in disgust one night when a man slaughtered a goat and a sheep outside the family’s kitchen ger. Every teenage boy in the countryside learns how to do this.
“I’ve never done it,” he said. “Sometimes I even want to beat the man doing it.”
His family is one of dozens that set up gers at midweek here, on the raceground called Khui Doloon Khudag, which means Navel of the Seven Wells.
Some of the families are nomads arriving from hundreds of miles away with simple plastic tents and one or two racehorses. Others bring dozens of horses and erect elaborate gers larger than a typical Manhattan studio apartment. (They take several hours to set up.) By Thursday, the place had become the Mongolian equivalent of a state fairground. There were restaurant gers and souvenir gers and trading gers.
Until the 20th century, horses were in the blood of all Mongolians. Their language has more than 70 words to describe the animals’ coloring. When a great horse dies, its skull is placed atop a cairn on a mountain, and Mongolians make offerings at those sites. Mongolian horses are short and stubby, but that is exactly what helped Genghis Khan conquer half the known world. His warriors could leap on and off their horses in the middle of battle. They also learned to whirl around and shoot arrows while riding away from their enemies.
“My friends always ask me so many questions about horses,” Munkherdene said. “I was 8 or 9 when I first rode a horse. I was very eager to ride a horse, and if someone didn’t let me ride, I’d cry. My father had fast horses, racing horses, and I’d gallop on them. My father would get very angry.”
A racehorse costs anywhere from $300 to more than $80,000, Enkhbayar said. One of his favorite horses is Jiinst, the stallion that Munkherdene was riding. Jiinst’s father was a prize-winning stallion, and Enkhbayar bought Jiinst for breeding purposes when the horse was just 2 years old.
Some businessmen buy larger horses from abroad — Russia, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, China — for breeding purposes. “We have a belief that stallions and mares, if they’re from far away, they’ll produce fast horses,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if horses are from foreign countries. But the problem with foreign horses is taking care of them in the winter.”
Prize money can be big by Mongolian standards. The top prize at Naadam is 1,000,000 togrog, or $870. Prizes at smaller, more select competitions can be even larger — a sport utility vehicle, for instance.
Enkhbayar said his horses had won more than 10 medals. Half are pinned to a swatch of red cloth he keeps in the ger. None of the 10 were won by his son, however.
On Tuesday night, while munching on sheep organs, Enkhbayar was weighing whether to let his son race this weekend. Had Munkherdene grown too heavy? Would he slow the horse down?
The next morning brought more concerns. A heavy rainstorm had swept across the plain. Enkhbayar and his horsemen threw plastic tarpaulins over the eight racehorses.
“If it rains a lot, I worry,” he said. “The horses could catch cold. Their noses might run.”
The normal training routine is to gallop the horses once a day to make them break a sweat. Heavy rains can prevent that, and it had rained seven of the last nine days. By midafternoon, blue sky began peeking through the clouds. And Enkhbayar had decided that Munkherdene would ride in what was likely to be his last chance to race in Naadam.
“If I place in the top five, I’ll be so happy,” Munkherdene said. “Maybe I’ll cry.”
Enkhbayar had other hopes. Next year, he said, his 4-year-old son would start learning to ride.