Kyz-kuumai – “catch the girl” – is a mock courting ritual in which a man and a woman chase each other on horseback. The competitors have vastly different objectives: His is to catch and kiss her, while hers is to lash him with a whip. Festival organizers couldn’t find a Kyrgyz woman wiling to play, so they recruited Inès Beyer, a German expatriate who has lived and worked in the area. Beyer was friendly in conversation, but once she started tearing across the field on her horse – and swinging her whip – I was happy to not be in her way.
The man looked over his shoulder.
“At first you think you don’t want to hit him,” Beyer, 30, recalled afterwards as she struggled to catch her breath and stop laughing. “But when you’re in the game … you do!”
These horse games may be entertaining, but they also illustrate darker aspects of Central Asia’s recent past. Scholars say Soviet authorities maintained a complicated relationship with people in Kyrgyzstan and other Soviet satellites. Although Moscow allowed the Kyrgyz people to practice some of their centuries-old nomadic customs, they also pushed collectivized agriculture. Many Kyrgyz and Kazakhs resisted collectivization in the 1930s by destroying their herds or driving them into neighboring China.
Soviet officials “selected traditions that would strengthen the identity of the Soviet regime,” says Erica Marat, a professor at American University who grew up in Bishkek. “So whatever we understand today about the importance of horses and horse games for the Kyrgyz is what the Soviet Union made locals learn about themselves.” Under Soviet rule, horse games were often played as part of a Moscow-directed “Shepherd’s Day” fair and accompanied by propaganda events, and the ancient nomadic custom of long-distance horse racing was modified so that some races were held, Soviet-style, in stadiums.