Check Out These Stunning Photographs of a Tibetan Horseback Sport

Kings in ancient Tibet promoted the sport to save money on military training

If a shooter hits a target, he receives a khatag (ཁ་བཏགས།), or ceremonial scarf—but only if he can grab it off a stick held up by the judges without slowing down. The white silk scarves might be the simplest trophy in the world, but they represent the highest respect and honor in Tibetan culture. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
A young rider shoots at the target while passing it on his horse. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
A shooter proudly wraps the khatags around his neck. Participants in the Dzongsar Summer Festival agreed to have no monetary rewards, making the games a pure and enjoyable experience for everyone. This has not only increased participation rates in the races, but it also diminished disagreements between the judges. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
Two men race together as partners in the horseback shooting: one as the lead and one as the shooter. The shooter must make complicated gestures with the gun before he shoots the target, and he cannot pull the reins to direct the horse. The other rider must lead the shooter and horse in the right direction. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
Women in traditional dresses enjoy the race. They will perform traditional dances when the competition has finished. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
In a rehearsal race, a rider makes shooting gestures with his whip. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
The game starts with a normal race to let the horses warm up and get comfortable with the track and the crowd. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
It is illegal to own a gun in China—all the locals who owned firearms handed them over to the government in the 1950s. Now they borrow rifles from the local government for this special occasion. Before the competition, the elders help the young people load their rifles. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
The village leaders act as the judges and dress their hair traditionally for the event. Here they are setting up the white paper target on the side of the track. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
The rifles are filled with real gunpowder but fake bullets: barley grains. They are strong enough to tear the paper target, yet not strong enough to kill anyone if there were an accident. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
The race always starts with a prayer ceremony, burning offerings of juniper leaves for the deities of the lands and mountains. Since horseback racing with rifles in crowded festivals can be dangerous, they also say a prayer for protection and good luck. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
The participants store their gunpowder in containers made from animal horns. Each side can hold a perfectly measured amount of gunpowder for one shot with the old-fashioned rifles. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
A rider saddles up his horse to prepare for the competition at the 2014 Dzongsar Summer Festival. He has been training his beloved horse for a whole year in anticipation of this day. They arrived a day early so the horse could have time to recover from the seven-mile journey from their home. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian
Once the track is formed with "people fences" on either side, crossing is strictly prohibited—they believe "cutting" it will upset the deities and lead to accidents during the race. Now with improved transportation in the region, more outsiders visit Dzongsar for the festival and often break this rule. Photo by Dawa Drolma, Smithsonian

Horse racing (རྟ་རྒྱུགས། tagyuk) is one of the most popular sports in Tibet, held during festivals and Lunar New Year celebrations. It’s a component of the annual Dzongsar Summer Festival, where 21 villages gather together for three days, representing their three overarching townships.

The number three is auspicious in Tibetan culture, connecting the sun, moon, and star; the sky, earth, and underground; and the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Each day the festival starts with prayers by the monks of Dzongsar Monastery, followed by horse races and horseback target shooting. According to the elders, kings in ancient Tibet invented and promoted the sport of shooting at targets by horseback to save money on military training, which could instead be used to support education in monasteries and other needs.

As a result, young males became very well-trained snipers and riders, at no cost to the Tibetan kings. When the kings needed an army to defend their territories, they could pick any man at any time and expect a high level of expertise.

Although shooting at a target from the back of a racing horse has been practiced for centuries in Tibet, a new method is evolving. Now cars are used, which many see as a threat to Dzongsar’s cultural heritage. 

Dawa Drolma is a Tibetan photographer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur passionate about documenting and sustaining Tibetan culture and traditions. Since 2016, she has worked with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on Lag Zo, a Smithsonian Artisan Initiative project to support Tibetan artisans in China, by conducting fieldwork and producing of short films featuring Tibetan craft traditions.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Festival Blog, produced by the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. 

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