The domestication of horses first took place in the territory of modern Kazakhstan, which marked the beginning of the culture of horsemanship. The ancestors of Kazakh people invented the high saddle and stirrups. Innovations allowed horse riders to sit confidently on a horse and use their weapons more efficiently.
Historically, the Kazakhs’ nomadic culture has always meant that horses and riding skills are hugely important. Horseback sports are not just entertaining to watch and fun to take part in – they are crucial to the training of horse and rider, developing the bond between horse and rider, and their strength, speed and agility – preparing both for long migrations, for battle, and for hunting. These days many of these sports have been formalized, with official rules and popular national competitions (Nationwide President’s Cup Competitions are the most important) – but, of course, they are still played the old way at local level, at holiday times.
Baiga is horseracing point-to-point at various distances, in which the tactical skills of the riders can be as important as the speed of the horses. Modern baiga events can be held at racetracks or hippodromes, but many still take place out on the steppe, especially the longer cross country races. These long distance events, involving lots of natural obstacles, are highly popular; the distances vary from 21km to 50km; the Alaman Baiga distance is 43km for the National Championship. Baiga riders are usually young boys and teenagers – the kunan baiga races, for yearlings and two-year olds, have boys as young as seven riding a relatively short course.
Burkut-salu is falconry with golden eagles. Since ancient times, Kazakhs have hunted with eagles and other birds of prey – on horseback, catching prey animals to feed the village. Burkut-salu has regained its popularity in Kazakhstan – at the end of the Soviet period there were only ten falconers in the country; now the annual Burkut-salu competition in Almaty attracts more than 100 falconers. This competition sets several tests for bird and falconer, including live prey (rabbits, even foxes).
The name means ‘grey wolf’ as a carcass of a wolf was originally used in this ancient, wild sport. Now it is a goat that is the focus of the contest, where two teams of riders compete to grab the headless carcass and hurl it into the kazan (goal) of the opponent team. In rural areas the rules are flexible – teams can have up to ten riders, or even be a free-for-all with every man for himself. The official kokpar rules say the teams have four riders, and the ground measures 80 metres by 200 metres. Each game lasts only 15 minutes, but it is fierce and demanding on horse and rider. Both must be strong, courageous, swift and agile, and horses are bred and trained specially for kokpar.
The first National Kokpar Association was formed in 2000, and there have been annual championships since 2001, with youth championships starting in 2005. All 14 oblasts in Kazakhstan have professional kokpar teams: Akmola has 18 teams, Zhambyl has 27 teams, and Southern Kazakhstan has 32. Kazakhstan is currently the holder of the Eurasian kokpar championship title.
This sport calls for extreme riding skill: the rider on a galloping horse snatches a series of coins (each wrapped in a kerchief) from the ground, lying to the left and the right as he goes. Although riders get time penalties for each failure to snatch a coin, the one who grabs the biggest number of kerchiefs during a single attempt is the winner (if there is a draw, the time penalties are taken into account).
Chase the Girl is a traditional horseback game for pairs of riders – a young woman and a young man (dzhigit), – both beautifully dressed in traditional costume. The girls set off ahead of the dzhigits, and if the boys can catch their girl, he can kiss her (at full gallop). On the return journey the dzhigits set off at the gallop and the girls chase them. If a girl catches her dzhigit, she has the right to lash him with her kamcha (whip) until they reach the finish line.
Ancient Kazakhs were one of the first to develop the skill of using a bow and arrow on horseback, at full gallop. Brilliantly effective in battle, horseback archery has become a sport in modern times, and is amazing to watch. Archery competitions also have variations for archers on foot, or on horseback but stationary.
A form of horse racing, but not at the gallop. Zhorga zharys is for pacing horses over a seven kilometer course. During the race horses must not break into a gallop; each breach earns a penalty, and after the third breach, the rider is expelled from the race.