The life of a nomad in Kazakhstan was unpredictable, with long hunting trips and frequent relocations and the constant battle with predators over grazing grounds. Nomadic peoples needed good, reliable transportation to take them to battle, to hunt and to transport their homes and their families, and horses played a key role in nomadic life. Horses were not just used for transportation: to this day, stocking enough horse and lamb meat for the winter is a priority in many Kazakh households.
In addition to practicalities, horses and horsemanship served as symbols of rank and vehicles to demonstrate strength and skill. Being atop a horse exalted a man and when two equally ranked men met, they needed to get off their horses and shake each other’s hands. (If one rider clearly outranked another, this formality was unnecessary.) And no public event was held without horse games, in which young men could show their riding skills, agility and dexterity.
Of course, you’re much more likely to see a Kazakh riding in a Toyota Camry rather than on a horse today. However, most Kazakhs still learn to ride at some point, and in the independent Kazakhstan, preserving traditions has taken on a new significance and horse games are emblematic of Kazakhstan’s unique and proud the proud history.
There are dozens of traditional Kazakh horse games, most with deep histories and stories attached. The rules and actions of the games describe the challenges and hardships of life on the land in Kazakhstan.
Kokpar (which, according to one version, means gray wolf), is the most popular traditional horse game. Wolves were sworn enemies of the nomads of Kazakhstan: they attacked horses, sheep and sometimes even hunters and their homes. If a hunter or anyone else managed to kill a wolf, he was to deliver the head of the animal to the tribal leader and give the beheaded carcass to the people to be flayed. Flaying the body of the wolf was a symbolic victory over the animals that constituted such a threat to Kazakh livestock – which, of course, represented the difference between full bellies and starvation, between surviving the winter or freezing.
Kokpar was the main attraction of any event, especially Nauryz, the New Year that is celebrated on March 22nd in Central Asian countries. Nowadays, a goat carcass is used instead of the body of a wolf.
The main objective is to fend off opponents and carry the beheaded goat carcass into your own goal, and to be successful in this game you have to be extremely skillful,” explained Astana resident Gabdulla Ashimov, a 28-year-old project manager at a construction company. “You also need a special relationship with your horse. In the game, your horse makes 50 percent of the decisions, so feeling and understanding each other is crucial. Moreover, your horse needs to be very strong and have good stamina. …Overall, your victory depends 50 percent on your skills and 50 percent on your horse’s stamina, experience and physical condition.”
Ashimov has played kokpar since childhood, “Each year at Nauryz we had horse games as children. We mostly played kokpar and we used whatever we had at our disposal. The sport is very healthy: while you ride the horse all your muscles are tensed, your hand grip becomes really strong, your posture straight and in a working stance. I did arm wrestling later when I grew up and horse riding really helped me in my arm wrestling career; I won regional and national competitions,” Ashimov told.
The game can be played with unlimited players; however, the official rules say that it is played in two teams of four. The goal is the same: to get a good grip on the carcass, fend off opponents, and gallop like the wind to your own goal to throw it inside your kazan, a bowl that serves as a goal or a net, to score. A regulation-sized field is 200 meters by 80 meters, but in other variations the size depends on the number of players and can be up to 300 meters and as narrow as 20-30 meters. Though the official rules make kokpar a team sport, it can also be played as every man for himself.
“The average goat carcass weighs between 30-60 kilograms; imagine how fit the players need to be! That’s the best workout you can get,” said Ashimov. “In kokpar, pretty much anything goes as long as you hold on to the carcass and don’t let your opponents get it, but one rule is that you can’t tie it to yourself or your horse.”
Popularizing Kokpar in Kazakhstan
So what needs to be done to involve the youth into the national horse games in Kazakhstan?
“Let us start with the fact that Kazakh national horse games are sports for real zhigits, only men strong in spirit play kokpar,” Kairat Satybaldyuly, President of the Federation of National Types of Sports in Kazakhstan, says. “In terms of popularization, perhaps, to date we have not yet been fully able to show the beauty and elegance of traditional sports. We need to widely promote national games via television, holding various competitions, governmental support, opening different sports groups, clubs and specially adapted sports facilities. We need to skillfully introduce national sports to our lives, so that young people literally fall in love with these beautiful games. For example, to increase the attractiveness of kokpar we need to improve the equipment, we need to invite to participate leading scientists and engineers, we need to develop a scientifically based set of daily exercises in the form of a manual etc.”
However, today there are tournaments held at a very high level in Kazakhstan that attract the best horsemen around the country.
“Today in our country on a regular basis, we have a national championship and various tournaments. The championship consists of several levels: regional, provincial and district. For example, in April this year Taraz hosted the Second National Junior Championship, Ust-Kamenogorsk hosted the Ninth Junior Championship in August, Kokshetau hosted the 13th Championship among adults in June, and Astana hosted the Kokpar International Championship Eurasia in September. In October, in Shymkent there will the Republican Rural Sports “Ak Biday 2013” competition and in November the 13th International Tournament dedicated to Assanbai Askarov. And this kind of competitions are held quite often,” Satybaldyuly added.
“Kokpar needs patronage in Kazakhstan and more incentives and motivation for young kids,” Ashimov said. With new support from the Federation of National Sports, this game may have a bright future.
Other Popular Horse Games in Kazakhstan
Kyz Kuu is a more ceremonial and for-show sport that is often used to entertain visitors. Kyz Kuu comes from a Kazakh phrase meaning “to catch a girl.” There are different variations depending on the region, but the objective and rules are the same: a zhigit (a young, brave horseman) must catch a girl that he likes. He then challenges her to a race on horseback. If he catches her, he gets to kiss her. If he doesn’t, she can challenge him, and if she catches him she gets to whip him as hard as she chooses to. This is the crowd-pleasing part, with watchers whistling and calling out to winning women to whip their suitors harder.
In this game, horsemen pick up golden coins from the ground at full speed. The one who collects the most, wins.
Audaryspak was often played among older men in good physical condition. Two men try to throw each other off their horses. Whoever stays on top, wins.
Saiys is Kazakh jousting and uses the same principles and rules as European jousting.
This is long distance horse riding to demonstrate the stamina of both the horse and the horseman.