My driver dropped me at a grassy pasture overlooking Issyk Kul Lake and the looming Ala-Too Mountains. Camera shutters clicked as roughly a hundred foreign tourists watched young men from a nearby village don jerseys, lace riding boots and adjust their horses’ saddles.
A goat was then decapitated, signaling the start of a kok-boru match.
Not everyone is impressed by the sport. Ashley Fruno, senior campaigner for the Virginia-based animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calls kok-boru an example of “sadistic savagery.”
“While this game may have had its place in the middle ages, we must not forget that it’s now 2011,” Fruno told me in an email message. “England has already banned fox-hunting, Spain is banning the bullfight, with the lesson being that pastimes involving cruelty belong in the past - as they are games of shame that spotlight callousness rather than skill.”
But the nomadic tribes that once roamed Central Asia slaughtered animals to mark important occasions. Traditional nomadic customs here are to some extent disappearing as people migrate to cities, but in many Kyrgyz and Kazakh households animal slaughters are still symbolically important and coincide with weddings, birthdays and religious festivals.
In Jolkolot, once the goat carcass had been hauled to midfield, the horsemen began racing around, cracking bullwhips and trailing clouds of dust. Yaa! Yaa! they yelled. The horses charged, scattering tourists. For more than an hour, the headless goat moved across that pasture with such vigor that I nearly forgot it was dead.
Some westerners liken kok-boru to polo, but in Jolkolot I pictured a hybrid of rugby and a Texas rodeo. Cynthia Werner, a cultural anthropologist at Texas A&M University, says the game appeals to horsemen – not horsewomen – across Central Asia who thrive on danger. Kok-boru is particularly dangerous, she adds, because players must shift their weight frequently as they lunge for and carry the goat, “which is not a light object.”
“Polo is also dangerous,” says Werner, who has watched horse games live and on television in Kazakhstan. “But in polo you’re just holding a stick.”
Kok-boru is the iconic Central Asian horse game, but there are other popular horse-related activities. At the festival in Jolkolot village, I watched demonstrations of the games oodarysh and kyz-kuumai.
Oodarysh – “to take down” in the Kyrgyz language – is essentially horse-mounted wresting. Nomadic young men in pre-Soviet Central Asia once played the game as a means of preparing for war. Eye-poking and finger-breaking is prohibited, but Oodarysh gets rough and rowdy. As I watched two young men spin around on their horses trying to upset each other’s centers of gravity, I marveled at how horses appeared to highlight the primal ties binding man and beast.