Horses are essential throughout the mountains and steppes of the Central Asia landlocked nation of Kyrgyzstan. The nomadic lifestyle of many Kyrgyz people requires horses for nearly everything. Kyrgyz horses are used for transportation, for agricultural purposes, as offers of payment, and simply for companionship in the wide-open spaces and mountains. The horses of Kyrgyzstan are usually small and hardy animals that adjust well to extreme weather and rough terrain.
The value of the horse to the Kyrgyz is matched by the importance of horemanship. Children here often learn to ride before they can walk, and the horse and its rider are often developed in tandem. The Kyrgyz see their horses as extensions of themselves and abide by their proverb – “A horse is a man’s wings”.
Kyrgyzstabn’s horse culture and horsemanship are demonstrated through traditional equestrian sports and festivals. In 2017 UNESCO added Kyrgystan’s national horse sport of Buzkashi to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The competition, also known as Kok Boru (“grey wolf”) or Ulak Tartysh, was originally a religious tradition but has evolved into a popular sport in the past century.
Often compared to polo, Kok Boru events mix tradition, performance and horsemanship in a game that features two teams on horseback competing to capture and throw a goat’s carcass into the opponent’s goal. The sport fosters teamwork and unites communities through its various festivals and sports. The National Kok-Boru Federation, established in 1998, promotes the sport and safeguards it’s traditions and rules.
One other Kyrgyz horse sport is Oodarysh (“to take down” in Kyrgyz), which is essentially wrestling on horseback. The two competitors roughly poke, push, and throw their opponents to the ground, while their horses stoicly work to provide a stable base for their riders.
The game of Kyz-kuumai (“Catch the girls”) is another Kyrgyz tradition known more as a mock courting ritual than a serious sport. The competition involves a male competitor chasing and trying to catch and kiss his female opponent, while the woman’s task is to whip and lash her opponent. Kyz-kuumai is often performed at festivals.
Photographer Martin Zwick travels the world in search of unique and interesting cultural stories. For images from Martin’s Kyrgyz horse culture collection as well as other features, please contact UIG.